Edward Gorey’s Fiendish Fables & Bizarre Allegories
Imagine a labyrinth without Minotaurs, a tangled skein of nearly limitless possibilities populated by the fiendish Figbash, the wicked Wuggly Ump, a Cad, and Sarah Jane (Batears) Olafsen, who “hacked to collops nineteen loggers” in the woolly wilds of turn-of-the-century Oregon. Imagine a place unlike any other, one that draws you in with such finesse that once ensnared, you cannot leave, nor would not want to.
Welcome to Edward Gorey’s world, which teems with unknown creatures: sinister mustachioed gentlemen and elegant women caught in a place out of time, the Roaring Twenties crossed with Edwardian London, and an ominous, stretching landscape awash with urns, alligators, and unfortunate children meeting even more unfortunate ends. Gorey’s images do not go lightly into the realms of forgotten memory. They stick, and they stick well.
Gorey renders his stories and subjects in vivid words and images, but you respect his genius even more as you come to appreciate his delicate style, executed primarily in black-and-white cross-hatched pen-and-ink drawings often combined with convoluted, rhyming text. His strange little books have been delighting readers for almost half a century, enthralling all but the most easily offended.
Gorey has been described as providing post-modern fairy tales for the boomer generation, and it is no coincidence that his initial rise to fame took place during the height of America’s post-war paranoia. Conjuring up a suburbia in which the man next door might just be an axe murderer instead of an Ozzie or a Fred, he offers a crazy corollary to the cozy sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s. Happy endings usually arrive via bizarre deaths in his American dreams.
In the irresistible pop-up book The Dwindling Party (Random House, 1982), printed on heavy stock and beautifully constructed with three-dimensional gazebos, mausoleums, and monsters, Gorey spins a tale in which the MacFizzets, a very well-to-do family, go on an afternoon outing to Hickyacket Hall. They disappear one by one until only the youngest MacFizzet is left. Small Neville is far from devastated by his loss, however, and concludes rather jauntily that everything is for the best.
Born on 22 February 1925 in Chicago, Gorey today lives with his cats in relative seclusion in a sprawling, ramshackle house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Very well read and fond of French literature, with a strong background in art history, he has filled the place with books, prints, and various pieces of ironwork he habitually picks up at flea markets; but his working space, though well spattered with ink, is otherwise clear except for the occasional wandering cat. Here he creates his strange world with simple tools. “You want the sad history of my use of materials?” he once asked an interviewer. “I use Strathmore illustration board…and I draw with Pelikan ink and some discontinued pen point from Gilotte. I think I have enough to last me the rest of my life.” From this modest equipment comes some of the best pen-and-ink art of our age.
Gorey’s books at first seem tiny: think of a hardcover Eskimo Pie with chocolate ink and vanilla paper. But he always has worked in small format. Long ago, when he took a job at Doubleday as an illustrator, he was quite surprised to learn that artists usually work in larger formats and then have the designs reduced for print. He thought it silly to bow to convention, however, and continues successfully with his minute drawings today.
But pictures tell only part of the story. Unlike most book illustrators, Gorey is a writer as well, and his technique echoes his profound appreciation of the written word. In some books tales are woven around arresting images almost as an afterthought. But Gorey’s words are the peers of his illustrations. He writes first, producing whole texts complete in rhyme and rhythm, and illustrates later.
And so there his is, out on the lonely reaches of Cape Cod, still churning out his charmingly unique and slightly twisted stories that, despite their neo-Edwardian flair, defy classification. Indeed, though his tales retain many of the values we might associate with children’s stories, most are about as suitable for infants as the original Grimm’s fairy tales. Maybe their audacity accounts for their popularity – that, and the sheer intensity of the man’s creativity. Gorey’s readers can spend hours deciphering the text within the text and the artist within the art.
Books – particularly English Victorian literature and blood curdlers – have occupied a central place in and throughout his life. He taught himself to read when he was little more than three years old, he once told an interviewer, and managed to plow through the works of Victor Hugo at the age of eight. Dickens holds an important but ambiguous place in his esteem: tales in which a poor child encounters one or more unsavory fiends along the difficult path of life have had an obvious influence. Even his real-life heroes appear flawed – to him, at least. He always read and adored Dickens until he came across an apparently distasteful anecdote about him. He has never divulged the story, and we can only wonder.
A fascination with literature and art has followed Gorey all his life, through his depression era childhood in Chicago to Harvard, where he took a degree in French in 1950. That same year he published his first illustration in the pages of Merrill Moore’s Illegitimate Sonnets (Twayne). signed copy of this otherwise forgotten book recently sold for $175; sans autograph, its value seldom exceeds $75. Shortly after graduating from college, Gorey moved to New York City, where he began working in the art department at Doubleday, designing covers for the Anchor Books series of classic reprints and scholarly dissertations. The association would last, in one form or another, until the mid 1970s.
