Edward Gorey: Artist of Contradictions

Thoughtful Alphabets by Edward Gorey

Continuing with the theme of artists who defy typical boundaries of category and genre, I wanted to mention one of my all-time favorite controversial artist/authors, the ever-enigmatic Edward Gorey. Three new editions of Gorey’s books were released this fall by Pomegrante press: “Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert & the Deadly Blotter” and “The Osbick Bird.”

This review from the LA Times gives a nice overview of some of Gorey’s work, and some of the quirky attributes of his personality. It also identifies one of the defining characteristics of Gorey’s work as put forth by the artist himself: “the theory … that anything that is art … is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

If Gorey’s philosophy of art was defined by ambiguity and contradiction, it certainly makes sense when seen in the context of his work. Not only is he frequently working in the in-between genre of the illustrated book (what is more important here? Words? Images?), the content of his books always hovered somewhere between sinister and humorous, at times deeply macabre while remaining childishly delightful. His style it is at once extremely minimalist and spare but also fastidiously detailed and specific.

My first introduction to Edward Gorey was as the illustrator for the John Bellairs book, “The House with a Clock in its Walls,” which the elementary school librarian read aloud to us over a period of weeks. It was a deliciously spooky book, but I was disappointed by subsequent Bellairs novels. They were never quite as exciting to me as the first one I’d encountered. However, I continued to check them out of the library almost obsessively because I was so drawn to the artwork on the covers. It seemed that the stories inside the books could never live up to the mesmerizing, horrifying images on the cover.

The Lamp From the Warlock’s Tomb by John Bellairs

Certain books specifically bring back the memory of the crackle of a laminated library book jacket opening, and no books bring this memory so sharply to mind as the John Bellairs mysteries illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Another element of contradiction present in Gorey’s work is the fact that his books can neither be categorized strictly as “children’s literature” or “adult fiction.” Most of his work exists between genres– the combination of playful whimsy with grisly horror creating a genre all its own.

I didn’t encounter any of Gorey’s writing until I was in high school and came upon a copy of “The Ghastlycrumb Tinies.” I was utterly delighted by the bizarre combination of horrifying, painstakingly rendered pen and ink drawings with simple, rhyming text. There was something endlessly satisfying and evocative about the combination of image and text.

My love of Edward Gorey has only grown over the years. This summer I visited his rambling, historic house turned museum on Cape Cod, and was inspired by the intimate non museum-y feel of the place. Upon entering we were greeted by an unsmiling teen and an enormous cat reclining against the merchandise in the gift shop. Both the morose teen and the languid feline seemed right at home in Gorey’s rambling, ramshackle house. Several of the museum attendants were friends with Gorey later in his life and were thrilled to be able to tell personal stories of the man himself. Clutter and creativity reigned. The walls were lined with books and jewelry, small stone sculptures and glass bottles. Gorey was an obsessive collector and samplings of his many collections were on display.

As a fellow lover of clutter, it was an inspiring place to be. Wandering from room to room could be an overwhelming experience because everywhere you turned there was some tiny, bizarre object or drawing that Gorey either created or cherished in his lifetime. It’s also rare to find a museum so unchanged by the intervention of some larger corporate entity. Walking over the creaking floorboards of the Cape Cod house (originally owned by a sea captain), one could easily imagine Edward Gorey shuffling through in his infamous combination of tennis sneakers and fur coat.

I have yet to get my hands on these two new publications, but they promise to be just as haunting and humorous as the rest of Gorey’s work.

Thoughtful Alphabets by Edward Gorey

For more on the life of this inspiring artist of contradictions, and a more detailed description of the three books, here is another great article published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Happy Reading!


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