As I mentioned a few days back, I was utterly pleased to see that Edward Gorey‘s legacy lives on via TV still, and hopefully will for some time to come. On reflection I realize he is one of only a few artists — I mentioned Tolkien recently, and I would include Charles Schulz as well — whose work still holds me in particular thrall for decades, literally in all cases since before I was ten years old. Certainly there are a variety of things from my youth that I either think back with fondness on or a gentle indifference towards — if I haven’t forgotten them outright — but in all three of these cases what was a strong connection to start with has remained strong, in terms of regular rereading, finding new editions when possible, just drowning in their work.
My Gorey love is something you can see most immediately not at home but in my workplace — thanks to a daily calendar I received a couple of Christmases back, a large amount of the cubicle space I’m (alas) stuck in has been plastered with hundreds and hundreds of single panels from his books, individual drawings, chapter headings, models for stage productions, more besides. Murderesses’ various bemusing deeds regarding the dispatching of their victims are noted alongside demonaic invocations and threatening alligators that can be taken care of with a swift kick to the nose. Alphabets appear and reappear, cats are everywhere. More than once the artist himself appears in the drawings, his own regular cameo role apparently being not that far removed from his regular appearance in life — a well-trimmed beard, a huge fur coat (in all forms of weather) and sneakers. A style all his own.
This of course describes his work too. According to the ever-handy Wikipedia, Gorey felt himself working in the ‘literary nonsense’ vein of creators like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, both well-observed forebears (the latter even more so when combined with the amazing engravings of John Tenniel, a clear influence on the straightforward pen-and-paper/black-and-white style that Gorey favored though did not exclusively use). Meantime, his closest American contemporary strictly in terms of macabre illustration would easily be Charles Addams, while Gahan Wilson isn’t far off himself. But each of these artists has their own distinct take on what is a very broad field, one that has continued to thrive in recent years and in increasingly newer forms — if someone like Tim Burton is the most well-known public face of this general approach, then others like Elizabeth McGrath and Camille Rose Garcia have made their own marks while numerous others could be mentioned as well.
But Gorey was my gateway drug to all this, one of the best ways to start understanding what could be found out there in a world where humor can be so dry as to crack on contact with wet sentimentality, one of the favorite targets for his wit. If his work existed in a never-never land where 1920s flappers brushed up against starchy Victorian patriarchs — and it was never quite clear if the setting was meant to be England or New England — then the sense of cheap mush about saintly children and melodramatic romances ending up in happily ever after situations is all too real in the here-and-now, and just as profoundly irritating if one looks on the world with a gimlet eye rather than with the aid of rose-colored glasses. Creations like The Beastly Baby, The Hapless Child and perhaps most memorably The Gashlycrumb Tinies — one of his many alphabets, in this case cheerily using the form to detail the alternately tawdry and spectacular deaths of twenty-six children one by one — are the perfect incarnation of an attitude Oscar Wilde summed up equally well: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
At the same time what’s clear about Gorey is that he found plenty to love in that cultural milieu as well, and some of his most enjoyable efforts tone down the overt darkness — at least from time to time — in favor of wickedly funny celebrations of ‘high culture’ from ballet, of which he was a noted aficionado, to any number of crusty English mystery novels, which informs any number of his creations. Most notable would be The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, a spot-on celebration and vivisection of the cliches that Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers practically enforced on the genre to this day. (My favorite among the various methods of death to use on a victim: ‘instantaneous,’ consisting of a huge boulder.) Meanwhile, don’t get me started on his ode to late nineteenth-century smut The Curious Sofa, his ‘pornographic’ story, with so many wonderfully ridiculous combinations of ‘uncommonly well-formed young men,’ obliging maids and, of course, a sheepdog that the mind reels.
There’s a third general approach to his work which doesn’t get quite as much general attention as the ones outlined above, partially because it is so understated — to the point where I can’t readily remember the best titles that show it, generally divorced as they are from the content. Basically, rather than going for the immediate or even slow-building laughs, from time to time Gorey almost uses the page for general meditation, with a collection of individual drawings or an only slightly hanging together story providing a framework, depicting empty landscapes, distant houses, solitary figures, an air of gray afternoons and encroaching night. It’s as openly Romantic with a capital R as Gorey ever allowed himself, in a way — an outward extension of what William Hazlitt thought of as Byron‘s unfortunate tendency to “[bury] the natural light of things in ‘nook monastic.'” But also — perhaps inevitably, given his recent passing — makes me think a touch of Ingmar Bergman at his most contemplative, or even the concluding scene in The Third Man, even if by default that’s somewhat more active than Gorey’s work.
Gorey himself knew that solitude and silence was key not only to his work but well-being — he famously lived alone for most of his days, accompanied only by his beloved cats — and while it’s a road I wouldn’t take myself to that extreme, it’s a mindset I’m in great sympathy with. Whether or not I caught that sense specifically when I first learned of his work outside of the credits for Mystery! — perhaps appropriately not through his own efforts straight up but in a puzzle-book, Gorey Games, which my mom got for me when I was nine or so — it’s a sense I now respond to all the more clearly. Like all great artists, there’s more there than meets the eye, and one’s own experience provides more to bring to the table when dealing with such work.
Four handy anthologies — or more accurately amphigories — collect many of his efforts, and if the original issues of each book are the real treasures, this quartet is the easier way to take the plunge:
Enjoy, with a smile on your face — wickedly barbed.