The Gorey Details

By Jillian SteinhauerOctober 31, 2012

The Gorey Details

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I had an unusual obsession. While most of my favorite TV shows and programming blocks were the same as everyone else’s in my peer group — Animaniacs, Saturday morning cartoons, Nickelodeon’s What Would You Do? — I also watched the PBS show Mystery! with a fervent dedication, particularly Agatha Christie’s Poirot, in which British actor David Suchet plays the incredibly polite and incredibly smart Belgian detective. The show was mesmerizing for a number of reasons: its intriguing mysteries, which, hard as I tried, I could never solve; its bewitching Britishness; and the attendant propriety that came with that culture. Even though Poirot was nearly always solving the grimmest of crimes, both the show and its hero approached them with the utmost tidiness and nothing nearly so obvious as surprise. This was murder with high tea and a pair of leather gloves on.

The other memorable aspect of Mystery! was the animated opening sequence, a string of brief, inexplicable, mostly black-and-white scenes: a thin man pushing a wheelchair; a group of well-dressed people drinking tea outdoors; a woman with her ankles tied together wailing atop a stone wall; a pair of legs sinking in a bog. I didn’t know at the time that this sequence was based on drawings by Edward Gorey, an artist, illustrator, and writer whose work was in fact a perfect complement to Poirot: Gorey’s matter-of-fact approach to death and disaster — which is in evidence as early as his second book and remains throughout his entire career — mirrors the calm with which Poirot solved his cases.


Consider Gorey’s second book, The Listing Attic, which came out in 1954. Small, thin, and nearly square, like all of Gorey’s original output, The Listing Attic could be mistaken for a children’s book. It’s comprised of limericks and accompanying illustrations, also apparently an innocuous form, if you didn’t know better. But from the second poem, which tells of a woman who throws her two-year-old child at the ceiling, you begin to know better. And then comes the third entry, for which nothing quite prepares you:

They had come in the fugue to the stretto
When a dark, bearded man from a ghetto
            Slipped forward and grabbed
            Her tresses and stabbed
Her to death with a rusty stiletto.

Above the poem is an intricate and heavily crosshatched black-and-white drawing showing the moment just before the stabbing. Despite the initial shock of the words, the scene looks fairly mundane. The woman appears resigned to her fate: rather than wave her arms or struggle, she grabs the bottom of her chair, throws back her head, and opens her mouth as if at the dentist’s. Well-dressed men with mustaches look on with bemused curiosity, while the musicians onstage continue to play their fugue. The scene is simultaneously bloody, bizarre, and banal: a combination that is the essence of Gorey.


Edward Gorey was born in 1925 in Chicago to middle-class parents who divorced when he was 11 (and remarried 16 years later — a curiosity that may have influenced his embrace of the unexpected). By all accounts, he was, like Poirot, incredibly smart: “a child prodigy, drawing pictures at the age of two and reading self-taught at the age of three,” according to the exhibition text written by architect and attorney Andrew Alpern, whose massive trove of Gorey art and paraphernalia was the subject of a show this past summer, Gorey Preserved, at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Gorey skipped two grades and then spent a semester at the Art Institute of Chicago before being drafted into the army. In 1946, at the age of 21, he went on to Harvard, where he had been accepted before the war began. There he majored in French and befriended a group of future literary superstars, including the poets Frank O’Hara (Gorey’s roommate), John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Donald Hall, and the future Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Alison Lurie.

After college, Gorey moved to New York and found work in the art department at Doubleday designing jackets for republished, formerly out-of-print books. He moved through a handful of book-publishing jobs over the next 10 years, but in 1963 went freelance, continuing to design covers, illustrating other writers’ books, and creating and publishing his own. He also became a devotee of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet — he was legendary for attending almost every performance between 1953 and 1983 — and designed posters, T-shirts and other objects for the organization. (Same for the Metropolitan Opera, which, according to Alpern, commissioned Gorey after seeing what he had done for the ballet.) As if all that wasn’t enough, Gorey created the set and costumes for a 1977 Broadway production of Dracula (he won a Tony for Best Costumes), staged productions of his own plays in his later years, and pursued an interest in printmaking.

To call Gorey prolific would be an understatement: in total, he wrote and drew more than 100 of his own books. He was also something of a recluse — or perhaps the better word is “loner”: never quite a shut-in but not much for parties, either. After Balanchine died, in 1983, Gorey moved out of New York to a historic house on Cape Cod. When New Yorker writer Stephen Schiff visited him there for a 1992 profile, Gorey was sharing the sprawling yet cluttered space with seven cats and a large assortment of antique furniture, books, videotapes, CDs, and finials, as well as an old toilet and a vine growing through one of the walls that Gorey couldn’t be bothered to cut away.

