Edward Gorey - Naughty, gothic, hilarious graphic storytelling

Edward Gorey, The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997)

"The Curious Sofa offers the ultimate in pornographic joy, combining naughtiness to the limit of the imagination and laughter to the point of breahlessness. The Curious Sofa is pure delight."

"One of Edward Gorey best works is The Curious Sofa. Gorey's books are tiny, strange illustrated books that look like relics of the nineteenth century. The cover of The Curious Sofa calls it "a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary," a name that is an anagram of Edward Gorey. The pseudonym suggests the work must be pornographic -- the author is not using his real name. But the word Weary doesn't seem quite right for an author of erotica. It's not exactly "Lance Goodthrust." Each page of The Curious Sofa has a simple stiffly drawn image and a caption. The story is odd but apparently simple: a girl, Alice, is seduced into a world of debauched bisexual/animal orgies until she is taken to a room with a "curious sofa" and something unclear but unspeakable happens; the end.
What is interesting is how the story leads you to its weird conclusion. None of the images in the book show anything remotely pornographic. Every image has a caption, and almost every caption suggests something sexual without going into any detail -- at all. Here are the first four pages (all perfectly work friendly; click on them to get larger versions):
The whole book is just like these pages. Of course you never find out what the "very surprising service" is; the next page just suggests another similarly vague sexual act. At the end of the book the sofa is suddenly introduced:
The end. What makes that ending so insane, so disturbing but so cold, so interesting but so silent, is that - like a big plot twist a la The Sixth Sense -- it makes you go back and reevaluate everything you have read. You thought you knew what was going on in the previous pages: everyone was having sex of some sort. -- But were they? Actually the book was never specific at all, about anything. For the length of the story you read between the lines and as the story ends you fall into the space provided with nothing at all to ground you; you have caught yourself in the trap the book sets up. It is a cunning and very dark parable on the power of the sexual imagination, and striking proof of that old Cosmo cliche that the brain is the biggest sexual organ of all.
"Weary" indeed." - Geoff Klock

Edward Gorey, Amphigorey (Perigree Books, 1980)

"Gorey has produced more than 100 small volumes of gothic fables, meticulously hand-lettered and intricately illustrated, most of them in verse. His works are remarkable combinations of the eccentric, the witty, and the macabre and are lavishly illustrated with superb technique in dark and abundant Edwardian detail.
These stories intertwine death, comedy and the macabre using dramatic yet simple visuals that are enhanced by the subtleties of the tales. They might be picture books but they emphasize the frequent adult and underlying nature of fairytales and satirize the conventions of didactic books, especially his many alphabet books like The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Gorey's best known work.
It is a delightful alphabet book in rhyme in which 26 small children are alphabetically disposed of. The Bug Book however, one of his only works in color is clearly designed for very young kids. Sadly but fortunately for children, it is lacking in his usual twisted humor making it more accessible to the masses.
Odd, mysterious, dark and very funny, Gorey's works have a completely unique appeal that is reminiscent of a baroque storyboard for a silent film. His often nonsense verse and mock-Victorian prose accompany pen and ink drawings of beady-eyed, blank-faced individuals in Edwardian costumes whose dignified demeanour is undercut by silly events leading to their untimely demise. Gorey's diabolical tales about haunted, pale-featured characters living in a world filled with bleak landscapes and gloomy interiors earned him a reputation as the modern master of American gothic.
What makes him stand out however, is the way in which he hints at, rather than shows, the nastiness that so often lurks beneath the respectable appearance of the tightly buttoned characters who secretly indulge their infidelities and indiscretions as well as their frequently murderous thoughts and deeds.
Masterful pen and ink illustrations and his ironic, offbeat humour in which grief, despair, loneliness and unexpected (often unnatural) deaths are combined, are the key ingredients that have brought him critical acclaim and an avid following throughout the world. Although not for everyone, Gorey appeals to the dark side of our imagination and he does it with some tragically funny wit and lots of slightly bombastic yet macabre style." - Rebecca Benoot
Edward Gorey, Amphigorey Too (Penguin, 1980)

"Includes The Unstrung Harp, The Lasting Attic, The Doubtful Guest, The Object Lesson, The Bug Book, The Fatal Lozenge, The Hapless Child, The Curious Sofa, The Sinking Spell, The Willowdale Handcar, The Wuggly Ump, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Insect God, The West Wing & The Remembered Visit."

