Edward Gorey

No one sheds light on darkness from quite the same perspective as this Cape Cod specialist in morbid, fine-lined jocularity.

Published February 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Pity the poor books editors in the 1950s when confronted with yet another manuscript by the persistent Edward Gorey. Back then no one knew quite what to call his small gems with their manic pen-and-ink illustrations of overstuffed drawing rooms, set somewhere between the Edwardian era and the 1920s, and with punch lines taken from the unspeakable horror of their well-dressed characters' untimely demises.

Gorey's work was not at first met with open arms by the publishing world -- to put it mildly. Today, however, with his cult of devotees numbering in the millions, his first efforts are collected in three bestselling anthologies: "Amphigorey," "Amphigorey, Too" and "Amphigorey Also." And Harcourt Brace, a longtime publisher of Gorey's work, has recently reissued many of his early books, including his first, "The Unstrung Harp" (1953), and the classic "pornographic work," "The Curious Sofa," which was published under the anagrammatic name "Ogdred Weary" and contains the immortal line: "Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan."

Putting Elsie's fate out of your mind for a moment, imagine what it was like for Gorey to try to put himself over before he'd become the macabre sensation he is today. Consider the reaction of Robert Gottlieb -- then at Simon & Schuster and later the editor of the New Yorker -- when Gorey's agent presented him with "The Loathsome Couple," a tale based on the story of a British couple who murdered several children, only to be caught when they dropped photographs depicting their handiwork on a crowded bus. (The books frontispiece declares, "This book may prove to be its author's most unpleasant ever.") Gottlieb rejected the book on the grounds that it wasn't funny. An astonished Gorey replied, "Well, Bob, it wasn't supposed to be funny; what a peculiar reaction."

But, of course, "The Loathsome Couple" is hysterically funny. You will be forgiven for finding the juxtaposition of child murders with helpless laughter outrageously blasphemous. The humor in this story comes from the sheer blandness of it all. Mona and Harold, the hapless villains, move from their dismal childhoods to dismal adulthoods of petty crime, to an unsuccessful union (they "fumble with each other in a cold woodshed" after a crime film, and when they attempt to make love, their "strenuous and prolonged efforts came to nothing") to embarking on their "life's work" -- luring small children to their deaths in a rented "remote and undesirable villa." To celebrate their first kill, Harold and Mona dine on "cornflakes and treacle, turnip sandwiches and artificial grape soda."

The problem would persist throughout Gorey's career. Is he writing humor? Are dead people funny? Maybe it's literature: Gorey's prose reads by turns like haiku, or Dadaist automatic writing, and employs more words from the OED than Joyce's does. But his books are illustrated, recalling the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Georges Barbier and Goya. Does that make it art? And they're small, borrowing the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, coupled with the grim infanticides of the Brothers Grimm. Could they be books for children?

Perhaps a primal clue to Gorey's perspicacity and morbid taste can be found in his choice of childhood reading material: He read "Dracula" at age 5, "Frankenstein" at age 7 and all of the works of Victor Hugo by age 8. "Of course," he admitted to the Washington Post in 1978, "I was bored by a lot of [Frankenstein]. It hadn't occurred to me that I could skip anything."

As he grew to adulthood and his works rose to their odd and just prominence, Gorey's own life was often the focus of persistent myths. Two such myths: that he was A) British and B) dead were put to rest with Stephen Schiff's 1992 profile of Gorey in the New Yorker. Still, it's not hard to see why it took more than a copyright date to dispel this particular lore, since his work so frequently evokes other lands in other times. In truth he has traveled abroad only once, to the outer Scottish Isles, whose Gorey-like names -- the Orkneys, the Shetlands and the Outer Hebrides -- must have provided some enticement.

Gorey was not born in England, but in Chicago, in 1925. His father was a Catholic newspaperman; his mother, an Episcopalian. They divorced when he was 11, and remarried when Edward was 27. In between marriages to his mother, Gorey's father provided him with a rather glamorous stepmother -- Corrina Mura, the chanteuse who sang "La Marseillaise" in "Casablanca."

Gorey's grandmother had once supported the family by drawing greeting cards, a profession befitting a woman of Edwardian persuasion. Gorey's first drawings -- pictures of passing trains -- came at age one-and-a-half, though he told the Christian Science Monitor that he found them highly unimpressive: "I hasten to add they showed no talent whatsoever. They looked like irregular sausages."

