EDWARD ST. JOHN GOREY
E is for Edward whose life has now passedCritic Edmund Wilson described Edward Gorey's work as ''poisonous and poetic." He drew an early 20th century world --from the Edwardian era through the Roaring Twenties -- primarily black-and-white and strangely surrealistic. Danger lurked everywhere: in sinister furniture, monstrous urns, terrifying topiary, and architectural horrors. It was a world inhabited by the disaster-prone, the decadent, the villainous, and the blithely innocent -- all of whom (unless poverty-stricken) tended to dress well. Gorey's writing perfectly mixed the macabre with humor and clever word play to (usually) tell a cautionary tale of moral instruction and devastatingly bizarre hilarity.
Edward Gorey was born in Chicago in 1925 and claims to have taught himself to read at age 3 1/2, to have read ALICE IN WONDERLAND and DRACULA at age 5, FRANKENSTEIN at age 7, all of the works of Victor Hugo by age 8, and continued growing up reading Agatha Christie mysteries. His father was newspaperman and his parents divorced when he was 11. They later remarried when Gorey was 27. Between those two marriages, Gorey's father wed Corrina Mura, best known for singing "La Marseillaise" in the movie CASABLANCA.
After three years in the army, Gorey arrived at Harvard as a French literature major. The very tall young man was known for wearing capes and numerous rings. His set included a group of young poets studying under John Ciardi -- his roommate, the future poet Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich, Alison Lurie, George Plimpton, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. Gorey and O'Hara were campus dandies in the manner of Oscar Wilde.
Gorey eventually moved to New York in 1950 where he drew book jackets and illustrations. He also began producing his odd little books. When he could find no publisher he kept writing books anyway and self-published them in small runs. The Gotham Book Mart became the central clearing house for Gorey, presenting exhibitions of his work, selling his books and eventually collectibles. In 1961 his THE CURIOUS SOFA: A PORNOGRAPHIC WORK BY OGDRED LEARY became something of a bestseller. (Gorey's pornography, like his horror, was never explicit. It was intimated rather than shown. Unknowable devices like the "thumbfumble" became all the more wicked because they were completely cryptic.) Over the next decade he became a commercial success -- Gorey's first anthology, AMPHIGOREY came out in 1972 from G. P. Putnam's Sons followed by its (first) sequel AMPHIGOREY, TOO in 1974 -- and theatrical designer -- he won a 1978 Tony for costume design for DRACULA and was also nominated for his scenic design for the show.
In the 80s, Gorey's work received its widest circulation with the animated opening and closing credits of the PBS television program MYSTERY.
Even as major publishers published Gorey, he continued to self-publish small batches of his books, paying little attention to their sales. All-in-all, it is estimated he wrote more than 100 books and illustrated more than 60 by other authors.
Gorey, evidently as personally unique as his work, was more jovial than mordant. Bearded, sporting an earring in each lobe and rings on most of his fingers, he often wore a raccoon coat and white sneakers -- although in recent years he became rather embarrassed about wearing fur in public. He moved permanently to Cape Cod in 1986 and lived in an old house overflowing with books, collections, and cats. Over time, he became reluctant to travel -- not even to see productions or exhibits of his work. He became what locals call "a real Cape Codder" -- helping with local charities, quietly attending summer art shows where he encouraged young artists of budding talent. Gorey wrote a series of surrealistic plays and puppet performances and directed them in local community theater.
My friend Marie Robinson is a Cape Codder. She met Edward Gorey in the Lovelette Insurance Agency one day when she'd stopped by to make a car insurance payment. "He was a very tall, slender man dressed in jeans, a nondescript T-shirt, an understated leather jacket, and sneakers," she told me. "He would have blended into the woodwork, if it weren't for his large hands that were cluttered with thick silver rings of dragons and skulls and a pirate earring that set off mirthful eyes. He drove a Volvo, rather than a hearse, much to my dismay. 'You aren't the first person who has said that,' he laughed."
When she commented how much she appreciated his work, he actually blushed, lowered his eyes, murmured a quiet "thank you," and said "I love my work, and if you want to do anything well, you need to be in love with it, for its own sake. And you must go to its darkest place."
Jean Pasch -- another local who described his "Victorian cedar shingled cape house" as "perfect" -- reports he "loved to be aloof, but signed anything you put in front of him."
For me, Edward Gorey represented an elegantly macabre perspective, slightly wicked, a bit decadent, always mysterious. He played it all offstage and revealed just enough to make your own imagination sprout bat wings and sail into the gloom. I'd love to be a Gorey femme fatale, even if it meant being plucked from a grotto by a fantod. Somehow Gorey made doom seem so attractive.
He reminded us, as Henry Allen wrote in The Washington Post, "the warmth of human laughter arises not from hope and cheer but from melancholy, cruelty and ill turns of fortune, the more pointless the better...what relief he offered: Life is not as bad as you think, it's much worse. Such a giggle."
Edward Gorey has been named as one of this year's Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award recipients. The award is given "to an individual whose work has substantially influenced the dark fantasy/horror/occult genre. It honors not merely the superior achievement embodied in a single work but acknowledges superior achievement in an entire career." Harlan Ellison will present the award at the Bram Stoker Awards Banquet May 14.
Gorey created a large body of small work that's influence is still growing. In the history of literature the willingness to take the graphic novel/story (and the work in that field of writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore) seriously can be directly attributed to the earlier recognition of Edward Gorey.
"For some reason,'' Gorey told The Boston Globe in 1984, ''my mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that's what the world is like.''
May you rest...uneasily, Mr. Gorey.