The Life Of Edward Gorey, Told By An Old Friend

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An illustration by Edward Gorey
Edward Gorey

It's difficult to describe the illustrations of Edward Gorey without using the word "macabre." Death was often a subject of his drawings, and the way he depicted evil adults and dispatched mischievous children often provoked horror. However, his work often provoked humor. Besides, he didn't like the word "macabre."

Gorey died in 2000 at the age of 75. Not long after, a slim paperback called The Strange Case of Edward Gorey was published. It was written by Alexander Theroux, one of Gorey's close friends — he had few. Recently, Theroux went back to the now-out-of-print original monograph to rewrite, expand and redesign it. It's just been published in hardcover, and Theroux spoke to Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen about his peculiar longtime friend.

When asked why Gorey didn't like the word "macabre," Theroux says: "I think he heard it too much — 'ghoulish' and 'macabre' — in interviews. He never really liked to talk about his work to make a paradoxical point, and everyone always went through that gate when they were talking to Edward Gorey, and I think over the years he wanted to talk about other things.

'The Strange Case of Edward Gorey' by Alexander Theroux
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey
By Alexander Theroux
Hardcover, 168 pages
Fantagraphics Books
List Price: $19.99
Read An Excerpt

"He was a cartoonist in the widest definition and a major illustrator in the smallest," Theroux says. "But I think his particular style grew out of the fascination with pen and ink drawings. He once told me it was so hard to get a book published in color in the early 1950s that all his books were in black and white. And his drawings got more and more oblique — his subject matter was the 1920s, and he always fit his drawings to that particular world, the Edwardian period."

Gorey wrote more than 90 books, illustrated some 60 others, designed sets, and won a Tony Award for the show Dracula. Yet it seems Gorey thought his work was ephemeral and almost insubstantial.

"If you asked him what was behind The Dwindling Party, which was a mysterious pop-up book," Theroux says, "he would say, 'I'll leave you to tell me — I don't even know.' He loved that phrase, 'I don't even know.' "

Yet Gorey's humility made him open to meeting with strangers, an openness that led to his meeting with Theroux in 1972.

"I was in a bookstore and bought several of his books, and the proprietor told me he lived virtually around the corner," says Theroux. "I couldn't believe it. So I drove over and knocked on his door and took a photograph, and he signed some books. And I had written some stories I thought he might want to illustrate. And so it was a question of my being a fan and just knocking on his door."

This was not the only case of Gorey entertaining his fans at home. He was even listed in the phone book. "He was a very poor hermit," says Theroux. "Goth people would flock over there — and he would say, 'We've got customers.' They'd say, 'I love your work!' and start gushing, and he'd say, 'Thank you ... now what?' But he was always very accessible, and people would always stop over to see him."

Theroux notes that Gorey was a man of very peculiar habits: "I still see myself just sitting in his kitchen. There was always a melancholy tone to his voice, and he would give you white toast with a cinnamon shaker.

Alexander Theroux, author of The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, has also written novels, poetry, fables, and essays. He writes as a literary critic for The Wall Street Journal i

Alexander Theroux, author of The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, has also written novels, poetry, fables and essays. He writes as a literary critic for The Wall Street Journal. Courtesy of Alexander Theroux hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Alexander Theroux
Alexander Theroux, author of The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, has also written novels, poetry, fables, and essays. He writes as a literary critic for The Wall Street Journal

Alexander Theroux, author of The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, has also written novels, poetry, fables and essays. He writes as a literary critic for The Wall Street Journal.

Courtesy of Alexander Theroux

"He was very campy, in the Susan Sontag sense," Theroux continues. "He could also be very serious. He read every book possible. He had wide interests. There wasn't a subject that didn't interest him. I always said I wondered which Edward Gorey would show up on a given day. He was a film critic, he was interested in cooking. He was a man that would seem to be a bird of paradise, very ornate — but he could be a quiet and subdued and fairly shy person."

And you wouldn't know it from looking at his drawings, but Gorey also loved soap operas, especially All My Children.

"He would sew beanbags while he watched television," Theroux says of Gorey's eclectic habits. "He went to the movies almost every night. He could segue from reading a book on Wittgenstein to watching The Golden Girls. He was curious about everything, which is a great virtue in a person. He needed to have a lot of movement in his mind, a lot of water going over the stones in his mind."

Theroux says his old friend was a true free spirit; a curious, kind and adventurous soul.

"Edward was one of the few people I ever knew who did exactly what he wanted," he says. "He went his own way."

Excerpt: 'The Strange Case of Edward Gorey'

The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey
By Alexander Theroux
Hardcover, 168 pages
Fantagraphics Books
List Price: $19.99
Read An Excerpt

It is a falsehood that Edward Gorey refused to give interviews. Nevertheless, to those acquainted with his hundred or so menacing little books, written as if by moonlight, the very thought of tracing out this eccentric artist (for Gorey was a solitary) might somehow have seemed to recapitulate to a nervous heart the monstrous dread felt in approaching the unholy chambers of the demented Ambrosio or the trap-doored world of the satanic Caliph Vathek of the Abassides. There is, I am saying, a specific maledictus about Gorey's work – little pen-and-ink cartoon marplots of delicate fright, designed, illustrated, and narrated by his own hand. Curtains are ominously pulled against intrusion. Legs protrude from ghoulish hedges. Topiary threatens. Wallpaper intimidates. It is a doomscape of scary urns, doubtful guests, black dolls, abandoned gasworks, haunted gardens, empty rooms. A silence hangs over all, admonitory and poisoned and portentous.

