"So basically I think I'm sort of a cross between silent films and a whole series of books for children."
Perhaps. If David Lynch redid The Monster at the End of This Book (1971) in the style of his black and white Eraserhead (1980).
Born 22 February 1925 in (of all places) Chicago, Illinois. Gorey really was his last name. In fact, his full name Edward St. John Gorey could have been one of the enigmatic "characters" from one of his stories. And the name got a lot of travel, as he often published under pseudonyms (as if the artwork, if not the sensibility, doesn't give it away) which were anagrams of it: Ogdred Weary, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, D. Awdrey-Gore, Dogear Wryde, Aedwyrd Gore, Garrdod Weedy.
It shows his love of language that led to the extensive use of obscure words in such works as The Nursery Frieze (1964) which is basically (as the name implies) a continuous line of dark quadrupeds walking against a bare landscape, mouthing single words like "obloquy," "lunistice," "piacle," "catafalque," "rhoncus," "spandrel," and "anamorphosis." Even the titles of his best known collections use "amphigorey" in their titlesGorey providing a definition in the first collection: "Its title is taken from amphigory, or amphigouri, meaning a nonsense verse or composition."
Not a bad description of his work, but lacking. This isn't "nonsense verse" in the sense of Edward Lear (Gorey illustrated two of his books), but something a bit darker.
According to Gorey, he'd been drawing since he was one and a half: "not very well, you understand, but I sort of always drew. I don't think I took it any more serious than anyone else did. But I just somehow kept on doing it after most people give up." He also read a great deal, enjoying such classics as Bram Stoker's Dracula and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderlandhe also enjoyed less "literary" books like the Tom Swift and Hardy Boys series.
Art and the arts were part of his life. He spent a semester studying at the Art Institute of Chicago before being inducted into the army (1943). He spent his time statesidethough at a suitably "Gorey" place where they tested weapons like mortars and poison gas. After the service, he went to Harvard where he began his lifelong interest in French surrealism and symbolism as well as Chinese and Japanese literature (his major was French).
Following graduation (1950), he attempted to write novels but failed, ending up being largely supported by his family. He managed to get a job with the publisher Doubleday in the art department where he drew covers for Anchor Books. In his off-time, usually afterhours, he started writing and illustrating his first book: The Unstrung Harp: or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel (1953). The job lasted seven years, the passion for writing and drawing, a lifetime (he only had a couple other regular jobssince 1963 Gorey worked freelance).
Life. Everything about life...I turned seventy this year and my first impulse was to change my name and embark on an entirely new career, and then after a few minutes I thought, what do I think I'm going to do?
Edward Gorey on "what frightens him"
So Gorey began what would be nearly fifty years of creating little monstrosities for the discerning reader. As steeped in "culture" as he was, living in New York City (he attended operas, concerts, shows, moviesa big film fan), he had an appreciation for popular culture, as well. In his early The Doubtful Guest (1957), a bizarre, nonspeaking creature (like a fully black penguin) shows up at a mansion, does weird things, and never leaves. As disquieting as the whole thing is for those upper-class types (who so often populate his work), what must be more upsetting is the pair of tennis shoes he is wearing that appear to be Chuck Taylor canvas hightops.
And while it doesn't seem obvious in his books, he was an avid television viewer (movies, dramas, sitcoms, whatever), especially in the years after he moved from New York. He had begun spending time around Cape Cod in the sixties and seventies; his family bought a house there in 1970. By the early eighties, he was practically staying there full-time. In 1985, he moved there for good.
The world that the characters ("victims" might be a better word) of Gorey's works inhabit is a cold, bleak, perpetually overcast one that only seems to resemble our own (from the Victorian era). Like England, which it also resembles, though there is a sense it's a combination of a similarly conceived New England/New York City locale and an "anywhere and nowhere," it is a world where the class distinction is clear. There are rich dandys, elegant women, operas, mansions, ballets; and there are the poor and needy, asylums for the mad, dark alleys, and dirty little apartments. A world where the aloof, self-absorbed upper-class cultured elite pass the dirty and desperate poor in their carriages.
"It's obviously much more poignant to do things to children."
The "Hapless Child" Sophia lives in a fine, "well-to-do" home until her father is called away to Africa by the army. He is reported dead and she loses the rest of her relatives (disease and accident), ending up in a horrible boarding school. She escapes only to be sold to a man and forced to make artificial flowers. Meanwhile her father turns out to be alive and while searching for her, runs her down in his motorcar. He doesn't recognize her. Children often fare worse than others in the world of Gorey (then again no one fares well in one of his books).
There is little "action" in the stories, and unlike the Brothers Grimm (and Gorey is Grimm at their grimmest), no one lives happily ever aftereven those who make it through relatively unscathed, are sometimes affected by what happens or are burdened by some terrible secret (though it seems more of a burden to the reader, as the people seem to just accept what happens). With "a wet sort of explosion, audible for several miles" the picnicking family can say "And that, thank heavens! was the end of the Beastly Baby." Indeed.