The Anchor paperbacks survive in great numbers today, often selling used for only two or three dollars apiece. Although Gorey’s contributions are limited to covers and typography, these books provide and inexpensive and very enjoyable way of beginning a collection. They give a glimpse into an early artistic style that is not always expressed in the books that he wrote and illustrated later in his career. The Anchor books also tempt collectors because they employ color. His own work tends to move from black to varying shades of grey, with only the occasional watercolor to brighten the vista.
For examples of Gorey’s best Anchor covers, search in the psychology section in any used book store for the skeletal cover of The Age of Madness, a book about involuntary commitment to mental hospitals (Thomas Szasz, ed, 1973); then head to the history section to grab The American Transcendentalists (Perry Miller, ed, 1957), whose un-Goreyesque cover – just some fairly normal looking trees, a building, a square, and few spindly figures – nevertheless is unmistakably Gorey. Other notable works in this series include the artist’s illustrated covers for Henry James’ What Maisie Knew (1954), C.P. Snow’s The Masters (1951), and another Szasz work, The Second Sin (1973).
During these years Gorey started work on his own books. The publication of The Unstrung Harp: Or, Mr. Earbrass Writes A Novel (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953) propelled him onto the highly idiosyncratic path he continues to wander today. An extremely rare find today, a first edition of The Unstrung Harp can fetch more than $300, but the second printing from the same year – the only reprinting in the U.S. – goes for as little as $60.
The Listing Attic (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1954) appeared next, then Gorey followed with one of his best-loved titles, 1957’s The Doubtful Guest (Doubleday). Its strangely mannered hero, partial to high-top sneakers, continues to dominate T-shirts and other Gorey ephemera forty years later; the furry freeloader, a creature of indeterminate species who nonchalantly trashes his host’s house, is one of Gorey’s most popular characters.
Gorey spent many years in New York, where he religiously attended the ballet (another passion) and fraternized wit the literary and artistic giants of the age. At Harvard he had roomed with Frank O’Hara, and between 1959 and 1962 he worked with Jason Epstein and Clelia Carroll to found the Looking Glass Library imprint, a series whose consulting editors included W.H. Auden and Edmund Wilson.
In 1986, Gorey retired to Cape Cod, where he continues to work on his books and also on stage sets for ballet and theatre in New York and Massachusetts. He still makes frequent excursions to the Big Apple, stopping off at sundry favorite haunts and dropping by Gotham Book Mark, now the literary equivalent of Mecca to Gorey fans and collectors.
Andreas Brown, the owner of the Brownstone bookstore, recalls that Gorey started coming in shortly after his arrival in New York. He soon began printing his little books privately under the Fantod Press imprint, taking them around to several bookstores and consigning them for sale. Because sales at Gotham outran those at any other store, Gorey developed a solid working relationship with Brown.
When Brown opened a gallery on the second floor of the brownstone in 1968, he offered to exhibit and promote Gorey’s work, and Gotham continues its close affiliation with the artist, showing his work, housing his archives, and maintaining a breathtaking stock of available, collectible and deliciously hard to fine Gorey publications.
As more collectors sought the artist’s work, Gotham instituted the Gorey mailing list, a free quarterly compendium offering new titles as well as old favorites and enjoys a circulation well beyond fifteen hundred. Yet even new publications seldom remain readily available (or affordable) for long, often doubling or tripling in value after only a year in print.
Since the appearance of The Unstrung Harp in 1953, Gorey has published more than ninety-five books, including such favorites as The Curious Sofa (I.Oblensky, 1961), The Gashlycrumb Tinies (Simon & Schuster, 1963), and The Loathsome Couple (Dodd, Mead, 1967). In addition, many of his most popular and/or scarce books were republished by Congdon & Weed and Perigee in three volumes of the best-selling Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also. These hefty compendiums are an excellent way to acquaint new collectors with Gorey’s work and provide a beginning bibliography of early and often hard to find volumes.
Other works splashed across the Amphigorey triumvirate are the wonderful, colorful Wuggly Ump (originally published by Lippincott in 1963), and the gentle Bug Book (Looking Glass Library, 1959). Some fabulous books in the vein of The West Wing (Simon and Schuster, 1963) offer nothing more than landscapes or rooms so cunningly drawn that the reader can spend hours exploring every corner and crevice. the artist’s view of a room says more than text ever could.
Working further along Gorey’s rich panoply of the macabre, one can read about Millicent Frastley in The Insect God (Simon and Schuster, 1963), the story of a young girl abducted from her loving and doting parents. Large grasshoppers wearing trench coats and hats drive her in a roadster through the countryside to a secluded hall, then strip her naked and stuff her inside something like a pod before sacrificing her to their Maker.
One can dive into The Loathsome Couple (Dodd, Mead, 1977), the gruesome story of two people born into unfortunate circumstances who find each other and begin murdering children after their attempts at lovemaking prove fruitless. Eventually caught and convicted after a Bonnie and Clyde style spree of death and debauchery, they wind up in an asylum where Harold dies of pneumonia and Mona expires of natural causes after years of licking spots off the wall.
Although Gorey is primarily known for his twisted take on the mores of society and dark portrayal of evils wrought upon the tenderest of children, he has written many gently humorous books that are quite suitable for younger readers, among them the innocently charming alphabet books. Irresistible on many levels, they are a refreshing way to teach children their ABCs.
