Edward Gorey’s strange, curious world

The author's books tended toward the macabre, but there's an element of redemption in his ghoulish worldview VIDEO

Topics: Video, LA Review of Books, Art, Books, Edward Gorey, illustration, essays,

Edward Gorey's strange, curious worldEdward Gorey
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I had an unusual obsession. While most of my favorite TV shows and programming blocks were the same as everyone else’s in my peer group —Animaniacs, Saturday morning cartoons, Nickelodeon’s What Would You Do? — I also watched the PBS show Mystery! with a fervent dedication, particularly Agatha Christie’s Poirot, in which British actor David Suchet plays the incredibly polite and incredibly smart Belgian detective. The show was mesmerizing for a number of reasons: its intriguing mysteries, which, hard as I tried, I could never solve; its bewitching Britishness; and the attendant propriety that came with that culture. Even though Poirot was nearly always solving the grimmest of crimes, both the show and its hero approached them with the utmost tidiness and nothing nearly so obvious as surprise. This was murder with high tea and a pair of leather gloves on.
Los  Angeles Review of Books

The other memorable aspect of Mystery! was the animated opening sequence, a string of brief, inexplicable, mostly black-and-white scenes: a thin man pushing a wheelchair; a group of well-dressed people drinking tea outdoors; a woman with her ankles tied together wailing atop a stone wall; a pair of legs sinking in a bog. I didn’t know at the time that this sequence was based on drawings by Edward Gorey, an artist, illustrator, and writer whose work was in fact a perfect complement to Poirot: Gorey’s matter-of-fact approach to death and disaster — which is in evidence as early as his second book and remains throughout his entire career — mirrors the calm with which Poirot solved his cases.



Consider Gorey’s second book, The Listing Attic, which came out in 1954. Small, thin, and nearly square, like all of Gorey’s original output, The Listing Attic could be mistaken for a children’s book. It’s comprised of limericks and accompanying illustrations, also apparently an innocuous form, if you didn’t know better. But from the second poem, which tells of a woman who throws her two-year-old child at the ceiling, you begin to know better. And then comes the third entry, for which nothing quite prepares you:

They had come in the fugue to the stretto
When a dark, bearded man from a ghetto
Slipped forward and grabbed
Her tresses and stabbed
Her to death with a rusty stiletto.

Above the poem is an intricate and heavily crosshatched black-and-white drawing showing the moment just before the stabbing. Despite the initial shock of the words, the scene looks fairly mundane. The woman appears resigned to her fate: rather than wave her arms or struggle, she grabs the bottom of her chair, throws back her head, and opens her mouth as if at the dentist’s. Well-dressed men with mustaches look on with bemused curiosity, while the musicians onstage continue to play their fugue. The scene is simultaneously bloody, bizarre, and banal: a combination that is the essence of Gorey.

* * *

Edward Gorey was born in 1925 in Chicago to middle-class parents who divorced when he was 11 (and remarried 16 years later — a curiosity that may have influenced his embrace of the unexpected). By all accounts, he was, like Poirot, incredibly smart: “a child prodigy, drawing pictures at the age of two and reading self-taught at the age of three,” according to the exhibition text written by architect and attorney Andrew Alpern, whose massive trove of Gorey art and paraphernalia was the subject of a show this past summer, Gorey Preserved, at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Gorey skipped two grades and then spent a semester at the Art Institute of Chicago before being drafted into the army. In 1946, at the age of 21, he went on to Harvard, where he had been accepted before the war began. There he majored in French and befriended a group of future literary superstars, including the poets Frank O’Hara (Gorey’s roommate), John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Donald Hall, and the future Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Alison Lurie.

After college, Gorey moved to New York and found work in the art department at Doubleday designing jackets for republished, formerly out-of-print books. He moved through a handful of book-publishing jobs over the next 10 years, but in 1963 went freelance, continuing to design covers, illustrating other writers’ books, and creating and publishing his own. He also became a devotee of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet — he was legendary for attending almost every performance between 1953 and 1983 — and designed posters, T-shirts and other objects for the organization. (Same for the Metropolitan Opera, which, according to Alpern, commissioned Gorey after seeing what he had done for the ballet.) As if all that wasn’t enough, Gorey created the set and costumes for a 1977 Broadway production of Dracula (he won a Tony for Best Costumes), staged productions of his own plays in his later years, and pursued an interest in printmaking.

To call Gorey prolific would be an understatement: in total, he wrote and drew more than 100 of his own books. He was also something of a recluse — or perhaps the better word is “loner”: never quite a shut-in but not much for parties, either. After Balanchine died, in 1983, Gorey moved out of New York to a historic house on Cape Cod. When New Yorker writer Stephen Schiff visited him there for a 1992 profile, Gorey was sharing the sprawling yet cluttered space with seven cats and a large assortment of antique furniture, books, videotapes, CDs, and finials, as well as an old toilet and a vine growing through one of the walls that Gorey couldn’t be bothered to cut away.

