Friday, September 21, 2012

The Skinny: Ghastly Gorey

As Halloween approaches, we like to brush the dust off of some of our darker influences. This week, the focus is on Edward Gorey, an iconic twentieth century writer and illustrator of some wickedly dark tales.

Gorey cover art for A Clutch of Vampires

Although most people assumed that Gorey was English, and of the 19th century (due to his reputation for black and white Victorian-inspired art), he was actually born in Chicago in 1925. He studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago, spent a little time in the army in the 1940s, and then majored in French at Harvard. He moved to New York to work in the art department at Doubleday Anchor, and began writing and illustrating his own stories. His first book, The Unstrung Harp, came out in 1953.

This was the start of a prolific career that yielded over 100 titles before his death of a heart attack in 2000. Gorey also worked on theatre productions, most notably a 1977 Dracula set, and illustrated dozens of books for other authors. He was best known for his "ghoulish" side, but he also illustrated an edition of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (the basis for a certain Broadway show about cats), as well as putting his spin on Brer Rabbit.

He often used pseudonyms, which were usually various combinations of the letters of his name. My favorite is Ogden Weary, of The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work. It manages to be both risque and vague at the same time:

Oh, Alice!

In the early 1980s, Gorey's aesthetic was made famous by Derek Lamb in the opening credits of Mystery!, making him a sort of Gothic-art superhero. The animation team spent weeks sorting through fifty or so of Gorey's works, trying to pour the essence of his work into a mere forty seconds. I think it worked:

Derek Lamb later said "His work seemed inspired by the worst of human nature and of the highest forms of art. This was the contradiction I believe Gorey presented in his work, and he did it over and over. As readers we become enticed with the sheer brilliance of his art....then to find he's delivering us a reminder of the darkest sides of ourselves; or in the words of Edmund Wilson, "It is poetry and poison." We are fascinated and repelled. " The Mystery!-induced fame catapulted Gorey into the pop culture world of the 1980s and 1990s. A Nine Inch Nails music video was based directly on his work, and Tim Burton has long proclaimed Edward Gorey as one of his major influences. In California, there are regular Edward Gorey-themed costume balls. His artwork is also wildly popular in the tattoo world.

Edward Gorey, "The Insect God"

 Gorey admitted to having an aversion to disturbing or graphic violence, so the majority of his illustrations capture the moment just before, or just after, a climactic event, leaving the in-between details to the imagination of the reader. In fact, several of his stories are nothing more than a series of captioned illustrations that, when viewed in the correct sequence, provide a bare-bones framework to a story that still manages to be wickedly witty. Perfect example? The Blue Aspic, a story about love, opera, and murder-suicide. Sound horrible? Just think about poor Jasper....

"Jasper wandered the streets, his warping records clutched to his chest."

Gorey also had a Seuss-like affinity for rhymes, alliteration, and the alphabet, which produced (among several variations on the ABCs), The Gashlycrumb Tinies. It is, oddly enough, my favorite Gorey title (other than The Curious Sofa), and it is basically a rhyming alphabet of dead children. I know--it's terrible. But it's funny, in a bizarre, macabre sort of way....

 *Information obtained from;

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