"Amphigorey Too was published in 1975 by G. Putnam's Sons, New York in illustrated boards with a matching dust wrapper. The copy I am showing has been signed by Mr. Gorey. Surprisingly, this title has only ever had one hard cover printing. Amphigorey Too is currently available as a large scale paperback.
In this second anthology of Edward Gorey's works, we are once again treated to reprints of titles that (then and now) can be difficult to find in their original printings. All but one of the titles included in Amphigorey Too were published as limited edition volumes, and this was the first time most of them had been reprinted. In addition to showing The Chinese Obelisks in its completed state, Mr. Gorey's original sketches are also shown, giving a glimpse into his working process. To the right, I am showing the original announcement card for this book." - ampootozote
Edward Gorey, Amphigorey Also (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993)

Drawings (including thirty-two pages in color), captions, and verse showcasing Gorey’s unique talents and humor. “The Glorious Nosebleed,” “The Utter Zoo,” “The Epiplectic Bicycle,” and fourteen other selections.
Edward Gorey, Amphigorey Again (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)

"This latest collection displays in glorious abundance the offbeat characters and droll humor of Edward Gorey. Figbash is acrobatic, topiaries are tragic, hippopotami are admonitory, and galoshes are remorseful in this celebration of a unique talent that never fails to delight, amuse, and confound readers. Amphigorey Again contains previously uncollected work and two unpublished stories—"The Izzard Book," a quirky riff on the letter Z, and "La Malle Saignante," a bilingual homage to early French silent serial movies. Rough sketches and unfinished panels show an ironic and singular mind at work."

"Gorey has a fine grasp of subtle humor and social satire, veiled in the eccentric phrasing and brilliant illustrations for which he has acquired a devoted following. If one is not already familiar with this ingenious mind, Amphigorey Again is certainly the right vehicle for an introduction.
Only Gorey’s creative and quirky talent could produce the singular images, including rough sketches and unfinished panels, indicative of a mind churning with intellectual curiosity and artistic temperament bordering on delicious dementia. A clever blending of humor and art, Gorey’s work is touched with true genius.
This collection of Edward Gorey’s droll stories and illustrations consist of previously uncollected works and two unpublished stories: “The Izzard Book,” a whimsical take on the letter Z, and “La Malle Saignante,” a bilingual treatment of early French silent serial movies.
In “The Just Dessert (Thoughtful Alphabet XI),” we are treated to a series of curious images and text: “Bewail complications”; “Drivel endlessly”; “Frequent ghastly happenings imply jeopardy”; “Keep laughing mechanically”; Take umbrage”; and “Vilify.” Indeed, such selective use of language fortifies the quirky illustrations with otherworldly delight, a grand adventure of the mind and spirit.
Charming and amusing, Gorey’s approach to art as a view to the world-at-large is an experience to be savored, potentially addictive. Soulful eyes, elongated bodies, strangely formed topiaries, elegant, stylish ladies, mustachioed gentlemen and bizarre beasties, from the cantankerous and irreverent to the sublimely confused… all are delightful.
Amphigorey Again is an invitation to the imagery and whims of a man whose perceptions are skewed by a particular and hilarious genius: an appreciation of the ordinary as extraordinary, a perfect blend of language and art, a joyful romp through the vast chambers of a talent constantly reinventing itself." - Luan Gaines