Recalling his youth, Gorey once remarked to the Washington Post, "I think of myself as being sensitive and pale and wan. But I wasn't at all. I was out there playing kick-the-can." In high school, according to Consuelo Jourgensen, a friend, "He painted his toenails green and walked barefoot down Michigan Avenue, which was rather shocking in those days."

After a one-semester stint at the Chicago Art Institute (the only formal art training he's had), Gorey spent three years in the U.S. Army as a clerk for Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a testing ground for mortars and poison gas.

At 20, he showed up as a French literature major at Harvard, where he had the distinction of corrupting a fellow mad genius, the future poet Frank O'Hara. Brad Gooch documents their madcap college days in "City Poet," his 1995 biography of O'Hara. The photographer, George Marshall, said Gorey, who was given to wearing capes and numerous rings, was the "oddest person I've ever seen. He was very tall, with his hair plastered down across the front like bangs, like a Roman emperor."

Gorey and O'Hara quickly made their reputations as the campus dandies, evoking the looks and mannerisms of Oscar Wilde. They read novels by Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett, trolled used bookstores and furnished their campus apartment with white modern garden furniture, including a chaise longue and a coffee table made from a tombstone taken from Mount Auburn cemetery. Gorey was frequently spotted sitting atop their table, designing wallpaper -- a harbinger of the baroque Edwardiana to come.

After college, Gorey installed himself in New York. He worked in publishing as a book-jacket illustrator and became a permanent fur-coated, bearded and white-sneakered fixture at the New York State Theater; for nearly 30 years he missed nary a performance of the ballets of Balanchine, whom he referred to as his "god."

Gorey took quite a while before he saw any clear direction to his life's work. In 1998, he told the Boston Globe: "I wanted to have my own bookstore until I worked in one. Then I thought I'd be a librarian until I met some crazy ones. I hoped to get into publishing, but at 28, my parents were still helping me out. Which wasn't good at all."

After the death of Balanchine, in 1983, Gorey saw little beauty left for him in New York, and that same year he relocated to a ramshackle farmhouse on Cape Cod, Mass., where he's lived ever since as a lifelong bachelor. His only permanent companionship is provided by a flock of cats and, according to visitors, poison ivy that grows through cracks in the walls. The house is stuffed with his various collections -- including "sandpaper drawings," a mixture of charcoal and sand popular with Victorian ladies; tiny teddy bears; a toilet with a tabletop next to the fireplace and, not surprisingly, photographs of dead children from crime scenes. He holds court at Jack's Outback, a cafe near his house. (One interviewer spotted a Gorey-esque placard above the tip jar that read, "Do not forget the widows and orphans.") He never travels -- not even to see productions or exhibits of his work, which have been put on with some regularity since 1978.

He seems to delight in engaging his interviewers with the unspeakable horrors of his life. For example, here he is in 1992, talking to the Boston Globe: "I'm suffering from bronchitis at the moment. Psychosomatic bronchitis, I'm sure. But nevertheless, it's bronchitis. Oh it's all too much, too grim, too lovely, too -- how should I put this? It's general chaos."

And in 1994, at age 69, to the New York Times, soon after he was told he had prostate cancer: "I thought, 'Oh gee, why haven't I burst into total screaming hysterics?'" His answer: "I'm the opposite of hypochondriacal. I'm not entirely enamored of the idea of living forever."

And in 1998 to Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times: "Oh well, you know. I'm just sitting here in an ever-increasing pile of debris. No, I'm just sitting here, coughing."

Gorey belongs on the short list of canonical 20th century artists. The problem is, he seems to be in a canon of one. This isn't his problem: It's the problem of all the rest of us who seem unable to fit "visual artist" and "writer" in the same breath, much less the same person. But the question Gorey raises is why we make such distinctions in the first place.

In the 1950s, when Gorey was establishing himself as a young artist, the New York school and abstract expressionism dominated the art world; art was a manly, gin-soaked profession for men like Jackson Pollock, who could swipe a canvas with the same power with which he swatted his wife. Illustration was a tiny art, a mere hobby, a thing for women, children and effete men -- best kept to fashion magazine illustration, children's books and book jackets (a field that Gorey himself participated in). There are some exceptions: Jean Cocteau illustrated his word portraits with calligraphic swirls, but his drawings were seen more as an embellishment than as a necessary part of the story. In this world, Gorey's closest contemporaries were the cartoonists: Charles Addams was another '50s artist who combined the macabre with high-brow ennui.

