What are those creepy plants on your book cover?!

The cover of Dark Mode by Ashley Kalagian Blunt with voodoo lilies, black bat plants and stellar dahlia blossoms labelled, plus the label 'dark web plot' pointing to where the title font gets glitchy

It surprises a lot of people to learn that writers generally don’t have much, if any, say in their book covers. If a publisher takes on your manuscript, they’re in charge of the book cover.

Sometimes you get to voice an opinion on a few options, sometimes you don’t even get that. The publishers are the ones with the sales and marketing expertise, after all.

This means you never know what you’re going to get. It might be a cover you love, or it might be a cover you don’t connect with at all.

When the fabulous team at Ultimo Press sent me the final cover for Dark Mode, I fell in love with it immediately. The designer, George Saad, has perfectly captured the novel’s tone and atmosphere – I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.

Dark Mode is a psychological thriller that explores the intersection of violence and misogyny online and in real life through the story of a Sydney garden-centre owner, whose discovery of a murdered woman near her home makes her suspect her secret past is catching up with her. 

Reagan Carsen, a mid-20s Sydneysider, runs a tiny boutique business, Voodoo Lily Garden Centre.

Late afternoon sun slanted through her front display window, reflecting off the polished concrete floor. The black wall paint and the hanging philodendron vines, woven through upcycled wooden ladders secured to the ceiling, gave the shop a jungle vibe. A side door led to a small greenhouse. There were the usuals, nasturtiums and marigolds, daisies, sweet peas and zinnias; a rainbow of bright summer blossoms filling the shop’s cascading shelves. But she prided herself on the unusual, her cobra lilies, carnivorous trumpet pitchers, black bat flowers, doll’s eyes, and her rare orchids.

– Dark Mode, chapter 1

If you walked past Voodoo Lily, I imagine it looking a bit like this actual Melbourne shop. 

Plants are a big part of the novel because they’re how Reagan relates to the world. She’s got some trust issues, for good reason, and finds plants far easier to understand.

Reagan’s real passion is strange and unusual plants. Even when she’s on a date, she can’t help but talk about them.

Because he kept asking, Reagan kept talking about the places she dreamed of travelling. Namibia, to see the Welwitschia, a plant that lives up to 1500 years. Madagascar for its suicide palm, a tree that dies after blooming. And Mexico, home to Stenocereus eruca, a cactus that ‘moves’ like a caterpillar by growing at the top and dying at the bottom.

Dark Mode, chapter 12

The cover features three of the plants mentioned in the novel. Hiding in the background are black bat plants – can you spot them?

This orchid looks deceptively similar to a black bat plant

In the foreground, there are four voodoo lilies (Amorphophallus konjac). Also called devil’s tongue, these large plants are similar to a corpse flower – the odour the flowers give off smells like rotting meat. This attracts flies that will pollinate the flowers.

The other flower featured prominently on the cover is a dark purple dahlia. It’s called a stellar dahlia, which isn’t a subjective opinion, but the name of the variety. Dahlias come in a huge range of varieties, such as these brighter ball dahlias.

Dahlias are especially important to the story, because in addition to the dark web plot, I’ve drawn on the infamous unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short – known as the Black Dahlia.

I first learned about her murder from the Root of Evil podcast miniseries, which delves into it in depth. The legacy of Short’s murder became a big part of Dark Mode‘s plot.

Short was 22 years old, living in Los Angeles and trying to break into acting. On 15 January 1947, her naked body was discovered in a weed-covered lot, drained of blood and bisected at the waist. Over seven decades later, a lot of people are still obsessed with this case – and several people believe they’ve solved it.

Beehive ginger, one of the many plants Reagan sells at Voodoo Lily

There are dozens of types of dahlias, but the closest their blossoms come to black is a shade of dark purple, similar to the dahlias on the cover. Short earned the nickname for her pale skin and curly dark hair.

A friend sent me this brilliant gift when Dark Mode landed me a literary agent.

The other aspect of the cover that I love is more subtle. It’s the way the font gets glitchy in Mode. It’s a clever reference to the dark web plotline that drives the book.

Early in the story, message start to appear between chapters. Ones of these has http://sanct626kufc4mhn92bb03.onion at the top. The final part of that URL, dot onion, means it’s a dark web address.

You don’t have to know anything about the dark web to enjoy Dark Mode. I didn’t know much about it myself, until I got really interested after listening to another true crime podcast, Hunting Warhead. It’s the fascinating story of an international investigation into crimes happening on the dark web.

Dark Mode is out 1 March in Aus/NZ. If you’re a crime fiction fan, I hope you’ll love it. You can pre-order here and be among the first to get your copy!

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