Hugh Frost’s illustrations for Cymru Robert’s new novella Listening to Bethlehem are some of the most creative – and mind-boggling – we’ve seen for ages. Thick with symbols, ancient Egyptian sigils, architectural blueprints and ad signage, Hugh’s illustrations pull you into a cryptic puzzle where things are not as they seem.
Published by Landfill Editions, the novella itself follows five characters whose experiences may or may not be related, largely focusing around the main protagonist Robertstein (the main driving force of the book) and big baddy CK. Based in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Siberia as well as some second-hand tales of Switzerland, the book features coming-of-age elements, road trips, crime thrillers, critical writing amongst other genres. “Too many to pin down,” Cornwall-based Hugh tells It’s Nice That.
With such a diverse and complex text, Hugh (who is both the publisher at Landfill Editions and an editor of the wonderful Mould Map) had a lot of different material to play with for the book’s illustrations. Originally, he thought the accompanying imagery could be presented as found ephemera from the world of the book, but in some places that concept was limiting. Instead, he decided to take a variety of different approaches inspired by moments in the text, as well as the visual language of the novella’s various locations.
“There’s a sort of mini mall neo-paganism to parts, drawing on references from antiquity used by the casinos [in Las Vegas] – Caesar’s and Luxor use the icons of Rome and Egypt – as well as psychic and palmistry shops that pop up in single-lot shopping centres in Vegas,” says Hugh. “Ancient geoglyphs from the Nevada desert found their way too. They become part of the layering and recycling of icons across time and relate to the different systems of meaning – from spiritual symbols to commercialised historical reworks.”
In parts of the book, Hugh draws elongated cars filled with floor plans, mini mall graphics and casino timelines, a modern day interpretation of ancient Egyptian tomb maps and research into ancient Egyptian religious text The Book of Gates. “It is all tangental to the story but definitely something that the characters themselves would be into,” says Hugh. One of the illustrations closest to the text is on an overnight vocoder duel that takes place in a hothouse in Vaud, Switzerland. “The space itself is based on a greenhouse cafe here in Cornwall with the interwoven floating text pulled from work by poets and bands mentioned in the scene (Li Po and New Order) creating a new cut-up text in the image,” explains Hugh.
The illustrator picked the typeface BB book by Benoît Bodhuin for the cover to complement the blueprint-like images. Hugh says on this, “It has the perfect cheesy Vegas extravagance and looks both European and American, alluding to the mish-mash of borrowed styles that the city is known for.” This is offset by the chunkier Marché by Colophon Foundry, which “has a stocky commercial signage feel”. Hugh used Marché for page numbers and to signal a switch between characters in the main text, which otherwise doesn’t have traditional chapter breaks.
The palimpsest of cities was a constant inspiration for Hugh, partly inspired from the iconic 1970s architectural story Learning from Las Vegas. “It gave a way in to thinking about the design aspects of early Vegas as a beacon of drawing people, but also its frequent cycles of redesign and renewal.” Towards the end if the book, one of Hugh’s images collapses different events and eras in Nevada together (such as bomb testing, casino development and UFO sightings in Area 51) while one of the characters is experiencing an epic desert hallucination. It’s trippy stuff. And what does Hugh want people to take away from the project? “I’d like people to respond by moving to Las Vegas and becoming a desert flaneur, alive to the stories of gift shop strangers and overseas penpal poets.” OK, we’re down.