"A mphigorey Again is the fourth, and possibly last, anthology of works by American author and artist Edward St. John Gorey (1925-2000). Picking up where the previous anthology Amphigorey Also (1983) left off, Amphigorey Again reaches as far back as 1968 with the inclusion of The Other Statue and Categor y in 1974, at the same time encompassing the last of Gorey’s work with The Headless Bust (1999). Even with the 29 works in this volume, there’s still a tidy handful of his books left waiting in the wings. Several popular titles may have been excluded because they were collaborations or movable or cut-apart books, thereby tough to represent in 2D. It may be a while henceforward before we see another like compendium. With that in mind – get it! – be it indispensable or naught.
Two previously unpublished works, The Admonitory Hippopotamus and The Izzard Book, are supposedly unfinished. The other unpublished work, La Malle Saignante is wonderfully conceived and realized; I wonder why it never made it to the bookshelves. But it is The Admonitory Hippopotamus I am especially fond. A compact epic, a touching and vivid portrayal, it is all text. Originally announced in the first Amphigorey back in 1972, I always kept a third eye out for its debut. Though it lacks illustrations, I easily let my mind cast the parts of Angelica and Sneezby with Gorey demoiselles and hippo in the manner of The Nursery Frieze (1964) – and am pleased as punch it’s included.
The newspaper and periodical features are pleasing treasures. Unless one was diligently clipping NY Times Magazine and NY Times Book Review and the like, one would’ve missed most of these. These seasonal limericks and short stories remind me how versatile Gorey was with the English, and occasionally French, languages. His Dogear Wryde postcard series, like Tragédies Topiaries, are strong examples of Gorey’s ability to tell stories in a similarly abbreviated medium, nearly all resemble well-articulated storyboards.
Amphigorey Again can also be called The Colorful Compendium – it has twelve works in full spectrum Gorey palette. Works in color previously appeared only once in the first anthology, twice in the third. The twelve works in this volume vary wildly in range and palette, but I find Gorey’s subdued tints very nicely done, especially in Galoshes and Random Walk.
But what I really like is Gorey’s acres of black & white, pen & ink hatching & cross-hatching – and Gorey went to town in La Malle Saignante. The story could have fallen from a Louis Feuillade notebook, but the artwork is thick with graphic motifs used in earlier works like The West Wing (1963) and The Gilded Bat (1966). The density of hatch & x-hatch, if measured in strokes-per-inch, seems as painful as it is beautiful to regard. One can only hope Gorey enjoyed creating these as much as we enjoy soaking them in. Like so many other Edward Gorey classics, the closer one looks, the more one is drawn in.
“ The hippopotamus peered out at her from
behind the altar.
‘Fly at once!’ he said. ‘All is discovered.’ ” - from The Admonitory Hippopotamus: or, Angelica and Sneezby by Edward Gorey
" - Glen Emil
Edward Gorey, The Glorious Nosebleed (Bloomsbury, 2009)

"For this review on an Edward Gorey book I am going to make up a new term. Hopefully some day it will become famous and as a result I will be the most famous monster in the entire world (instead of being just one of the most famous). Here is the term. You should use this term at least three times today to help me spread it everywhere.
“Extra-Content Content”
I define “extra-content content” as content outside of what is in front of your face (which is the obvious content).
Before we get to the term, what can I say about Edward Gorey? He is one of my heroes. I said that one day before I was aware it was coming out of my mouth, and I know that it’s true. Oftentimes there are a lot of heavy words thrown about when people try to talk about Gorey’s works. One of these words is “Surrealist,” which I think should be modified to “Dadaist” in that Edward Gorey seemed to delight in creating art by rules. Something Gorey once said about his methods ended up being the title of a book about him. Answering a question about a book he had written, he said “I put them in order of ascending peculiarity.” If that isn’t Dada, then I don’t know what is.
The Glorious Nosebleed is one of my favorite works by Edward Gorey. I am also partial to The Curious Sofa, The Hapless Child, The Gilded Bat, and The Loathsome Couple. Unlike Glorious Nosebleed, these four books all follow a roughly narrative form, with a beginning, middle, and end. For example The Gilded Bat follows the trajectory (and eventual end) of a ballerina’s career and life.
Books like The Glorious Nosebleed are not narrative and instead follow a formula. The Glorious Nosebleed is an alphabet book. It is a collection of 26 couplets consisting of a simple sentence and an illustration. Every sentence contains a word that starts with a letter of the alphabet, and the letters progress A, B, C, and so on. As you read the book, each sentence is viewed on the left page of the open book, and each illustration appears on the right.
The real genius of The Glorious Nosebleed lies in the “extra-content content,” which can be found in the language Gorey used and the details of the illustrations. Here are some examples:

For the letter J: “She toyed with her beads Jadedly.” In this couplet, Gorey presents us with a man and a woman. The woman is reclining odalisque-like on a divan. She is wearing a white dress and toying with a long string of pearls around her neck. The man is in what appears to be a gargantuan floor-length smoking jacket. He is carrying what looks like a (presumably roasted) bear’s head on a platter. The teeth of the roast are bared. The woman is looking away, bored. The “extra-content content” is where the magic begins. What is the relationship between the man and the woman? Did he slay the bear himself as a gift to her? Would she really want a roasted bear head? Does she toy with the man the way she toys with her beads?
For the letter Q: “She let go of it Quickly.” A woman in a jaunty outfit perched on a rock wall in a field is dropping what looks like a snake. Again, there is barely any emotion in the face. Again, there is a lot of “extra-content content” in this Gorey couplet. Is that a snake? Did it just bite her? Is she poisoned now? (I like to think it did and she is.) She is the antithesis of Cleopatra. She looks nothing like Cleopatra. Did Edward Gorey think of Cleopatra when he wrote and illustrated this?
By far my favorite is the letter X: “The piece was sung eXcruciatingly.” Here Gorey presents us with three wilting audience members in fancy dress, sitting behind an enormous, wild plant. The ladies are both wearing opera gloves (I love opera gloves!) The lady in front is clasping her hands as if begging. The floor is tessellated in a loud op-art pattern. The “extra-content content”? I don’t know about anybody else, but I can hear the singing just by looking at this scene. It is pure genius.
The last couplet is “He wrote it all down Zealously.” The illustration is of a man who is obviously Edward Gorey himself, with his beard, glasses, and signature enormous fur coat.
Dreamybee, Jackie (Literary Escapism), and Louise all wondered about the title, The Glorious Nosebleed, and if there was some meaning in it.
The front cover of the book shows a miserable woman draped on her back over some large rocks. She is holding a handkerchief to her face to staunch the flow of blood from her nose. Standing next to her are two men looking off into the distance. The title and Edward Gorey’s name are etched into the clouds. The back cover shows a white dog in the same scene from the front cover, presumably after the people have gone. The dog is sniffing the spot where the nosebleed victim was resting her head. I think that the title and cover might be the best way to describe this book: It happens. It is meaningless. There is something essential spilled. Then it ends. Maybe you will never have another one like it." - darkinthedark.com
Hilaire Belloc, Illustrated by Edward Gorey, Cautionary Tales for Children (Harcourt, 2010)

