Dashing Expectations: On Malcolm Whyte’s “Gorey Secrets” and Nathalie Tierce’s “Pulling Weeds from a Cactus Garden”

Jessica McCort reviews Malcolm Whyte’s “Gorey Secrets: Artistic and Literary Inspirations Behind Divers Books by Edward Gorey” and Nathalie Tierce’s “Pulling Weeds from a Cactus Garden.”

Dashing Expectations: On Malcolm Whyte’s “Gorey Secrets” and Nathalie Tierce’s “Pulling Weeds from a Cactus Garden”

Gorey Secrets: Artistic and Literary Inspirations Behind Divers Books by Edward Gorey by Malcolm Whyte. University Press of Mississippi. 176 pages.Pulling Weeds from a Cactus Garden: Life is full of pricks by Nathalie Tierce. Indigo Raven Publishing. 52 pages.

AS SOMEONE WHO spends a great deal of time studying allusions to and adaptations of children’s books in literature written for adults, I’ve ferreted out Sylvia Plath’s allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and excavated the skeletons of Grimms’ and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales from Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and prose. This kind of work is like a hidden-object game in which the literary critic looks for the inspirations, often buried in plain sight, that give life and structure to a new work.


Sometimes writers are forthcoming about their influences. Edward Gorey, for instance, once noted to his friend Clifford Ross that inspiration comes from everywhere: “Be open to everything. Never close your mind because you never know where your next idea may come from. You just never know.” Sometimes, artists themselves find it hard to explain the inspiration for a work until it has come to fruition. As Nathalie Tierce notes in her 2019 essay “Reverse Engineering a Myth,” “People often ask me where the ideas for my paintings and drawings come from. While I have a general idea of things that interest me, the specific way it appears is a series of surprises for me.” It’s an interesting experiment to consider the importance of artistic and literary inspiration in the work of Gorey and Tierce, two artist-writers who delight in toying with — and dashing — the expectations readers bring to a work based on their awareness of prior texts.


Let’s begin with Edward Gorey. The thing that interests me most about his work when considered through this lens is how singular it seems while still referencing a vast array of prior texts: paintings and prints, fairy tales and nursery rhymes, ballet sets, Victorian pornographic books — the list goes on and on. Just one glance at any of Gorey’s works and you immediately know it’s a Gorey, yet his work is famously steeped in a concentrated brew of artistic and literary history. In his 2021 book Gorey Secrets: Artistic and Literary Inspirations Behind Divers Books by Edward Gorey, Malcolm Whyte examines Gorey’s oeuvre through the prism of his influences. Each chapter places a different text under the microscope as Whyte wends his way through Gorey’s allusive world, considering the origins of characters like the “Pious Infant” or the froth on the white-capped waves in The Dong with a Luminous Nose (1986).


The joy of Whyte’s book lies in what the author describes as the “surprises, mounting wonder, and fun generated by rigorously researching [Gorey’s] books for their likely sources of inspiration and hidden roots.” Above all, Whyte highlights the eclecticism of Gorey’s interests and obsessions — his openness to everything as a possible subject. The most well-known of those obsessions are carefully recorded: Agatha Christie, New England primers, Edward Lear, abecedarians, the New York City Ballet. But there are more obscure inspirations as well, including Gardner McKay and his lions or the symbolic nature of grapes in The Curious Sofa (1961). Some entries do leave you wanting more (such as that for Gorey’s 1984 book, The Tunnel Calamity); however, that seems to be part of the nature of Whyte’s approach. As he notes, his book is meant to serve as an “introduction” to Gorey’s inspirations, not an exhaustive encyclopedia.


I would argue that anyone familiar with Nathalie Tierce’s work would also automatically know a Tierce when they see one. Like her first book of “surreal fairy tales for grown ups,” Fairy Tale Remnants (2019), her latest volume, Pulling Weeds from a Cactus Garden, dredges up material from society’s subconscious, drawing to the surface characters and symbols that readers will immediately recognize. In doing so, Tierce participates in the Goreyesque tradition of destroying readers’ expectations for the work they have picked up — in this case, the picture book.


