I first came across mention of Edward Gorey in The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, and instantly knew I had to read him:
“His characters perform or endure unspeakable indecencies set against Victorian and Edwardian backdrops. His preoccupations are those of a man obsessed by the terrifying randomness of daily life: rocks and urns plummet from the sky without warning; everyday objects suddenly turn menacing.”
There’s something instantly recognisable about his world of Edwardian Grimm. His strain of nonsense — bringing to the forefront the often too-casual-to-see violence & horror depicted in the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll — veers at times towards the purely surreal, but also borrows from that Roald Dahl-like reaction to moralising children’s literature that’s been going on at least since Struwwelpeter (1845, whose “Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches” might be an episode in a Gorey book), if not before. Part of the fun of his pseudo-pastiche style is that his books feel like they might have actually existed in the past, and might now be considered curios or classics of a bygone age, unconsciously horrific beneath their air of gentility. Gorey’s is both a ready-made archetypal world, and a world entirely his own, an abandoned nursery room of the imagination, where yesteryear’s toys, ill-used and left to collect spiderwebs, have attained both life and malignancy.
Gorey worked as an illustrator (also producing a lot of book covers) for some time before beginning to write and illustrate the short books he’s perhaps best known for, many of which were self-published by his Fantod Press, (some appearing under anagrammatic or punning pseudonyms), and which have subsequently been collected in a series of bumper volumes Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also. My two favourites are The Unstrung Harp (1953) and The Doubtful Guest (1957) (both found in Amphigorey).
The Unstrung Harp relates the cyclical life of author Clavius Frederick Earbrass, showing how the writing of a novel (whose title is selected at random from “a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book”) progresses from boredom to self-doubt to gloom to despair to desperation and, post-completion, a sort of blank bemusement as to what it was all for, all wrapped up in the semi-superstitious rituals of a deeply-ingrained creative process.
In The Doubtful Guest, a peculiar, penguin-esque creature invites itself into the house of a Victwardian upper class family, mostly to get in the way, damage things, cause difficulties, and be generally exasperating in a world too reserved to express exasperation. Existing somewhere between Paddington Bear and the staring ghost monkey of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, it shares Mr Earbrass’s elongated profile and staring eyeball — the characteristic Gorey look that seems to combine angst, anger, despair, exasperation, resignation and a sense of cosmic dread all in one.
The Doubtful Guest is a perfect example of how nonsense becomes sense each time it’s read. The “Guest” could be interpreted as much as a gloomy mood as an actual person, but the first time I read it, it immediately made me think of my stepfather, who appeared in our house almost as abruptly as the “Guest” and came with just as irrational, peculiar, and incomprehensible a set of habits, such as endlessly searching through legions of plastic bags while the rest of us tried to watch TV. I can imagine The Doubtful Guest as an excellent book to leave in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, or as the perfect way for a (perhaps cruel) parent to introduce a child to the concept of a new sibling on the way.
In fact, any one of Gorey’s books might usefully furnish a psychiatrist’s waiting room, if the psychiatrist were sufficiently enlightened or just plain provocative, including his alphabets that describe the various grisly ends of a series of unfortunate children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies being the most well-known), or The Curious Sofa, “a pornographic work” so abstract and discreet, it’s almost entirely chaste:
But beware. Just as with the Grimmest of fairy tales, Gorey’s atmosphere of gentility & nonsense can lull you into letting your guard down. Of his fictionalisation of the Moors Murderers’ relationship, The Loathsome Couple, he says: “I showed it to my editor at the time, and he didn’t think it was very funny, and I thought, ‘Oh really, dear, I don’t think it’s very funny either; what made you think that I thought it was funny?'” (quoted in Ascending Peculiarity, a collection of interviews with Gorey).
It’s partly because his work seems to borrow that hand-holding air you get from some children’s literature, that you don’t fully notice, till it’s too late, that the hand in question is leading you towards a pretty dangerous-looking precipice. And, perhaps, a Gorey end?