If no one else can fathom the work, Gorey reasoned, publish it yourself, which is exactly what he did with much of his writing at his own Fantod Press. (A fantod is described by Webster's as the "fidgets" and by Gorey as "the vapors, the nervous tizzies." Fantods have also shown up in his work as small, winged creatures stuffed in bell jars.) Today, an early edition can go for as much as $750; an original print for $5,000.

Not surprisingly, one of Gorey's early self-published volumes was the sexually explicit -- which means utterly inexplicit by current standards -- "The Curious Sofa." Indeed, in his work, pornography, like horror, is made all the more shocking by virtue of its taking place in the wings. In "The Curious Sofa," the imaginative romps and devices ("thumbfumble," the "Lithuanian Typewriter") are all the nastier for being absolutely indecipherable. It calls to mind the hullaballoo raised last year over a single line in Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full," where two lovers did "that thing with a cup."

No one, of course, knew what "that thing with a cup" was, but the mystery evoked in that single phrase eventually culminated in a "Talk of the Town" piece in the New Yorker in which socialites and literati were polled to ascertain just how many people had done "that thing." None of their responses, of course, was half as naughty as whatever it was Wolfe seemed to have in mind.

Concealing, not revealing, is the essence of scandal. Gorey knows this well: "I feel that I am doing the minimum amount of damage to other possibilities that may take place in a reader's head." This is a lesson Gorey has learned, in part, from classic silent film. One of his favorites, he told the Christian Science Monitor, is "Vampyr" by the Danish director Carl Dreyer: "You don't see a thing and I think it's the most chilling movie I've ever seen. I think your own imagination does a better job."

In fact, Gorey's work is formatted very much like an incredibly baroque storyboard for a silent film. Each vignette alternates between panels of painstakingly ornate hand-lettered text and black-and-white illustrations. Like silent film, the juxtaposition of image and text allows us time to consider both, as separate but inseparable parts of the same work.

Gorey's prose sometimes resembles the delightful nonsense of Edward Lear and the jabberwocky of Lewis Carroll. He recognizes that the same things that make their work succeed are at work in his own prose: "Nonsense really demands precision. Like in the Jumblies. Their heads are green and their hands are blue. And they went to sea in a sieve. Which is all quite concrete, goofy as it is." But he also evokes high modernists like Gertrude Stein. "L'Heure Bleue" is full of such Steinian wordplay:


I thought it was going to be different;
It turned out to be(,) just the same.
What is food?
It's a small town in New Hampshire.


This could be a phrase straight out of Stein's "Tender Buttons." The crucial difference is that Gorey, unlike Stein, can illustrate his consciousness as it streams. In this case, he makes it a wordplay: "L'Heure Bleue" is narrated by some vaguely canine creatures wearing sinister bandit masks over their eyes and sweaters emblazoned with the letter "T," who hold cards bearing various letters of the alphabet, leaving the impression that the arbitrary story line is the end product of an extended game of doggy Scrabble.

Gorey's phobias may not be waning, but neither are those who adore him for them. There has been talk of an animated TV series (sadly, many among the PBS set know Gorey only for the animated credits he created for the "Mystery" series). Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin released a monograph on Gorey, "The World of Edward Gorey," in 1996. Tattooed and mohawked young adults lurk around the Gotham book mart, an unofficial museum of Goriana, searching out anything Gorey. Even Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, the minor-league Gothette, gave Gorey the dubious honor of making his video for "The Perfect Drug" into a live-action knockoff of his work. One can also see his influence in the ascendancy of the graphic novel -- and the willingness to take seriously the work of certain graphic novelists, like Alan Moore of "Watchmen" and Neil Gaiman of "The Sandman."

Not that Gorey himself desires cult status, mind you. As he told the Globe in 1998, "When I think of other things that attain cult status, they strike me as somewhat feebleminded. I mean, I suppose it's better being a cult object than nothing at all. But I don't see how anyone has time to be really famous. I might get people dropping by who are slightly -- unhinged."

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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