Edward Gorey's books of eerie glory

The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey
The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was an American illustrator and writer, chiefly remembered for his illustrated books. Once you've seen a bit of Gorey's work, it becomes instantly recognizable. His books are full of rich, strange characters. Pipe-thin men and women in fancy dress, cats in clothing, fantastical, mythical creatures (including one that looks like a cheerful leech with butterfly wings), treacherous villains and much, much more. One of his earliest and strangest creatures was The Doubtful Guest, a moody and stubborn creature that resembled a furry penguin in high-top sneakers and a striped scarf.

Not unlike Roald Dahl, Gorey was another author whose books seemed to embrace dark subjects, and assume a maturity and capability in his audience, despite being aimed at children. And the result was a unique blend of childlike silliness and stark bleakness – drawings and premises were ridiculous and fanciful one moment, then by turns utterly devoid of hope.  For every happy, healthy child in the Gorey universe, many more were wan and waifish orphans wasting away on their sickbeds.

Continue reading about Edward Gorey after the books.

A is for Amy
A gloriously gruesome poem

Perhaps his most famous piece of writing/illustration is the gloriously gruesome poem The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which is an alphabet of terrible fates befalling children.  "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…"  the deaths are described in gleefully ghoulish rhyme, and run the gamut from  the visceral - "sucked dry by a leech" to the thoughtful – "who died of ennui". While the subject matter is so horrid as to make the poem sound macabre, the rhyme combined with Gorey's art results in a strangely delightful outcome. Grisly, but clever and funny – a guilty pleasure. I first came across it in poster format hanging on the back of a door somewhere, and fell in love with the intricacies of the work and sophistication of the drawings, while the subject matter was so irreverent. I set about investigating who this Edward Gorey was, and added a few pieces of his to my library - the compendiums Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too and Amphigorey Also, as well as The Epiplectic Bicycle - Gorey won awards for his costume and set design for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula.

Gorey was by all accounts a peculiar man of unusual passions and attentions. By his own admission, he had little interest in romance or even sexuality, and never married. He himself was not even certain whether he was heterosexual or homosexual, and seemed quite unbothered by the matter anyway. As a result, perhaps, his work was largely asexual as well, rarely making reference to sex or romantic intimacy in his writing. One exception to that rule is his 1965 book The Recently Deflowered Girl, which was written under the pseudonym Hyacinthe Phypps (actually Mel Juffe, and some attribute to Monte Ghertler as well). The book is a faux etiquette guide, whose tongue-in-cheek purpose is to provide a young woman, having just lost her virginity, the perfect thing to say in various scenarios. It's a weird and quirky book, which went out of print. In 2009, a blogger wrote a post about the book, including samples of the writing and artwork. The post took off, and suddenly the book was in high demand, and as a result, was reprinted in 2010. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a first edition copy before they rose too badly in price, and I've thoroughly enjoyed owning it - it's a fantastic conversation piece.

Gorey himself also wrote under pseudonyms, including anagrams of his own name, for example Drew Dogyear, Regera Dowdy and Ogdred Weary.

For a man whose work would suggest an obsession with old-timey things – his stories often involved tonics and tinctures, outdated ailments, bouts with madness and the like and were somewhere between Victorian and Edwardian in tone and style – he was also passionately interested in modern popular culture. His television tastes unsurprisingly ran toward the dark and supernatural, such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Gorey's undisputed two greatest loves were books and cats, and he surrounded himself with plenty of each. He was fervently devoted to reading. Among his favorite writers were Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Anthony Trollope and many more. He admired the work of a variety of writers, and provided the illustrations for books by such authors as Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, H.G. Wells and more. Cats were an occasional theme throughout his work (often anthropomorphic, wearing clothes and playing musical instruments), but a constant theme in his life. He always had multiple cats in his life, and friends and family members who knew his soft spot for strays often called upon him to take in more. When he died at the age of 75 in 2000, Gorey left the bulk of his formidable estate to animal-welfare groups and charities dedicated to animal rescue and assistance.

While his sensibilities long caused many readers to assume he was English, Gorey was in fact American,  a Harvard graduate, and lived the last decade and a half of his life in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he ate breakfast and lunch in the same restaurant every day, gamely signing autographs for the occasional fan. His Cape Cod home is called Elephant House, and can be explored through text and photographs in the pages of Kevin McDermott's book Elephant House Or, the Home of Edward Gorey.

In a 1996 interview, Gorey was asked whether he felt content with his achievements, and he remarked that he came across his name often enough to feel pleased, as though he'd made at least a little mark somewhere. Decades later, I think he'd be pleased at how his dedicated little following of fans has swelled to share his words and art with anyone who will listen.

Do you have a favorite Edward Gorey book?

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