Things that do "happen," do so in a very arbitrary way (just ask little Sophia), cause and effect are not as important and the juxtaposition and combinations of words and images move the stories along more than plot (which often seems to run on a sort of internal trance logic). The drawings, in thin, highly hatched and crosshatched pen and ink (the vast majority in only black and white), are less examples of captured action than posed tableaux presented to the reader like waxwork etchings.
When action takes place it often happens just out of sight or the picture captures the movement just before or after it takes place. That is the case in his well-known 1963 work, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, where with only a few exceptions, the tiny is shown just before his or her gruesome end (Kate with the axe in her back and Rhoda on fire being notable). A lot of the "sense of the disturbing" in his work comes as much from what is suggested or what the reader imagines based on image and textoften there is no real reason involved, pictures of mysterious busts, empty hallways, large urns, all in shadows, evoking a sense of dread and menace.
His use of suggestion is possibly most put to use (comedically) in his 1961 The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work. It most assuredly seems pornographic, but there is no nudity (some revealing moments), or action (in either sense of the word). A group of upper-class dissolute men and women gather together for what is strongly implied to be sex games: mentions of someone performing "a rather surprising service," "wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks," "an astonishing little device," a "singularly well-favored sheepdog," games referred to as "thumbfumble" and "the Lithuanian Typewriter." The titular "famous sofa," of course
stood in a windowless room lined with polar bear fur and otherwise empty; it was upholstered in scarlet velvet, and had nine legs and seven arms.
As soon as everybody had crowded into the room, Sir Egbert fastened shut the door, and started up the machinery inside the sofa.
When Alice saw what was about to happen, she began to scream uncontrollably....
But we never see more than the edge of this "famous sofa" or even get a hint of what it does. The final drawing (ellipsis in the original text) only shows the end of the sofa and a discarded bunch of grapes on the floor.
The balance between humor (a decidedly dark kindan acquired taste) and horror is played very carefully throughout his oeuvre. We are amused while reading and viewing murders, attacks, poisonings, diseases, kidnappings. Even when the material seems lighter, it has a darker side. The Wuggly Ump (1963), likely a conscious nod to Lewis Carroll and his bestiary, is a creature that lives far away, eating "umbrellas, gunny sacks,/ Brass doorknobs, mud, and carpet tacks." The happy little children sing the rhyming verse about the creature while dancing and playing (in color, no less) until he visits. And they end up inside him where they "sing glogalimp, sing glugalump,/ From deep inside the Wuggly Ump" (who now has a big grin on its face).
Or look at the absurdity of The Inanimate Tragedy (1966) which tells a vague (recall plot as relatively less important) dramatic tragedy involving office supplies and stuff one finds in a kitchen drawer (needles, pen tips, thumbtacks, buttons, knotted string). The pins and needles even function as some quasi-Greek Chorus. Then there's The Bug Book (1960, again in color) where a group of friendly, happy, colorful bugs have their lives intruded upon by a bullying large Black Bug who imprisons them in a bottle. They escape and drop a large rock on him, squashing him flat. Then they "slipped the remains into an envelope. And left it propped against the fatal stone to be mailed." (The address is "To whom it may concern.")
As striking and memorable his artwork isthe fine lines and shadows, the people with small bulbous heads and darkened eyes (he is probably best known for doing the animation used for the opening of the PBS series Mystery!)it is the words that are important. Whether its verse (usually couplets, though the odd limerick form appears on occasion) or prose, the words always come first. He once tried doing the pictures first and "got a few of the drawings done as I remember and I could not finish the book." So important, he always carefully writes out the text of his books in pen and ink.
"I would have done more theater if anybody'd asked me, but nobody did. After I got out of the Army I wrote plays. I wasn't involved in the theater or anything, but for some reason I started writing plays. Fortunately I think they've all disappeared"
In addition to writing and illustrated his own books, he has written two novels, and made collections of postcards of his work (original). Gorey has also done drawings for other writer's works, including T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and considered that "it would be sort of fun to do Poe in a different way than anyone else has ever done" (a project that, sadly, will never come to be).
In 1973 he helped design sets and costumes for the Nantucket summer theater production of Dracula. This was important, as in 1977 he did the same for the Broadway production, earning him a Tony Award for costume design. There was a musical revue based on his work the following year titled Gorey Stories, starting off Broadway and eventually opening on Broadway. Another, The Vinegar Works, appeared in 1989 (the original 1963 book included The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Insect God, and The West Wing; it was subtitled "Three volumes of Moral Instruction"). In 1985 he began writing his own musical revues (ten total). The first opened at New York University, the rest were produced nearer to his Cape Cod home. And of course he designed the sets and costumes
He was also a regular around Cape Cod culture and would often produce work for free. According to Jack Braginton-Smith (a friend and owner of both "Jack's Outback," a favorite restaurant, and the local Gorey "museum") "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" (www.rcharvey.com)
Edward Gorey, the artist and author who was a grand master of the comic macabre and delighted generations of readers with his spidery drawings and stories of hapless children, swooning maidens, throbblefooted specters, threatening topiary and weird, mysterious events on eerie Victorian landscapes, died on Saturday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass. He was 75 and lived in Yarmouth Port, Mass.
