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On Edward Gorey (1925–2000)

Edward Gorey, who died on April 15, was associated with The New York Review of Books from the beginning. His fantastic and memorable cover illustrations were a feature of every anniversary issue; and in 1975 he contributed an ongoing serial, Les Mystères de Constantinople, whose heroine was thought by some to resemble one of the NYR‘s editors.

To enter the world of Edward Gorey is to step into a kind of parallel Gothic universe, full of haunted mansions, strange topiary, and equally haunted and strange human beings. Though they are mainly well meaning and well dressed and live in surroundings of slightly decaying Victorian or Edwardian luxury, they tend to seem baffled or oppressed by life. They play croquet and go on picnics and have elaborate tea parties, but somehow something always goes wrong. There are sudden deaths and disappearances, and they are often haunted, not only by ghosts but by strange creatures of all sorts, some of which resemble giant bugs, while others suggest hairy wombats or small winged lizards.

In many of these books, children especially are at risk: they fall victim to natural disasters, are carried off by giant birds, or eaten by comic monsters like the Wuggly Ump. In The Gashlycrumb Tinies every letter of the alphabet announces the death of a little girl or boy. Yet somehow the overall effect is not tragic, but comic—just as it is in the work of Edward Lear, whom Gorey greatly admired.

In these macabre comedies, almost no one looks happy—with the striking exception of the cats, who always seem to be having a wonderful time, especially on the covers of two of the anthologies of Gorey’s work, Amphigorey and Amphigorey Too. As might be suspected, Gorey was remarkably fond of cats. According to report, he never had fewer than five at any one time, and whenever I visited his apartment in Manhattan Ihad the distinct impression that there were at least seven or eight, all of them looking extremely contented and well fed, even smug.

Among Edward Gorey’s other enthusiasms were Victorian novels, silent films, and the New York City Ballet, all of which provided inspiration for his work. His passion for the productions of George Balanchine and the principal dancers Diana Adams and Patricia McBride was so great that for many years he attended every performance of a Balanchine work. After Balanchine’s death he moved with his cats to Cape Cod, where he had a large extended family and many friends.

Though Edward Gorey always denied being inspired by real life, I have sometimes thought that one of his early works, The Doubtful Guest, which was dedicated to me, was partly a comment on my inexplicable (to him)decision to reproduce. The title character in this book is smaller than anyone in the family it appears among. It has a peculiar appearance at first and does not understand language. As time passes it becomes greedy and destructive: it tears pages out of books, has temper tantrums, and walks in its sleep. Yet nobody even tries to get rid of the creature; their attitude toward it remains one of resigned acceptance. Who is this Doubtful Guest? The last page of the story makes everything clear:

It came seventeen years ago—and to this day
It has shown no intention of going away.

Of course, after about seventeen years, most children leave home.

In Edward Gorey’s books death is often met with indifference. Not so in real life. The website maintained by his fans (www.goreyography.com) has already recorded scores of messages of shock, grief, and passionate admiration from correspondents aged thirteen to eighty. Many describe their surprise and joy when they first saw Gorey’s work, and declare that they have found friends and lovers through a mutual appreciation of his books; others declare that they have rejected those who disliked Gorey—a decision I can well understand.

The loss of Edward Gorey is not only the loss of a brilliant and original writer and illustrator, but of a gifted stage and costume designer. He has also taken with him many other greatly talented people, notably Ogdred Weary, author of The Curious Sofa and The Beastly Baby; and Mrs. Regera Dowdy, author of The Pious Infant and translator of Eduard Blutig’s The Evil Garden. (Critics claim that all these writers, and several others, are pseudonyms—and in some cases, anagrams—of Edward Gorey; but if we accept this we must also accept the astounding fact that Mr. Gorey produced over a hundred books.)

Often, characters in Gorey’s books who die or disappear leave only a void behind: empty cross-hatched streets and withered formal gardens and rooms with strange wallpaper. We are luckier.

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