Gorey hasn’t limited himself to books. His best-known work is probably the opening animation sequence he designed for the popular PBS series, Mystery!. He also created the stage set for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula. A collection might encompass a wealth of ephemera , including game books, wallpaper, aper dolls, books of cutouts, postcards, boxed sets of unbound leaves, portfolios, flip books and miniature books.
Recent Gorey works (together with many of the above oddities) generally have appeared under the Fantod imprint, which now is circulated exclusively through Gotham Book Mart in a first edition numbered and signed by the author (another good reason to be on the mailing list). Unfortunately, whereas earlier limited editions would also have appeared as trade books, recent works such as The Unknown Vegetable (1995), and The Retrieved Locket (1994) have remained solely in the hands of Gotham and The Fantod Press. Issued only in limited edition, the value of these titles has escalated from an initial $15 to $50 or more in just a few years, thereby depriving many collectors the joy of obtaining newer work.
Put off by high prices, many collectors choose to end their search with The Raging Tide: Or, The Black Doll’s Imbroglio (Beaufort Books, 1987), the last of Gorey’s books to hit the mass market; since that time, only The Betrayed Confidence (Parnassus, 1992), with its collection of seven series of Dogear Wryde postcards, has ventured onto a larger stage.
In their original printings, Gorey’s books often appear as unconventional as their creator. Frequently small in format and usually running about fifty pages, they have drifted in and out of print many tines over the years, with as many as three different publishers subsequently reissuing a single book. This has led to some remarkable variations in the price of individual titles in Gorey’s bibliography, from $10.95 for a reissue to $600 and more for ultra rare, signed and numbered first editions.
Although there has been a decrease in overall availability, his books are still tucked in stacks at many independent used book stores and the thrill of finding a Gorey at a steal lures some collectors as much as the content of the book. Indeed, the quality of his work and the abundance and availability of titles have helped make Gorey one of the most collectible of contemporary author-artists.
His audience loves puzzling out different press editions based on original cover prince, size of the edition, color of the dust jacket, and even pseudonym in some cases. Gorey delights in debauching his own name, and the collector should be on permanent lookout for such anagrams as Dogear Wryde (the aforementioned postcard man), Ogdred Weary, and Mrs. Regera Dowdy. He is notorious for printing first editions under these and other fanciful noms de plume. Finding one of these names on a book is a real coup. A first edition in very good condition of The Curious Sofa by Ogdred Weary sells for approximately $95, for instance, while a first of The Evil Garden by Mrs. Regera Dowdy will set you back $75.
One particularly useful trick of the trade, especially for collectors who have yet to come to grips with the intricacies of Gorey’s bibliography, is simply to scan the bookshelves for the very distinctive printing style found on the spine of his books, whether they are from the Anchor series or the novels he has illustrated. It is a spindly sort of type that is difficult to classify but which enthusiasts learn to identify as they become familiar with Gorey’s work. Combing used book stores often reveals little graveyards of undiscovered Gorey’s ripe for the robbing. The intrepid enthusiast can enjoy a good smirk at escaping the often merciless pricing pen of the booksellers.
A quick trip to the mystery section may also yield good returns. Gorey created many of the covers and illustrations for the numerous horror and mystery anthologies edited by Marvin Kaye, a popular connoisseur of the supernatural, for Dorset, Doubleday, and St. Martin’s Press. The are eminently readable and usually sell at reasonable prices.
Gorey has also illustrated covers for children’s book by such authors as Joan Aiken, Florence Heide, and the ever popular John Bellairs, as well as editions of Brer Rabbit and T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. And never overlook the stacks of old periodicals that clutter the corners of many stores. Gorey has provided illustrations for magazines as varied as the New Yorker, TV Guide, and Sports Illustrated.
Although careful searches should produce good results, new fans may want to tread carefully. Many booksellers know that Gorey is collectible but do not necessarily understand the full breadth of his catalog. As a result they may overvalue some items. Before venturing into the field, collectors – especially novices – would do well to arm themselves with Henry Toledano’s Goreography (Word Play, 1996), the first comprehensive bibliography of primary works and beyond.
The adventure of reading and collecting Gorey can easily become an obsession. Fortunately, he has provided plenty of material to satisfy all levels of taste, budget and ability. Because many of his secondary illustrations (those that don’t accompany his own text) are still readily available, new collectors will not become discouraged – or bankrupt – in the beginning. Veteran Goreyphiles can always discover something entirely unknown long after his major works have been purchased and catalogued.
Collections can become quite valuable as they grow, to the point that documentation, insurance and protection eventually may become considerations for prudent owners. One imagines Gorey chuckling at the thought of his oeuvre held hostage in far flung bank vaults and safes. But those who own these books and other assorted oddies probably could not bring themselves so easily to shelve and forget them, much less encase them in steel tombs. These works beg to be brought out in the open air and enjoyed many times over. The collections are timeless, and the skill and biting humor with which Gorey plies his pen will continue to delight and amuse his devotees long after they have committed text and illustrations to memory. (AH)