According to Schiff, Gorey left the United States only once in his life. He was, however, a cultural omnivore and an armchair cosmopolitan; both his writing and his art display a wide range of influences and references, from nineteenth-century Japanese art and literature, to the French Surrealists, to the fathers of literary nonsense: Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The settings of and characters in his stories look alternately Edwardian and Victorian, with the occasional 1920s style thrown in. Discussing his art in the book The World of Edward Gorey, curator and critic Karen Wilkin pinpoints Gorey’s “ability to synthesize a believable world from an unlikely assortment of sources.” And yet, she writes, “The result is not pastiche, but unmistakably ‘Gorey.’”


So what exactly is this thing called “Gorey,” and why has he/it remained so popular, inspiring other artists and spawning a devoted subcultural following? To many, I suspect that “Gorey,” if it means anything at all, is shorthand for a kind of know-it-when-you-see-it, macabre humor often rendered in simple verse and intensely crosshatched black-and-white drawings. This may be a starting point, but it also falls short. It fails to convey the experience, the peculiar feeling of exasperated joy that comes from reading his books.

The books are really the best way to get to the heart of Gorey — small, album-shaped volumes with such excellent titles as The Curious Sofa, The Inanimate Tragedy, The Epileptic Bicycle, The Glorious Nosebleed, Dancing Cats and Neglected Murderesses, and The Haunted Tea-Cosy. Most are easily found in the four-volume Amphigorey compilation series; however, the Amphigorey books are double the original height with two spreads stacked per page, thereby eroding plot surprises as well as the perverse pleasure of paging through a mini-book sized for kids but full of, well, gruesome death and odd disappearances.

Fortunately, four small-format titles are being published this fall (I recommend reading them on the subway for an added bit of self-satisfaction): from Bloomsbury, Saint Melissa the Mottled, a story that Gorey wrote but never illustrated, now outfitted with other images from his oeuvre; and A Halloween Treat and Edward Gorey’s Ghosts, a double feature that includes a story Gorey created for a consumer magazine alongside a collection of his ghost drawings. And, from Pomegranate, reissues of 1970’s The Osbick Bird (also collected in Amphigorey Too) and Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert & The Deadly Blotter, two 26-word stories that begin with a word starting with “A” and end with one starting with “Z,” both long of out of print until now.

None of these are among Gorey’s best work, but all contain elements that exemplify his brilliance. Take Saint Melissa the Mottled, for instance. In an interview with Clifford Ross for the aforementioned The World of Edward Gorey, Gorey explains that he had to complete a text before he could begin drawing pictures for it. When he died in 2000 of a heart attack — he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and diabetes six years prior — he left behind the story of Saint Melissa the Mottled, a mysterious figure whose “supernatural triflings, of which seventy three were at last authenticated for her canonization, were without exception, of ruinous order.” Critics often focus on Gorey’s art, but Saint Melissa reminds us how masterful he was with words. Gorey had a wide-ranging vocabulary and an incredible grasp of tone. He wrote sparingly and carefully. Especially in Saint Melissa, his word choices and sentence structure feel deliberately old-fashioned, as if to match the antiquated historical references and styles of his art.

The substance of Saint Melissa, like all of Gorey’s stories, is singularly bizarre. For instance, among the “worldly arts” in which the saint has been educated are “the mounting and acting of seemly charades; the bringing on of migraine; the construction of watery poetry; the subtleties of admiration of whisker and moustache; […] modes of address and the bending of cards; […] the refinements of lust[.]” I’m not sure who else could dream up that list.

Part of Gorey’s genius stems from his ability to convey deeply strange things in the most matter-of-fact way. In his stories there is a seemingly universal lack of logic, and yet everything is conveyed as if it were completely logical — by, I should add, a disinterested narrator to whom it’s all so unremarkable as to be almost quaint. Thus we are told that Melissa answers an ad to nanny two girls whose “own governess [was] incapacitated by retinal hemorrhages resulting from overly zealous peering in galleries and churches” — because of course, in Gorey’s world, retinal hemorrhages brought on by overzealous peering must be quite commonplace, a frequent topic of discussion at dinner parties. (The apotheosis of Gorey’s illogical logic is his 1958 book The Object-Lesson, in which every action and event comes about as a result of the previous one, yet has no discernible connection to it. “On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella, disengaged itself from the shrubbery, causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood,” Gorey writes. I nominate this as one of the best lines in all of American literature.)