According to Schiff, Gorey left the United States only once in his life. He was, however, a cultural omnivore and an armchair cosmopolitan; both his writing and his art display a wide range of influences and references, from nineteenth-century Japanese art and literature, to the French Surrealists, to the fathers of literary nonsense: Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The settings of and characters in his stories look alternately Edwardian and Victorian, with the occasional 1920s style thrown in. Discussing his art in the book The World of Edward Gorey, curator and critic Karen Wilkin pinpoints Gorey’s “ability to synthesize a believable world from an unlikely assortment of sources.” And yet, she writes, “The result is not pastiche, but unmistakably ‘Gorey.’”

* * *

So what exactly is this thing called “Gorey,” and why has he/it remained so popular, inspiring other artists and spawning a devoted subcultural following? To many, I suspect that “Gorey,” if it means anything at all, is shorthand for a kind of know-it-when-you-see-it, macabre humor often rendered in simple verse and intensely crosshatched black-and-white drawings. This may be a starting point, but it also falls short. It fails to convey the experience, the peculiar feeling of exasperated joy that comes from reading his books.

The books are really the best way to get to the heart of Gorey — small, album-shaped volumes with such excellent titles as The Curious SofaThe Inanimate TragedyThe Epileptic BicycleThe Glorious NosebleedDancing Cats and Neglected Murderesses, and The Haunted Tea-Cosy. Most are easily found in the four-volume Amphigorey compilation series; however, the Amphigorey books are double the original height with two spreads stacked per page, thereby eroding plot surprises as well as the perverse pleasure of paging through a mini-book sized for kids but full of, well, gruesome death and odd disappearances.

Fortunately, four small-format titles are being published this fall (I recommend reading them on the subway for an added bit of self-satisfaction): from Bloomsbury, Saint Melissa the Mottled, a story that Gorey wrote but never illustrated, now outfitted with other images from his oeuvre; and A Halloween Treat and Edward Gorey’s Ghosts, a double feature that includes a story Gorey created for a consumer magazine alongside a collection of his ghost drawings. And, from Pomegranate, reissues of 1970’s The Osbick Bird (also collected in Amphigorey Too) and Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert & The Deadly Blotter, two 26-word stories that begin with a word starting with “A” and end with one starting with “Z,” both long of out of print until now.

None of these are among Gorey’s best work, but all contain elements that exemplify his brilliance. Take Saint Melissa the Mottled, for instance. In an interview with Clifford Ross for the aforementioned The World of Edward Gorey, Gorey explains that he had to complete a text before he could begin drawing pictures for it. When he died in 2000 of a heart attack — he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and diabetes six years prior — he left behind the story of Saint Melissa the Mottled, a mysterious figure whose “supernatural triflings, of which seventy three were at last authenticated for her canonization, were without exception, of ruinous order.” Critics often focus on Gorey’s art, but Saint Melissa reminds us how masterful he was with words. Gorey had a wide-ranging vocabulary and an incredible grasp of tone. He wrote sparingly and carefully. Especially in Saint Melissa, his word choices and sentence structure feel deliberately old-fashioned, as if to match the antiquated historical references and styles of his art.

The substance of Saint Melissa, like all of Gorey’s stories, is singularly bizarre. For instance, among the “worldly arts” in which the saint has been educated are “the mounting and acting of seemly charades; the bringing on of migraine; the construction of watery poetry; the subtleties of admiration of whisker and moustache; […] modes of address and the bending of cards; […] the refinements of lust[.]” I’m not sure who else could dream up that list.

Part of Gorey’s genius stems from his ability to convey deeply strange things in the most matter-of-fact way. In his stories there is a seemingly universal lack of logic, and yet everything is conveyed as if it were completely logical — by, I should add, a disinterested narrator to whom it’s all so unremarkable as to be almost quaint. Thus we are told that Melissa answers an ad to nanny two girls whose “own governess [was] incapacitated by retinal hemorrhages resulting from overly zealous peering in galleries and churches” — because of course, in Gorey’s world, retinal hemorrhages brought on by overzealous peering must be quite commonplace, a frequent topic of discussion at dinner parties. (The apotheosis of Gorey’s illogical logic is his 1958 book The Object-Lesson, in which every action and event comes about as a result of the previous one, yet has no discernible connection to it. “On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella, disengaged itself from the shrubbery, causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood,” Gorey writes. I nominate this as one of the best lines in all of American literature.)