New York Times obituary
In a way, the man resembled one of the characters he might have drawn, known for his big white beard and tending to wear overcoats, weather determining. Somewhat eccentric and (not so surprising) a cat owner who would not turn away a stray, Gorey was a memorable man. In his NYT obituary, he was described as
Toweringly tall, he had a white beard and frothy hair, an earring in each lobe and rings on most of his fingers. When he lived in New York, he often wore a raccoon coat, although later in life he became sheepish about wearing fur.
He looked foreboding, like a buccaneer between piracies or a figure out of one of his books, and his self-portrait lurks on the fringe of many of his stories. But in contrast to the work, the man was genial and gentle, and sometimes childish in his language, peppering his conversation with words like "jeepers" and "zingy."
"There was this false idea that he was a brooding, melancholic man," said Andreas Brown, a friend of Mr. Gorey's and the owner of the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. "He was not a recluse. He was jovial and effervescent, and he loved to laugh."
Of course, as noted, he was also a bit different than the helplessly doomed creations he wrote about and drew. But it probably takes someone with a warm nature and who loves to laugh to manage the gloom and horrible events of his work.
Gorey was diagnosed with diabetes and prostate cancer in 1994. His response? "Why haven't I burst into total screaming hysterics? I'm not entirely enamored of the idea of living forever" (NYT obit). He continued on, writing and drawing, for another six years before he finally died 15 April 2000succumbing to neither, it was a heart attack.
In typical Gorey fashion,
"He was cremated and his ashes were thrown into Barnstable Harbor on a rainy, overcast day."
Bibliography(books he both wrote and illustrated):
- 1953 The Unstrung Harp: or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel
- 1954 The Listing Attic
- 1957 The Doubtful Guest
- 1958 The Object-Lesson
- 1960 The Bug Book; The Fatal Lozenge: An Alphabet
- 1961 The Hapless Child; The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work
- 1962 The Willowdale Handcar: or The Return Of The Black Doll; The Beastly Baby
- 1963 The Wuggly Ump; The Gashlycrumb Tinies: or After the Outing; The Insect God; The West Wing
- 1964 The Sinking Spell; The Nursery Frieze
- 1965 The Remembered Visit; The Evil Garden; The Remembered Visit: A Story Taken From Life
- 1966 The Gilded Bat; The Inanimate Tragedy; The Pious Infant
- 1967 The Utter Zoo
- 1968 The Blue Aspic; The Other Statue
- 1969 The Epiplectic Bicycle; The Iron Tonic, or, A Winter Afternoon In Lonely Valley
- 1970 The Chinese Obelisks; The Osbik Bird; The Sopping Tuesday
- 1971 The Deranged Cousins: or Whatever; The Eleventh Episode; The Untitled Book
- 1972 The Abandoned Sock; Leaves from a Mislaid Album
- 1973 The Black Doll, A Silent Film; The Disrespectful Summons; The Lavender Leotard: or Going a lot to the New York City Ballet; A Limerick; The Lost Lions: or, Having Opened the Wrong Envelope
- 1975 The Glorious Nosebleed: Fifth Alphabet; L'heure bleue; The Loathsome Couple
- 1976 The Broken Spoke; The Grand Passion: A Novel; Les Passementeries Horribles
- 1978 The Green Beads
- 1980 Les Urnes Utiles
- 1981 La Malange Funeste
- 1982 The Dwindling Party; The Water Flowers
- 1983 The Eclectic Abecedarium; The Prune People
- 1984 The Tunnel Calamity
- 1985 The Prune People II
- 1986 The Improvable Landscape
- 1987 The Raging Tide: or The Black Doll's Imbroglio
- 1989 Q.R.V. [also known as The Universal Solvent]
- 1990 The Fraught Settee; The Stupid Joke; The Tuning Fork
- 1991 La Balade Troublante; The Doleful Domesticity, Another Novel
- 1993 The Dancing Rock/The Floating Elephant; The Pointless Book: or, Nature & Art
- 1994 Figbash Acrobate; The Retrieved Locket
- 1995 The Unknown Vegetable
- 1997 Deadly Blotter: Thoughtful Alphabet XVII; The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas; The Just Dessert: Thoughtful Alphabet XI
- 1999 The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation for the False Millennium
(Sources: www.anb.org/articles/17/17-01640-article.html, www.britannica.com, www.geocities.com/SoHo/Gallery/9167/GOREY_ARTICLE.HTM the quotes are from here unless stated above, www.rcharvey.com/hindsight/gorey.html, NYT obituary from www.goreyography.com/west/Obit/Goodbyes/Spots/obit-e-gorey.html, final quote and bibliography adapted from www.fearofdolls.com, any quotes from the books are from my own copies of Amphigorey 1972 and Amphigorey Too 1975)