"Edward Gorey's first major posthumous publication is like a newly forged work, with freshness and originality. This is the third publication of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, a collection of seven moral tales, which first appeared in London in 1907. Belloc originally collaborated with Oxford classmate Basil Blackwood for the illustrations, which endured several reprints in the UK and America. Harcourt's reprint of Cautionary Tales for Children contains sixty-one new illustrations (at least new within the last dozen years) enfolding the 95-year old verse, and the result is very satisfying.
Gorey created the illustrations several years ago, but chose not publish them. After his death, Andreas Brown (proprietor of Gotham Book Mart and executor for Gorey's estate) and his staff rediscovered this body of work and began the process of publishing them in their entirety. This particular collaboration postmortem not only adds dimension to Belloc's lessons in propriety, it may nudge Blackwood's illustrations aside to create a new definitive edition (unlike the self-proclaimed definitive edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula by Barnes & Noble in 1996, which recycled illustrations from Gorey's Dracula, A Toy Theatre, to no great effect). After seeing this well-rendered work, I can only imagine the treasures in Gorey's archives yet to be revealed, as time goes by.
Gorey's Victorian style is a delightful fit for Belloc's verse. In fact, those already familiar with Belloc's Cautionary Tales or Cautionary Verses series may very well conclude that they were strong influences for Gorey's The Beastly Baby, The Gashlycrumb Tines, The Epipleptic Bicycle, The Wuggly Ump and others. Certainly, many of the verses in Cautionary Tales feel like they could have been written by Gorey:
"Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion",
"Henry King, Who chewed on bits of String, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies",
"Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death",
"Franklin Hyde, Who caroused in the Dirt, and was corrected by his Uncle",
"Godolphin Horne, Who was cursed with the Sin of Pride, and Became a Boot-Black",
"Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father", and
"Hildebrand, Who was frightened by a Passing Motor, and was brought to Reason".
Their two styles appear similar at first, but Gorey's own stories seem to drift about on the borders of the supernatural. Belloc's children quickly pay the price for their moral defects, as if the gates to purgatory are always nearby; Gorey's kids often seem more innocent, with misfortune meted out by mysterious forces (or wild animals) at work. This is the added dimension, I feel, which the new illustrations bring to Belloc's stories.
In keeping with the style his later works, Gorey's characters do not betray much surprise or dismay upon their faces, but by their mimed, balletic extensions. Instead of his normal vignettes drawn within an outlined frame, Gorey allowed details to travel beyond the illustration frame. It seems to provide a greater connection to the verse. Blackwood's Victorian pen and ink characters were thickly accented, in all their stentorian glory. Gorey's Victorian players live in a stark world: the children naïve, resolute, and devoid of active speech. Many of the illustrations simply set the stage - leading up to the big moment, which is then played out in the imagination. It is Edward Gorey's delightful magic, at work.
Had these tales been destined for the comic stage or theater, Gorey's illustrations would provide an excellent storyboard. And in fact, Gorey's private theatre troupe on The Cape, Lé Théâtricule Stoïque, staged a puppet theatre version by the same name several years ago. I only wish I had the privilege to see it." - Glen Emil
Edward Gorey, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998)

"A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh..." The rhyming couplets of this grim abecedarian are familiar, of course, to devotees of macabre humor, but the darkly crosshatched drawings are (as Poe put it) "the soul of the plot."

