Edward Gorey’s gothic tales from the vault
Twelve years after his death on tax day 2000, Edward Gorey — writer, illustrator, Victorian aesthete born half a century too late — has earned an adjective all his own: “Goreyesque.”
The word is used, increasingly, to refer to anything that manages to be amusingly lugubrious, in an arch sort of way. In recent years, Gorey’s eccentric shadow has only lengthened across pop culture, his influence apparent in Tim Burton’s gothic whimsies; the Lemony Snicket books by Daniel Handler; the emergence of the Gorey tattoo as a hipster fad; crowds thronging to the traveling exhibition of his work, “Elegant Enigmas”; and the resurrection of out-of-print Gorey tales
Three Gorey titles have just landed on bookstore shelves. From Pomegranate Press comes “Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert & the Deadly Blotter” (64 pp., $14.95), previously published only in obscure, limited editions, and “The Osbick Bird” (32 pp., $12.95), a Gorey classic unavailable for four decades, except in poor quality in “Gorey’s Amphigorey Too” anthology, but now restored to a clarity so sharp-nibbed it almost hurts the eye.
Bloomsbury is also in on the act with “Saint Melissa the Mottled” (48 pp., $12), an unpublished story that Gorey never got around to illustrating, supplemented here with images from the Gorey archive, some never before published.
Although it was his sets for the 1977 Broadway play “Dracula” and the animated introduction to the public-television series “Mystery!” that put him on the pop map, Gorey was really a maker of miniatures. He did his best work in his hundred-odd little picture books, nearly all of which consisted of whimsically perverse send-ups of Victorian primers, cautionary tales and “penny-dreadful” true-crime gazettes, often told in deader-than-deadpan verse. “Victorian novels all scrunched up,” he called them.
Gorey drew his illustrations in pen and ink, at the size they were reproduced (4 by 5 inches, usually), his fastidious crosshatching and stippling verging on the obsessive.
In his letters to Peter Neumeyer, a university professor with whom he collaborated on three children’s books, Gorey offered a mini-manifesto, “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art.” Gorey being Gorey, his artistic credo could fit on the head of a pin. Simply put, it’s “the theory ... that anything that is art ... is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”
Gorey believed devoutly in the mutability and the inscrutability of things, and in the deceptiveness of appearances. He was convinced that what isn’t said speaks more eloquently than what is.
“Explaining something makes it go away, so to speak,” he told an interviewer. “Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable.” Which is why Henry James drove him up a wall: “The longer he goes on, the more he explains, until there is nothing left.”
The three titles just published are presumably about some certain thing but are really always about something else. Consider “The Osbick Bird”: It’s a sweetly melancholy surrealist fable about Edwardian eccentric Emblus Fingby’s odd (but fond) friendship with the even odder bird of the title. Gorey, an only child and lifelong solitary, was famously an odd bird himself — tall, long-legged and gawky like the bird in the book, with the luxurious beard of a Victorian literatus and a sense of style that ran to fur coats and tennis shoes.
Inevitably described as “flamboyant,” he was often suspected of being a closeted gay, but when pointedly asked if he was, replied, “I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly.”
It’s hard not to read the story as a daydream, at once wistful and resigned, about What Might Have Been, had he had a partner. Then again, this is a man who believed "[w]hat is, is, and what might have been could never have existed.” Fingby dies, “the bird alone/ was left to sit upon his stone/ but after several months, one day/ it changed its mind and flew away.” Actress Julie Harris, a friend of Gorey’s, read “The Osbick Bird” at his memorial service in 2000.
Each of the two stories that make up “Thoughtful Alphabets” is just 26 words long, each word beginning with the successive letter in the alphabet. “The Deadly Blotter” is absurdist Agatha Christie (Gorey read and reread Christie devotedly), a mystery in which “extenuation yields zero.” “The Just Dessert” is a series of angst-stricken scenes about nothing, exactly, illustrated in a naive style reminiscent of the woodcuts in colonial primers; captions such as “Frequent Ghastly Happenings Imply Jeopardy/ Keep Laughing Mechanically” sound like lines from a Puritan sermon based on “Waiting for Godot.”
“Saint Melissa the Mottled” is a kind of gothic hagiography about a nefarious nun noted for Miracles of Destruction rather than good works. Given to dark designs involving blowgun darts and library paste, Melissa graduates to “supernatural triflings” such as the withering of the “cricket-mad” Duke of Dimgreen’s arm and a sea gull attack on two young girls, who are saved from a Hitchcockian fate by none other than Melissa — an act of orchestrated heroism that earns her the post of governess in the Dimgreen household, Wormwarp Hall. In death, she becomes the patron saint of ruinous randomness.
Gorey was born into an Irish Catholic family, briefly attended Catholic school and had an aunt who was a nun. He lost his religion early on and was, for the rest of his life, an agnostic, a fatalist, an existentialist sympathist and more often than not a Taoist, depending on what mood you caught him in. A subtle anti-clerical strain runs through his work: cocaine-addled curates beat children to death, nuns are possessed by demons, unfortunate things happen to vicars.
In that light, “Melissa” looks like a tongue-in-cheek meditation on the absurdity of any religion that insists that events, no matter how seemingly pointless or painful, are part of God’s plan. It’s tempting to read Melissa’s “piebald skin” (hence her nickname) as a metaphor for Gorey’s Taoist-absurdist view of life as always one thing and simultaneously another, defying binaries.
“Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time,” Gorey once observed. “At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.”
It’s the “screaming monotony” of Melissa’s everyday life at Wormwood Hall that drives her to her “machinations, temptations” and Dadaist wonderworks.
Pray for Miracles of Destruction.
Dery, a cultural critic and author, is writing a biography of Edward Gorey for Little, Brown.
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