Edward Gorey was an American writer and artist, mostly known by his whimsical and unsettling pen-and-ink drawings usually set in Victorian and Edwardian periods. He died on April 15th, 2000, so I chose today as a fitting date to present him to anyone not familiar with his amazing work. When you think of illustrated books, what is the first thing to pop into your mind? I bet it’s children’s books? Well, not everything with a picture is suitable for kids, and you’ll soon find out why.
Gorey wrote and drew what can only be described as nonsense and surrealism. There is a huge connection between literary nonsense and kids, take a look at Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear as an example; but as children can relate to nonsense because of its silliness and lack of any kind of logic, the adults are the ones who actually find meaning in the nonsense writing, be that meaning a joke or a much deeper symbolism or satire, or, you know, no meaning at all.
Gorey has written and illustrated over 100 books, with many of those published obscurely and very difficult to find these days. His most famous work, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, is luckily widely available. It is an alphabet book, with each letter illustrating an untimely death of a child. Too morbid for you? Move along then.
Still here? Okay, the morbid humor of Tinies is mostly shown in the mundane ways in which these children die, such as slipping down the drain, falling down the stairs, choking on a peach, or, you know, drinking too much gin. It has been described as a “sarcastic rebellion against a view of childhood that is sunny, idyllic, and instructive”.
Other than Tinies, Gorey wrote a bunch of other short works, notably: The Doubtful Guest, The Unstrung Harp, The Blue Aspic, The Epiplectic Bicycle, The Beastly Baby, The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Tale by Ogdred Weary. Most of his work is collected into several omnibus editions neatly named Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, Amphigorey Also, and Amphigorey Again, in which you can find these cutely demented tales.
Gorey also illustrated works by authors such as Edward Lear, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, Charles Dickens, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot and others. Other than illustrating Stoker’s famous novel, Gorey worked on theater designs for the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design. The set is magnificent and of course looks like it came right out of the pages of Gorey’s books.
Speaking of Dracula, there is a toy theater based on the award winning set including pop-up stages and figurines.
Needless to say, Gorey was an eccentric personality, a Gothic genius, and his work has garnered a cult following. He was very fond of word games like anagrams, and wrote many of his books under pseudonyms that were usually anagrams of his own name, like Ogdred Weary. He left the bulk of his estate to a charitable trust benefiting cats and dogs, as well as other species, including bats and insects. If you would like to find out more about Gorey, a biography by author Mark Dery is coming out later this year, and a long-awaited documentary titled The Last Days of Edward Gorey is expected soon hopefully.