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;

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On the Radar -- Brooch the Subject

Photo from
There's one trend this fall I'm super excited to talk about.  The brooch is back!  Personally, for me, it never left.  I have always been a wearer, collector, and all-around lover of pins and brooches.  New or old, one at a time or grouped together, they can make quite the statement!

When I worked in product development, I had to go to the Hight Point International Home Furnishings Market every spring and fall.  It was fun to dress up, since normally the office was pretty casual.  My most memorable day was when I  wore my yellow 60s style a-line dress (I think of Doris Day when I wear it), thick black opaque tights, black ballet flats, and five of my enamel flower pins in black, white, gray, and yellow.  I got tons of compliments on those brooches -- even now, when I look at them I think about that day.

Brooches are easy to find and easy to wear.  Oscar de la Renta's Fall 2012 runway was full of his brooches, but you can get the same look from a thrift or antique store.   At the antique mall where we Blackbird girls work, you can find pins from $1 to $2, all the way up to $200.  And Etsy has over 120,000 listings for brooches in the Vintage section alone.

From Iris Jewels on Etsy

You can wear them one at a time, but I think the fun really starts when you pile on the pins.  And the more whimsical, the better.  Vintage pins can have so much personality, whether they are a Jelly Belly brooch, a Victorian tremblant pin, or a bright enamel daisy.  Why not a butterfly brooch nestled in a field of flowers?  Or a mini collection of owl pins?

If you need some inspiration for ideas on how to wear your brooches, I found this awesome video that Nordstrom just released.  It highlights nine different ways to wear your brooch collection.

More about my brooch and pin collection in a future Junk Love post, but I just can't resist giving you a sneak peek!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Junk Love Monday: Vintage Crime

They are dark, dirty, and deadly--and there's always a dame (or two). It is the genre of murder, seduction, and betrayal that gave us Sam Spade, one of the most iconic Noir characters of all time. I know that my love affair with vintage crime has its roots in the summers of my childhood, when I watched black and white Perry Mason episodes and adapted the plots for weird make-believe games that my siblings and I played (but rarely understood). Who needs cowboys and Indians when you can have a detective, a damsel, and a dastardly villain? And nothing gets the blood pumping like a good interrogation scene, especially if your grandparents' basement happens to be stocked with a crooked table, a cobweb-covered chair, and a single incandescent bulb fixture with a pull-chain....

But when I saw The Maltese Falcon on the big screen, I was absolutely hooked. I love the mystery, and the darkness, and the diamonds that every temptress wears (along with lipstick that is surely bright red, even in a black and white film). I don't even care that a lot of the time, the plot makes no sense (ever see The Big Sleep?). I just love the look of crime on film, and even more than that, I love the design of vintage crime novels. The titles are compelling: Deep Lay the Dead, Murder in False Face, The Big Midget Murders. And the art is fantastic, whether it is on a dust jacket, imprinted in the binding itself, or on the cover of a classic pulp paperback.

I definitely prefer titles of the 1930s and 1940s. After that, even Perry Mason gets a little less dirty (although my Perry Mason collection goes up through the 1960s), and the heroes become a little more James Bond-ish, and fall a little farther out of the classic Noir category. Actually, one entire bookcase in my house is devoted to vintage crime fiction. Some are hardbound sets with compelling titles; others were purchased purely for the binding or cover art.

I like to group titles together based on a similar theme: anything involving the word "skeleton" is in a stack together; titles with "poison" are lined up in a different section; I even have a few books with "widow" in the title that I put together. Perry Mason and Simon Templar (from The Saint series) occupy two whole shelves together. As I accumulate more titles, I store them (temporarily) somewhere else. Once per year, I dismantle the entire display and start from scratch, so that I can add the new ones in. (Honestly, there isn't much in this world that I enjoy more than an afternoon spent renovating the crime shelves.) I tend to watch the films more than I read the books, but occasionally, I pull a particularly dramatic title, curl up under a blanket, and pretend I'm Sam Spade.