Gorey's is an unclassifiable genre: not really children's books, neither comic books, nor art stills. His work – sort of small and humorously sadistic parodies of the obsolete Victorian "triple decker" – comes in the form less of booklets than midget novels, each the size of a small hornbook, withered into a kind of Giacomettian reduction of twenty to thirty doomful pages of scrupulously articulated and curiously antiquarian Gothic illustration and a spare but sequential just-about-conclusive narrative, often merely wistful and understated captions of spare but distracting economy.

With their hand-lettering, queer layouts, their framed and ornate borders, the small books seem frightfully old-fashioned and biscuity, as if they had been secretly pressed out and printed in suspiciously limited editions in the dark, damp cellar of some creepy railway warehouse in nineteenth-century England by some old pinch-fisted joy-killer in a black claw-hammer coat with red-hot eyes, a black scowl, and a grudge against the world – and then managing to survive the must of long years by their sheer grotesquerie and horror.

Consider the Gothic novel, its evil-smelling and deliciously booby-trapped world of falling objects, unchaste noises, slipped philters, rusty locks, clanging portcullises, salivating monks, and Brueghel-like loonies with things on their minds creeping around the late-night shrubbery. Of such a world, but with so much more immaculate precision and irony, did Gorey partake, even to winnowing, by paraphrase and shrinkage, its purple prose. And the genius of his pictorial accompaniments, an odd combination of satire and irreverence that leads one to flip on almost hypnotically, supports the texts in every detail. Each page is as it were a mysterious little panel. The odd trappings Gorey employed extend even to the pseudonyms and anagrams and literary variations, outrageous and hilarious, of his own wonderfully evocative name which he so delighted in playing about with: Mrs. Regera Dowdy; D. Awdrey-Gore; ogdred Weary; Dreary Wodge; Roy Grewdead; Edward Blutig and o Müde – two German equivalents for "Edward Gorey" and "ogdred Weary"; Dogear Wryde; Grey Redwoad; Drew Dogyear; E. G. Deadworry; Raddory Gewe; Aedwyrd Gore; Garrod Weedy; Addée Gorrwy, Deary Rewdgo, Wee Graddory, om, Ydora Wredge, Dedge Yarrow, Roger Addyew, orde Graydew, Gary Dredwoe, Edgar E. Wordy, Dora Greydew, Dewda Yorger, Aedwyrd Goré, Agowy Erderd, Waredo Dyrge, Madame Groeda Weyrd – even Edward Pig!

"I wanted to publish everything under a pseudonym from the very beginning," Gorey told interviewer Robert Dahlin, "but everybody said, 'What for?' And I couldn't really explain why I wanted to. I still don't know exactly, except that I think what you publish and what you are are two different things. I really don't see that much connection."

It is the world of the shilling shocker and the penny dreadful, which Gorey so peopled and as masterfully named. Take, for example, The Fatal Lozenge: An Alphabet (1961), a compilation of twenty-six four-line rhymes with accompanying drawings that involves the unspeakable acts committed by cads, fetishists, lazars, proctors, hermits, undines, yeggs, zouaves, and felonious monks. It is an impious but comic enchiridion of almost all violence, all done, curiously, in a mannered style – he tended to draw people in extended and vaguely balletic postures – and in arch, elegant forms. Violence is the essential Gorey ingredient. It is used in his books with such off-hand wit and inevitability that, having become his signature, if it were suddenly missing, you would begin to worry or at least feel you are being fobbed off by work not of the master's hand.

Then there is the seminal Gorey tale. The Hapless Child (1961), in which a diminutive little girl named Charlotte Sophia, as happy and pure as St. Bernadette, swiftly loses her parents (father killed in Africa, mother thereafter declines) and is packed off to a boarding school run by a ferocious-looking dyke. Her classmates are cruel and tear her favorite doll, Hortense, limb from limb. The waif then determines to flee, hoists over the school wall, and wanders.

Feckless journey or quest, ending either in tragedy or just plain nowhere, had been one of Gorey's major themes from the beginning – the heartless world. Fate keeps on happening. Charlotte is sold to a heartless and drunken brute who feeds the child on "scraps and tap water" and forces her like Bubu of Montparnasse to make artificial flowers, a labor from which, performed by candlelight in a dim cell, she becomes almost blind. Again she flees in her ragged nightie. "Meanwhile," Gorey pitilessly writes, "her father, who was not dead after all, returned home," and then one snowy day he goes motoring – begoggled, comfortably embundled, himself somehow elegantly ghoulish – and runs down (who else?) the little wanderer. But for her alterations, the father does not recognize her as his daughter, and so it ends. Gorey has said that he got the rough idea, although his own plot is different, from a French movie dating from 1905 titled L'Enfant de Paris. The Hapless Child, one of Gorey's most popular and analyzed books, is, among other things, a wonder in the service of art – a masterpiece of exotic wallpapers.

As to deeper meanings, well, Gorey said, "I generally feel that what you see is what you get, but all those who want to read something into it, poor bunnies, then they can. Half the time, I think, oh dear, this drawing doesn't mean much. You know, what is it all in aid of? Occasionally, someone will come up to me and say, 'I figured out what your book was about,' and I ask, 'oh, what?' Then they tell me something completely bizarre. And I'll think," he shrugged, "if that's what you want to see, it's okay by me.'"

Excerpted from The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux. Copyright 2011 by Alexander Theroux. Excerpted by permission of Phantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

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