Illustration © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved. Courtesy Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

But it’s true, of course, that a Gorey story would not be Gorey without his art. Gorey’s work reads more chillingly than it looks, because he never actually shows blood or violence. Just as he leaves mystifying holes of logic in his stories, he also leaves a space between the art and text for the reader’s imagination to fill; many of the most interesting — as well as dark or unfathomable — moments occur there. The first of the Thoughtful Alphabets, The Just Dessert, exists almost entirely in this gap. Largely due to its form, the written story is vague and almost theoretical: it lacks subjects and is basically a series of commands, moving from “Frequent ghastly happenings imply jeopardy” to “Keep laughing mechanically” without ceremony. At the same time, the art shows a group of three well-dressed people talking, arguing, and making up, all in the company of a dog and a statue. They shift arbitrarily between indoors and outdoors, and somehow their statue moves with them (George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comes to mind). They have eyes so big and round as to look almost possessed, and their actions seem to correspond to the text, but only very loosely; the drawings “are not so much illustrations of his stories as parallel accompaniments,” to use Wilkin’s apt expression.

This relationship isn’t limited to the Thoughtful Alphabets, though it may be more pronounced in them. Gorey was toying with it as early as his first book, The Unstrung Harp, where at one point we see the protagonist standing over a manuscript and holding a glass of milk and a sandwich. “The jelly in his sandwich is about to get all over his fingers,” the narrator says. We smile and envision the chunks of purple jam oozing out from between the slices. This imaginative space is one of the defining characteristics of Gorey’s work, as he himself was well aware. “I’m beginning to feel that if you create something you’re killing a lot of other things,” he says in that New Yorker interview:

And the way I write, since I do leave out most of the connections, and very little is pinned down, I feel that I’m doing a minimum of damage to other possibilities that might arise in a reader’s mind.

Gorey had other favorite tricks and techniques that recur throughout his work. He had a tendency to crosshatch his black-and-white drawings to a mind-numbing degree; the incessant marks and lines cause the art to pulsate. (He did occasionally use color, and those books feel simpler and lighter.) He was also inordinately fond of patterns, and many of his stories take place in elaborately wallpapered and carpet-laden rooms, while his characters often dress in checkered pants and striped shirts. The result is a frenetically overdesigned world in which figuration and pattern — subject and background — are treated as aesthetic equals.

Edward Gorey’s Ghosts, the B-side to A Halloween Treat, contains a few beautiful examples of this effect at work. In one drawing, a ghost stands in a living room before a man seated in an armchair; other smaller, cloud-like ghosts fly around. Because of the extreme crosshatching, the figures blend into the room almost entirely; they become pure interior design elements, a home décor ghost and man that come with the furnishings.

Illustration © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved. Courtesy Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

The Osbick Bird, meanwhile, is a simpler book in both its writing and art: with pictures set against clean, white backgrounds, it tells the story of a bird that arrives one day to live with a man named Emblus Fingby. The two become best friends, playing music and cards together, drinking tea and going on excursions, even getting into fights. Eventually Emblus dies and the bird perches on his gravestone — but only for a few months, until it gives up and flies away. By Gorey standards, this is nothing; contrast it, for example, with the plot of The Hapless Child, in which a young girl is orphaned and ends up on the streets, where she is struck and killed by a passing carriage containing her long-lost father, who was previously believed to be dead and who doesn’t even recognize her (all in 30 pages!).

But, slight as it is, The Osbick Bird captures Gorey’s attitude toward life (which, naturally, includes death as well). Emblus Fingby dies and the bird is sad, but after spending a little time mourning, it moves on. For Gorey, life simply happens and continues happening despite whatever arises along the way. Nothing is predictable, but nothing is exactly a surprise, either; the only thing you can expect is that things you don’t expect will happen. “I do think we’re all really in a sense living on the edge,” Gorey told Schiff in 1992:

So much of life is inexplicable. Inexplicable things happen to me, things that are so inexplicable that I’m not even sure that something happened. And you suddenly think, Well, if that could happen, anything could happen. One moment, something is there, and then, the next, it is not there. […] The things that happen to you are usually the things that you haven’t thought of or that come absolutely out of nowhere. And all you can do is cope with them when they turn up.

This theory of life strikes me as immensely profound. It’s just that most of us have trouble sticking to it. We’re constantly surprised when unexpected (often bad) things happen in life — as they inevitably do — and so we’re shocked when they happen in Gorey’s books. We label him “macabre” and “grotesque” for killing off children (that is the entire premise of the glorious Gashlycrumb Tinies). But there may be something redemptive in accepting the terrible as inevitable, and in being able to dream it up so fantastically that, in the end, the shocks of real life don’t look so bad by comparison.


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Jillian Steinhauer is senior editor of the art blogazine Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Awl, and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other places. For smaller doses, you can also find her Twitter.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!