Illustration © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved. Courtesy Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

But it’s true, of course, that a Gorey story would not be Gorey without his art. Gorey’s work reads more chillingly than it looks, because he never actually shows blood or violence. Just as he leaves mystifying holes of logic in his stories, he also leaves a space between the art and text for the reader’s imagination to fill; many of the most interesting — as well as dark or unfathomable — moments occur there. The first of the Thoughtful AlphabetsThe Just Dessert, exists almost entirely in this gap. Largely due to its form, the written story is vague and almost theoretical: it lacks subjects and is basically a series of commands, moving from “Frequent ghastly happenings imply jeopardy” to “Keep laughing mechanically” without ceremony. At the same time, the art shows a group of three well-dressed people talking, arguing, and making up, all in the company of a dog and a statue. They shift arbitrarily between indoors and outdoors, and somehow their statue moves with them (George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comes to mind). They have eyes so big and round as to look almost possessed, and their actions seem to correspond to the text, but only very loosely; the drawings “are not so much illustrations of his stories as parallel accompaniments,” to use Wilkin’s apt expression.

This relationship isn’t limited to the Thoughtful Alphabets, though it may be more pronounced in them. Gorey was toying with it as early as his first book, The Unstrung Harp, where at one point we see the protagonist standing over a manuscript and holding a glass of milk and a sandwich. “The jelly in his sandwich is about to get all over his fingers,” the narrator says. We smile and envision the chunks of purple jam oozing out from between the slices. This imaginative space is one of the defining characteristics of Gorey’s work, as he himself was well aware. “I’m beginning to feel that if you create something you’re killing a lot of other things,” he says in that New Yorker interview:

And the way I write, since I do leave out most of the connections, and very little is pinned down, I feel that I’m doing a minimum of damage to other possibilities that might arise in a reader’s mind.

Gorey had other favorite tricks and techniques that recur throughout his work. He had a tendency to crosshatch his black-and-white drawings to a mind-numbing degree; the incessant marks and lines cause the art to pulsate. (He did occasionally use color, and those books feel simpler and lighter.) He was also inordinately fond of patterns, and many of his stories take place in elaborately wallpapered and carpet-laden rooms, while his characters often dress in checkered pants and striped shirts. The result is a frenetically overdesigned world in which figuration and pattern — subject and background — are treated as aesthetic equals.

Edward Gorey’s Ghosts, the B-side to A Halloween Treat, contains a few beautiful examples of this effect at work. In one drawing, a ghost stands in a living room before a man seated in an armchair; other smaller, cloud-like ghosts fly around. Because of the extreme crosshatching, the figures blend into the room almost entirely; they become pure interior design elements, a home décor ghost and man that come with the furnishings.

Illustration © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved. Courtesy Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

 The Osbick Bird, meanwhile, is a simpler book in both its writing and art: with pictures set against clean, white backgrounds, it tells the story of a bird that arrives one day to live with a man named Emblus Fingby. The two become best friends, playing music and cards together, drinking tea and going on excursions, even getting into fights. Eventually Emblus dies and the bird perches on his gravestone — but only for a few months, until it gives up and flies away. By Gorey standards, this is nothing; contrast it, for example, with the plot of The Hapless Child, in which a young girl is orphaned and ends up on the streets, where she is struck and killed by a passing carriage containing her long-lost father, who was previously believed to be dead and who doesn’t even recognize her (all in 30 pages!).

But, slight as it is, The Osbick Bird captures Gorey’s attitude toward life (which, naturally, includes death as well). Emblus Fingby dies and the bird is sad, but after spending a little time mourning, it moves on. For Gorey, life simply happens and continues happening despite whatever arises along the way. Nothing is predictable, but nothing is exactly a surprise, either; the only thing you can expect is that things you don’t expect will happen. “I do think we’re all really in a sense living on the edge,” Gorey told Schiff in 1992:

So much of life is inexplicable. Inexplicable things happen to me, things that are so inexplicable that I’m not even sure that something happened. And you suddenly think, Well, if that could happen, anything could happen. One moment, something is there, and then, the next, it is not there. […] The things that happen to you are usually the things that you haven’t thought of or that come absolutely out of nowhere. And all you can do is cope with them when they turn up.

This theory of life strikes me as immensely profound. It’s just that most of us have trouble sticking to it. We’re constantly surprised when unexpected (often bad) things happen in life — as they inevitably do — and so we’re shocked when they happen in Gorey’s books. We label him “macabre” and “grotesque” for killing off children (that is the entire premise of the glorious Gashlycrumb Tinies). But there may be something redemptive in accepting the terrible as inevitable, and in being able to dream it up so fantastically that, in the end, the shocks of real life don’t look so bad by comparison.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>