"Edward Gorey is an artist whose volumes of drawings amuse, delight and provoke a small coterie of collectors. His distinctive and characteristic style of drawing is joined with a mordant wit and a taste for the outre. There is also enough mystery or obscurity in his stories to challenge the viewer-reader to answer the question "What does he mean?" As is true of most artists, his work is not all of a piece and his style of drawing may vary from book to book, and his writing may move from the relative explicit to the obscure.
Since his first work published in 1953, Gorey has published twenty-nine very small albums each containing about thirty drawings. Some of these works consist only of the drawings, with or without titles. Others have what might, by some stretch of the imagination, be called a story line and others illustrate a limerick or verse. There is, however, a special logic in the text and the reader should not expect a natural progression of meaning in viewing the drawings.
Gorey's world is inhabited by characters out of Bronte, Wodehouse or a three volume Gothic novel. Upper class men are clothed in the Edwardian styles of peg top trouser, striped blazers, boaters, ankle length furred collared coats and knee length scarves, while the females, depending on age, appear in middie blouses or floor length skirts, shirt waist with puffed sleeves, feather boas, vast picture hats and parasols. His servants know their places below stairs and the lines between all classes are clearly defined.
Gorey's work expresses words more than ideas and a feeling of menace is rarely absent. We have an expectation of unspeakable horror which is never realized. In The West Wing most of the drawings are of empty or nearly empty rooms, dark, paneled and ominous. The settings create a mood of uneasiness but violence, even when it occurs, is usually offstage.
In The Doubtful Guest a Victorian household is invaded by a penguin-like creature in tennis shoes. The family, unable to cope with this inexplicable problem, suffers its presence and it remains a burden to all and an enigma to the end. This note of irresolution or persistence of discomfit occurs in several tales. A similar invasion of a strange being occurs in The Sinking Spell but there the apparition eventually departs.
The Hapless Child might well be the daydream of an unhappy child who uses her own death to act out revenge on her parents. A bland, vapid, innocent child is punished wrongly by her teachers, her doll is torn apart by other children, she weeps alone in bed, is kidnapped by a "low" man and when finally cast adrift, with fading eyesight, is run over and killed by her own father who does not recognize her. This defeat of the innocent recurs in Gorey's work; virtue or good never triumph and disaster is as unpredictable as an earthquake.
Not all Gorey's work is solemn. The Curious Sofa is a jolly salacious work full of invention and humor. The Gilded Bat is an expression of Gorey's interest in ballet, and The Utter Zoo and The Fatal Lozenge are alphabet books for grown-up children.
In content the Gorey landscape is full of balustrades, giant urns, statues and bleak prospects. His interiors are built rather than drawn with great detail of moulding, cornice, cupboard and doors. His wallpaper is involved and dark, curtains are fringed, roped and knotted, furniture massive. All of his characters but one have empty vacant faces; the exception is a tall bearded male, often seen in a quilted robe or driving duster who dominates those about him. His characters bear suggestive names: Mrs. Umlaut, Miss Skrimpshaw, Maudie Splaytoe, Miss Underfold, Luke Touchpaper. They live in places like West Elbow, Penetralia or Hiccupboro.
Gorey's puckish humor extends to the pseudonyms he used in some of his works. Ogdred Weary and (Mrs.) Regera Dowdy are two of his nom de plumes, being anagrams of his own name.
In addition to the twenty-nine albums in which Gorey has supplied both drawings and text (when there is a text), he has also illustrated a great number of other books, mostly children's books along with a few adult classics. In the main he carefully considers his oeuvre the books in which he is the sole artist. All of the work he does for others, he accepts reluctantly, as the price an artist pays to be able to do the few things which represent his own art. His very distinctive style makes him a natural for children's books, but he also draws book jackets, covers, and other types of commercial illustrating.
With one important exception, nothing has been written about Gorey's work. In 1959 Edmund Wilson wrote a short but perceptive review of Gorey's first four books for The New Yorker. In this he likens Gorey's work to that of Ronald Searle and Max Ernst; he also equates him with Beardsley and Beerbohm, high praise indeed. Wilson takes some pains to describe the story line of these works and notes the persistence of the unresolved conflicts which Gorey creates. Of Gorey's verse he has some mild reservations, but of the drawings he is unreserved -- "he is really becoming a master."
Gorey was born in Chicago, and graduated from Harvard in the class of 1950, having majored in French. Like many natural born artists, he has drawn all his life and his earliest work is found in school publications. For a very brief period he was employed in the art department of a publishing house, but he quickly returned to the life of the freelance artist. His studio in mid-town Manhattan within walking distance of his many clients, is shared with three cats and thousands of books. He is a music and ballet enthusiast and an avid reader of murder, both fictional and true.
Because Gorey's audience will always be small (most of his books have been limited to a few hundred copies) there is the danger that this limitation can be self-imposed. His early works are already relatively scarce, and there is the temptation to cater to the expensive limited edition which his growing body of collectors might support. So far this has not happened, and the scarcity of even his more recent albums, despite the smallness of his coterie, may be due to the difficulty of classifying his work which makes distribution difficult. A number of his albums are published under his own imprint, The Fantod Press, due no doubt to this very problem of how his work is to be categorized. In addition about a dozen regular publishers have handled his work and this dispersal does not help to keep his work in print.
Like many an artist, Gorey is concerned with the direction of his future work. His highly original and striking style and the imaginative settings and characters with which he has peopled them are a high mark to transcend or even to equal. He is anxious not to repeat himself. An admirer of Saul Steinberg, whose inventiveness seems to know no bounds, he has tried many different techniques, reflecting both the mood, subject and style of his current work.
A few of his own drawings, as cartoons, have appeared in The New York Times. It is a field in which he could display his considerable talents, his sense of the macabre, the question of identity and the air of aimless chance are all in tune with the times. We may see more of his work in a wider medium." - Thomas M. McDade

"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 book#s 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." - Amy Benfer