The Virgin of the Seven Daggers
By Vernon Lee
Design by Coralie Bickford-Smith
Penguin, 2008

In October, just as the global markets were crashing, Penguin launched a series called the Gothic Reds, a collection of 10 horror classics from writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft. Their timing was good – reading these books does help keep things in perspective. However much your savings have dwindled, be grateful that you aren’t being pursued by a monstrous scarab beetle, as happens in Richard Marsh’s Victorian thriller The Beetle, or that you haven’t been beheaded by the eunuch of an undead Moorish princess, as happens in the title story of The Virgin of the Seven Daggers.

Its author, Vernon Lee, was born Violet Paget in 1856 and raised in Italy. On a visit to Granada she saw a statue of the Virgin Mary with seven daggers in her pearl-encrusted heart. It inspired a lurid, ironic tale in which Don Juan pledges eternal faith to the Virgin if she will save him from hell, where he is sure to end up because of his many seductions and murders.

Series designer Coralie Bickford-Smith decided to use a cyanotype for its “spooky” effect. A precursor of the photograph, the cyanotype is usually made by a direct impression on to light-sensitive paper. When the paper is rinsed in water, a negative image appears in a lovely tone called Prussian blue. For the cover of The Virgin of the Seven Daggers, Bickford-Smith created a dagger-studded heart as an emblem of lust and murder. She took the image of a heart from an old anatomy book, added the knives through collage, and photocopied the collage on to acetate before making the cyanotype print. To complete the effect, she added the yellow tint and slightly blurry halo.

Often the best designs are really simple, but for this series Bickford-Smith’s simple idea necessitated a more complicated design process. The result gives these unnerving tales from the past an eye-catching, updated look: definitely creepy, and definitely cool.

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