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Edward Gorey--A Posthum(er)ous Appreciation

By Denise Dumars     April 21, 2000

Edward Gorey, best known for his macabre humor and his finely crafted line drawings, died Saturday, April 15 near his Cape Cod home. No doubt he would have appreciated dying on Tax Day, taxes being the only other certainty in life.
Gorey's appeal was something horror and mystery fans understood well; this is why he was tapped to do the introductory graphics for the PBS series MYSTERY. Gorey won a Tony award for best costume and set design for the 1978 Broadway presentation of DRACULA. He was embraced by the New York literary scene and compared to Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm, but horror fans liken him more to Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson.
Los Angeles writer and former kindergarten teacher Anne Marple has been collecting Gorey's works for almost forty years. She explains his quirky appeal. 'The first Gorey book I ever saw was in a bin at the old Pickwick bookstore in Hollywood in 1963. It was called THE RECENTLY DEFLOWERED GIRL: The Right Thing to Say on Every Dubious Occasion. It was illustrated by Edward Gorey and the author's name was Hyancinthe Phyppe. It was wonderful! I'm almost certain he wrote it as well; he used many hilarious pseudonyms over the years.'
Gorey's pseudonyms include Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Om, Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde and many others. He was adept at pulling the wool over people's eyes while having tongue firmly in cheek. He was described as having an 'obsession with the boater-hatted past,' and his drawings so convincingly portray the English Victorians that libraries routinely shelve his books with the British literature. Nevertheless, Gorey was born and raised in Chicago, and lived in New York and Massachusetts for most of his adult life.
'When I began teaching kindergarten,' Marple continues. 'I was shocked to see Gorey's version of Little Red Riding Hood on the kindergarten shelves. It's much darker than the fairy tale version, and the kids loved it!' Gorey was sometimes taken aback by his following among children; he felt that his tales had adult themes. Nevertheless, young people respond well to his Gothic sense of humor and complex drawings.
Gorey considered himself a writer first and an artist second. In an interview with CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS, Gorey stated that he always did the writing for his books before even beginning the drawings. Gorey was also an exacting illustrator. 'He was so meticulous that if he made one mistake in a drawing--which in ink drawing is so easy to do--he would tear it up and start over,' Marple reports.
'I also love the way he plays with words,' she says. 'He comes up with the most incongruous things; titles such as 'The Toast-Rack Enigma.' Of course, not everybody gets his humor,' she admits. 'My rather conservative brother doesn't get him at all!'
Gorey wrote and illustrated over 90 of his own books and illustrated over 60 more. In his interview with CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS, he stated rather petulantly, 'Unfortunately, the things that I've been most successful with have been other people's, like DRACULA and T. S. Eliot's OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS, neither one of which I am any great admirer of.' Gorey's tongue-in-cheek approach to most things makes one wonder if he meant that seriously or was just trying to shock his interviewer.
Gorey is best known for THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES, an alphabet book in which one child for each of the 26 letters comes to a terrible end. His stories are similarly populated with dead babies, gruesome and ridiculous murders, bats, the devil, and cats both sweet and sinister, all within a patina of Victorian domesticity and reserve. Gorey loved cats, the ballet, opera, and 19th-century engravings. A ballet is being composed around his tale, THE GILDED BAT.
Gorey wrote many, many books, and his shorter illustrated tales are collected in AMPHIGOREY and AMPHIGOREY II. The one Gorey book that Marple would recommend across the board is THE UNSTRUNG HARP: Or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel. 'Every would-be novelist needs to read this book,' she says. 'I used to keep a stack of them and give them out to my writer friends.' In THE UNSTRUNG HARP, Mr. Earbrass starts a new novel every November 18th, and the story explores his frenetic bursts of energy in working on his writing, as well as his collapsing into bouts of depression and frustration over it. In true Gorey fashion, Mr. Earbrass lives in an estate called 'Hobbies Odd' near the town of Collapsed Pudding, Mortshire.
Gorey's art is very, very collectible. 'I had a chance to buy some signed prints a few years ago,' says Marple. 'But at the time I thought they were too expensive. Now they'd be priceless.'
Whether Gorey is appreciated for his very dark sense of humor, his meticulous drawings, or his commentary on the foibles of society, one thing is clear: he will go down in the history of popular culture as one of the 20th century's most original and distinctive literary and artistic voices.

Sources:
CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS: New Revision Series, Vol. 30, pp. 163-166.
MAJOR AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS, pp. 973-978.
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