At first glance, Tierce’s new book looks rather unassuming, cloaked in a deep green cover with picture-frame insets of two images that hearken back to the classics of Lewis Carroll. A closer look at these images, however, should immediately unsettle the reader, much like the cover of Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) would have done for those familiar with abecedarians. On Tierce’s front cover, a girl resembling Carroll’s Alice glances fearfully back over her shoulder at an angry red mouth closing in fast. The girl seems to be in the act of running, and she has a red substance on her hand, the hem of her skirt, and her iconic blonde hair. The image could portray Alice running from the Queen of Hearts after supposedly getting caught red-handed. But the substance also looks an awful lot like blood. This feeling of unrest and questioning grows as you flip to the book’s back cover, which features the image of a white rabbit, gaunt and wild-eyed, with teeth that bear a greater resemblance to Dracula’s (and maybe Bunnicula’s?) than to Carroll’s fitful but ultimately harmless hare.


At one level, Tierce’s book feels like a bit of a trick. From the full title on the inside cover (Pulling Weeds from a Cactus Garden: Life is full of pricks) to the creepy, disorienting, but nonetheless humorous artwork adorning the pages, the book clearly means to upend our understanding of the purposes of — and audience for — a “children’s” book. The basics of a typical picture book remain intact: colorful illustrations, pithy prose, quick pacing, exclamation points! But the winding, fairly plotless narrative and its accompanying imagery offer up a blend of characters and symbols drawn from horror, comic books, myths, fables, movies, modern art, and more — which all seek, to borrow from the author’s introduction, to “examine disturbing, deeper currents running through our society in the U.S. that we were otherwise too distracted to scrutinize.”


Like Gorey’s books, which use threads from prior children’s texts to examine morbidity, rank conservatism, or the unwieldy power of adults, Tierce’s picture book forces the reader to consider the very real fact that making one’s way through some classic children’s books is like running a gauntlet. In other words, a lot of the things that appear in children’s books are quite terrifying if seen in their true light. Like other writers before her, including Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and Angela Carter, Tierce deploys symbols and characters from children’s literature that readers will immediately recognize, while at the same time she gives them a new, more complex aspect, using their diverse connotations to illuminate what Tierce describes as the “turbulence, fear, and confusion we were experiencing and trying to wade our way through” during the COVID-19 lockdown.


At the start of Gorey Secrets, Whyte notes that he set himself three goals when writing the book: to “convey the fun and excitement in searching for Gorey’s influences; contribute fresh insights into his works to Gorey devotees; and introduce to new Gorey readers the infinite pleasure that his books deliver.” If you are a person who deeply appreciates the revisionary nature of texts, you will love learning about the secret tendrils that run throughout Gorey’s oeuvre, connecting seemingly disparate texts in the most interesting of ways. I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s quick journey through Goreyana, and Whyte is an efficient tour guide who keeps things moving. While reading, I found myself, again and again, searching out the Gorey books in my possession so that I could look at them through the new lens Whyte provides.


In the same vein, readers of Pulling Weeds from a Cactus Garden will also likely find deep enjoyment in parsing out and piecing together Tierce’s complex fairy-tale allusions, such as her Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and deranged-looking riff on the Cheshire Cat. As with Whyte’s treatment of Gorey, the reader will find joy in the way Tierce reveals the “series of surprises” submerged in her book’s pages. Readers might also find a few references to Gorey himself. After all, as Tierce muses in her essay on inspiration and meaning quoted above, “Graphic novels by Edward Gorey and Alice in Wonderland were heaven to me.” Just prepare to have your memories of those texts broken up and rearranged. In my view, that’s more than half the fun.


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Jessica McCort is an associate professor in the Literature, Culture, and Society Department at Point Park University. McCort’s scholarship focuses largely on the appropriation of children’s literature, particularly European fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, by American women writers.

LARB Contributor

Jessica McCort is an associate professor in the Literature, Culture, and Society Department at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. McCort’s scholarship focuses largely on the appropriation of children’s literature, particularly European fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, by American women writers. She is the editor of a compilation of essays on the intersection of the horror genre and children’s and young adult literature, entitled Reading in the Dark: Horror in Children’s Literature and Culture (2016).

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