Edward Gorey and the Eccentric Macabre

Edward St. John Gorey, author and artist and master of the macabre, was born ordinarily enough on February 22, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Edward Leo Gorey, a newspaperman, and Helen Dunham (Garvey) Gorey, a government clerk. They were not ordinary parents: they divorced when their son was eleven and remarried when he was twenty-seven. Other strangenesses emerged.

By the age of three, young Edward had taught himself to read, revealing the precocity that would enable him to skip both first and fifth grades in elementary school. By the time he was five, he had read Dracula and Alice in Wonderland, works that would have a lasting effect upon his artistic sensibility. At nine, he read Rover Boys books while at summer camp and formed a lifelong admiration for the series.

He attended the progressive Francis W. Parker high school, and after graduating, he studied at the Chicago Art Institute for a semester before being inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He spent the rest of World War II stationed at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, testing site for mortars and poison gas, where he served as a company clerk.

Upon discharge in 1946, Gorey entered Harvard College. There, he majored in French, acquiring an enduring interest in French Surrealism and Symbolism as well as Chinese and Japanese literature. He roomed with poet Frank O’Hara, and they read novels by Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett and, with several other young poets and actors, formed the Poets Theatre, a forerunner of the New York Artists’ Theatre, which opened in 1951, one of its first productions being Try, Try, a play by O’Hara with sets designed by Gorey.

Graduating in 1950, Gorey worked in Boston bookstores part-time, tried to write novels (none of which he ever finished), and “starved, more or less,” as he put it (“my family was helping to support me”), until meeting editor and publisher Jason Epstein, who was starting a new division at Doubleday, Anchor Books, to produce trade paperback versions of out-of-print classics.

Gorey drew many of the covers for the early Anchor editions, and when offered a job in the art department, he moved to Manhattan in 1953. He took an apartment in a nineteenth century townhouse at 36 East 38th Street and, staying late at the office, began work on his first book, The Unstrung Harp. Published later in the year, this slender volume depicts (in prose on one page facing an illustration on the next) the impermeably mundane life of a professional writer, who begins a new novel every other year on 18 November exactly.  Gorey1

Gorey also met Frances Steloff, founder of the Gotham Book Mart and champion of such unconventional authors as James Joyce; she became one of the first to carry his books.

In 1957, Gorey began attending performances of the New York City Ballet. Enamored of the choreography of George Balanchine, Gorey achieved perfect attendance for twenty-five years, unfailingly attired in a floor-length fur coat, long scarf, blue jeans, and white sneakers, which, in combination with his full-bearded visage, created an appearance “half bongo-drum beatnik, half fin-de-siecle dandy” according to Stephen Schiff, writing in The New Yorker in 1992. By 1959, four of his books had been published and had attracted the attention of critic Edmund Wilson, who provided the first important notice in a review in The New Yorker, calling Gorey’s work “surrealistic and macabre, amusing and somber, nostalgic and claustrophobic, poetic and poisoned.” The same year, Gorey, with Epstein and Clelia Carroll, founded and worked for Looking Glass Library, a division of Random House that published classical children’s books in hardcover; Wilson was one of the consulting editors (as were W.H. Auden and Phyllis McGinley).

In 1961, Gorey illustrated The Man Who Sang the Sillies, the first of a half-dozen of John Ciardi’s works that he would illuminate, and he employed the first of his numerous pen-names (all anagrams of his name) in The Curious Sofa by Ogdred Weary. He launched the Fantod Press in 1962 to publish those of his works that failed to enlist support elsewhere.

A year later, Looking Glass Library collapsed, and Gorey, with fourteen of his books published, went to work for Bobbs Merrill. After an unsatisfactory year, he quit the job and the workaday world; henceforth, he would earn a living solely as a freelance author and illustrator, eventually producing over ninety of his own works and illustrating another sixty by others (among them, Edward Lear and Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens, whose Bleak House was illuminated by drawings wholly uncharacteristic of the later Gorey).

Gorey2The first of several exhibitions of his work was mounted in 1965 at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. In 1967, Steloff sold the Gotham Book Mart to Andreas Brown, who entered into an unusual relationship with Gorey: in 1970, Gorey’s The Sopping Thursday became the first of his books to be published by the bookstore, which also mounted an exhibition of his works that year and began serving as an archive for his art. Gorey’s 1972 anthology reprinting the first fifteen of his books, Amphigorey, won an American Institute of Graphic Arts award as one of the year’s fifty best-designed books. Gorey made a trip to Scotland in 1975, the only time he ventured outside his native country.

In 1964, Gorey began spending more and more time at Cape Cod, where he became involved in theatrical enterprises, reviving his earlier interest in the field. He designed sets and costumes for the Nantucket summer theater production of Dracula in 1973 and again in 1977 for the Broadway production, winning a Tony Award for costume design. In 1978, Gorey Stories, a musical revue based upon his published works, debuted off-Broadway in January and on Broadway in October. Gorey’s oeuvre reached television in 1980 when he designed the first version of the swooning lady animated titles for Public Broadcasting System’s Mystery!

