Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, Mar.) is a complex work of alternate literary history in which a contemporary man becomes obsessed with the nature of the relationship between early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Barlow, a teenage fan.

Darren Haggar, v-p art director at Penguin Press, hired Will Staehle, who owns the design studio Unusual Co. in Seattle, to do the cover. Haggar described the book, Staehle recalls, as “a tense mystery that had H.P. Lovecraft as a major story element.” Staehle found the premise intriguing. “Once I starting reading the manuscript," he says, "the intrigue turned into something else: slight obsession, and some ongoing terror, as the book spun its lead character, Charlie, deeper into his downward spiral.”

After finishing the novel, Staehle had a few immediate thoughts on the cover. “Darren was looking for something suspenseful, with a touch of evil,” he says. “I began with some primarily typographical options—dripping-liquid lettering; heavier, wavier lettering; and some very thin cursive text.”

In the cover above, the silhouettes in the corners are meant to represent the novel's main players, Staehle says, “to give a bit of structure to an otherwise amorphous and fluid design."

The above comp “gives off this inviting, yet uncomfortable feel," Staehle says, "which pairs very well with the book itself.” Two other type-centric comps follow.

The designer also tried images that highlighted the Lovecraft angle, including the one below. “This man could be Lovecraft, but it could just as easily be someone else," he says. "I won’t go into this too much, but it’s one of the themes of the book.”

Early in the novel, the lead character encounters large, golden rabbit sculpture at a party, an image Staehle played with in the comp below. “It’s a strange sign of things to come,” he says. “It was one of those moments in a book that you just highlight, and think, that’s a visual that could be arresting and unexpected.”

The water imagery in these comps makes sense given the book’s title, but, Staehle says, “Darren was concerned that he was seeing a few other covers in the works that were composed of bluish tones, and were water-centric designs.” The image that appears on the final jacket moves away from those more traditionally rendered water scenes.

The limited palette of the finished cover, above, nods to classic Lovecraft jackets, Staehle says, and to La Farge’s storyline. “It joins the hypnotic sensibilities of the novel with the main character's obsession and downward spiral.”