Upon the death of Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod, first to Barnstable and then to Yarmouthport, remaining there for the rest of his life and setting another perfect attendance record—this time, at a local diner named Jack’s Outback, where he ate breakfast and lunch every day.

In 1985, Gorey wrote the first of his ten musical revues (for which he also designed the sets and costumes), Tinned Lettuce, which opened at New York University. All of Gorey’s subsequent theatrical works were produced on or near Cape Cod, where he died at the hospital in Hyannis on April 15, 2000 after suffering a heart attack three days earlier.

By the time of his death, Gorey had become a local institution. Jack Braginton-Smith, owner of Jack’s Outback, was Gorey’s friend and admirer and curator of his memory and memorabilia. “He was very fast and he was constantly doing things gratis for anyone who needed visual work,” Braginton-Smith told a reporter. “I don’t think there’s a theatrical group or a literary group or a musical group on Cape Cod that he hasn’t done a poster or something for at no charge.”

His restaurant is a museum of Goreyana. And much of it is, understandably, typical Gorey. On an enormous tip basin is a Gorey Gothic sign that reminds patrons to remember the widows and orphans. On the wall next to the kitchen is a framed waffle accompanied by a Gorey illustration and an inscription identifying it as the last waffle of the millennium at Jack’s Outback (Gorey’s final work, Braginton-Smith asserts). In a display case in back are various items commemorating the amputation of Braginton-Smith’s toe: a poem, a sketch of a winged angel-toe, and a tin mail box to encourage his friends to send him a “get well” note. In the fifteen years of their friendship, Gorey and Braginton-Smith went out together a great deal—sometimes to dinner, sometimes to a play, often to an auction. They were both passionate collectors.

Gorey’s 200-year-old house at 8 Strawberry Lane in Yarmouthport was built by a sea captain, Nathaniel Howes. A conventional two-story structure originally, it was modified by extensive alterations in Victorian times and gradually assumed a distinctive aspect all its own. Subsequent developments have only added to its unique appearance. With its flaking exterior paint and a vine that had invaded the premises through a crack in the wall, the place embodied its bachelor occupant’s eclectic enthusiasms and eccentricities. Its walls were festooned with bookshelves, which were jammed with books, videotapes, CDS, and cassettes; and the floors were littered with stacks of the same as well as finials of all description, occasional lobster floats, cat-clawed furniture, an old toilet with a tabletop, and a small commune of cats.

A compulsive collector and consumer of every aspect of the culture in which he was immersed, Gorey was a man of enormous erudition whose tastes and interests ranged from cultivated esoterica to trashy television, all passionately studied in an effort, he told Schiff, to “keep real life at bay.” In her book about Gorey, Karen Wilkin asserted that “he appears to have read everything and to have equal enthusiasm for classic Japanese novels, British satire, television reruns, animated cartoons, and movies both past and present, good and not so good.”

The artwork on Gorey’s walls ranged from Berthe Morisot to George Herriman, early twentieth century modernists to newspaper cartoonists.

Except for three out-sized anthologies, his books are all small in dimension and liberally illustrated (usually a picture on every page) in the manner of children’s books, and although Gorey believed children could readily appreciate the unaccountable horrors and fiendishly comic gruesomeness of his tales, he did not write them for youngsters. The humor in his tales can be properly grasped only by adults who can savor the hilarity created by the unexpected juxtaposition of Gorey’s somber albeit caricatural renderings and his deadpan prose. The world he evoked is ostensibly a genteel one, an elegant past now gone to seed, usually populated by bored crypto-Edwardians, whom he depicts with spindly figures and spherical or egg-shaped heads.

The pictures in some of his books are as unembellished as Japanese prints, but Gorey’s characteristic manner is to garnish his drawings with meticulous hachuring and pointillist cross-hatching, so intensely applied as to be almost painful in its exquisite punctiliousness. (“It’s partly insecurity,” he once explained: “I mean, where do you leave off?”) This technique plunges his fictional milieu into deep fustian shadow, giving the stories a vaguely sinister, melancholy menace.

Gorey3Contributing to the ambiance is Gorey’s parallel text of hand-lettered laconic declarative sentences (sometimes in rhyme) that relate the most disturbing events in an almost elliptical fashion. In The Loathesome Couple (1977), the titular pair kidnap a young girl and spend the better part of a night “murdering the child in various ways.” The Curious Sofa (subtitled “A Pornographic Work”) includes the immortal line, “Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan.”

In The Admonitory Hippopotamus (unpublished at the time of Gorey’s death), a five-year-old girl playing in a gazebo suddenly sees a spectral hippopotamus “rising from the ha-ha.” “Fly at once,” commands the hippo; “all is discovered.”

Ghastly events are described in a bland, unemotional style “as though the narrator hadn’t quite grasped the gravity of the situation,” as Schiff put it. Millicent Frastley is sacrificed to the Insect God; Charlotte Sophia is run over by her own father who fails to recognize her. In the infanticidal ABC book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), all the children die in alphabetical order: “O is for Olive run through with an awl / P is for Prue trampled flat in a brawl.”

As disasters overtake them, the principals themselves seem as oblivious as the indifferent gods. The Doubtful Guest (1958) is vintage Gorey. In it, a furry sort of penguin, wearing a long scarf and tennis shoes, shows up uninvited at a dreary mansion and, without the slightest resistance from the resident Edwardian family, makes itself at home, peering up flues in fireplaces, tearing up books, sleepwalking, dropping favorite objects into the pond, and eating the china for breakfast.Gorey4

“Every Sunday it brooded and lay on the floor, / Inconveniently close to the drawing-room door” where its prone form blocks entrance and egress. Nothing is ever resolved; day after day, the household watches the creature numbly until at last the narrative concludes inconclusively: “It came seventeen years ago—and to this day / It has shown no intention of going away.”

Gorey’s books, wrote Schiff, “are like the remnants of a once proud civilization whose decline and fall have resulted not from dwindling armies or crumbling economies but from an invasion of the inexplicable—random brutality, spates of angst and ennui, odd words and odder weapons, and the kind of skittering beasties you catch only out of the corner of your eye.”

Explaining his choice of subject matter, Gorey said: “My favorite genre is the sinister-slash-cozy. I think there should be a little bit of uneasiness in everything because I do think we’re all really in a sense living on the edge. So much of life is inexplicable. Inexplicable things happen ... and you think, if that could happen, anything could happen.”

He cautioned against taking his work seriously: it would be “the height of folly,” he said. Still, when a publisher rejected one of his books on the grounds that it wasn’t funny, Gorey professed astonishment: “It wasn’t supposed to be,” he said; “what a peculiar reaction.”

Mel Gussow, writing The New York Times obituary, delivered perhaps the best assessment: “He was one of the most aptly named figures in American art and literature. In creating a large body of small work, he made an indelible imprint on noir fiction and on the psyche of his admirers.”

Soon after Gorey died, Braginton-Smith launched an effort to create a memorial to Gorey. He proposed that they install and cultivate on the village green a topiary sculpture of a Gorey creature (perhaps the splendidly mysterious Doubtful Guest?). “My purpose is to make sure Edward Gorey remains a figure in our history,” said Braginton-Smith.

It certainly seems like a good idea. A Gorey of an idea. But let me give the last word to the artist himself. “You know, Ted Shawn, the choreographer,” Gorey mused in Schiff’s hearing, “—he used to say, ‘When in doubt, twirl.’ Oh, I do think that’s such a great line.”



Sources: The two best sources of information about Gorey’s life and work are Stephen Schiff, “Edward Gorey and the Tao of Nonsense,” The New Yorker, 9 Nov. 1992, and Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin, The World of Edward Gorey (1996), containing samples of his drawings, an interview, an extensive critical examination, and a chronology and complete bibliography. Additional insights and information can be found in Amy Benfer, “Edward Gorey” in the online Salon.com’s Brilliant Careers, and in Edmund Wilson, “The Albums of Edward Gorey,” The New Yorker, 26 Dec. 1959. Brad Gooch, City Poet (1995), a biography of Frank O’Hara, tells of Gorey’s college life with O’Hara. Three anthologies collect over fifty of Gorey’s books: Amphigorey (1972), Amphigorey Too (1975), and Amphigorey Also (1983). Among the pen-names Gorey adopted for many of his nearly 100 titles are Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, D. Awdrey-Gore, E.G. Deadworry, Drew Dogyear, Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Aedwyrd Gore, and Garrod Weedy; Eduard Blutig and O. Mude and translations into German of Edward Gorey and Ogdred Weary respectively. In addition to books mentioned above, the titles of some of his most popular works suggest the ornately perverse turn of the author’s mind: The Listing Attic (1954), The Fatal Lozenge: An Alphabet (1960), The Hapless Child (1961), The Willowdale Handcar or the Return of the Black Doll (1979), The West Wing (1963), The Gilded Bat (1967), The Blue Aspic (1968), The Osbick Bird (1970), The Abandoned Sock (1972), The Lavender Leotard; or, Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet (1973), The Glorious Nosebleed (1975), The Tunnel Calamity (1984), The Improvable Landscape (1986), The Hapless Doorknob/A Shuffled Story (1989), The Floating Elephant (1993), and The Retrieved Locket (1994). An obituary is The New York Times, 17 Apr. 2000, and a useful remembrance is Alison Lurie (to whom The Doubtful Guest is dedicated), “On Edward Gorey,” The New York Review, 25 May 2000.