Edward Gorey and the taste for macabre

Edward Gorey libri con stampe Zoa Studio
Edward Gorey books with prints by Zoa Studio

On the anniversary of his death, April 15, 2000, we will tell you the story of Edward Gorey, a famous illustrator (but not only), who drew a “macabre” world with pen and ink.

The story of an enfant prodige

Edward St. John Gorey was born on February 22, 1925 in Chicago. From an early age he proved to be a child prodigy, in fact he painted pictures already at the age of two and learned to read by himself at the age of three.

Excelling at school, he skipped the first years of elementary school at Chicago’s legendary Francis Parker School. In this, if you think, he reminds us of last week’s protagonist, Isaac Asimov.

Little Edward Gorey turned out to be an outstanding student at Francis Parker, contributing to many school events, exhibiting at annual art shows, appearing in school publications and even Chicago newspapers. And all this before he was a teenager.

Also before adolescence, Gorey’s parents divorced when the boy was 11 years old. The father married several times, so Edward found himself confronted with various stepmothers. Once, one of these was also a famous cabaret singer of the time, Corinne Mura.

Thanks to his prodigious intelligence and extremely high scores at the regional level, Edward Gorey obtained scholarships from Harvard and other academic institutions. However, after finishing school, and before enrolling at university, he served in the Utah army from 1944 to 1946.

In 1946 the young Gorey enrolled at Harvard (later graduating in French literature) and began pursuing numerous artistic interests, publishing short stories, poems, designing sets, directing and writing for the influential Poets Theater. His name first appeared in a book published in 1950.

Edward Gorey after Harvard

At the end of 1952, once he finished university, he was offered a position at the Doubleday publishing fund in New York. Gorey quickly became a significant figure in their art department, drawing more than fifty covers and, more importantly, he was also recognized commercially.

In his professional orbit also gravitated other illustrators and cartoonists, including Charles Addams. The two, from time to time, had lunch together. Their works were often compared, which made Gorey very angry. The latter had even been told that Addams envied him because Gorey had a more niche, more snobbish reputation, let’s say. On the contrary, Gorey admired commercial success of Addams Family.

Gorey also went to work for other publishing houses (Looking Glass Library, Bobs-Merrill) before becoming freelance in the mid-1960s, a position he held for the rest of his life.

There is no accurate count of the number of books Gorey has illustrated for others, but it probably looks like over three hundred. He has illustrated different works such as Dracula by Bram Stoker, The war of the worlds by H. G. Wells, and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. Over the next few years he produced cover illustrations and interior artwork for many of John Bellairs‘ children’s books.

In addition to this huge workload for third parties, Gorey began writing and illustrating his own works (which would eventually grow to more than 100) starting with his 1953 book, The Unstrung Harp, a 64-page illustrated novel about creative struggles. of a novelist. The book is a sort of meta-novel but, more importantly, it is now considered one of the first forerunners of the movement  of graphic novel where both the text and the illustration tell the story.

Gorey’s success in the Sixties

From the 1950s onwards began the most prolific period for Gorey. During the 1960s she perfected his style of him and began publishing under several playful aliases, mostly anagrams such as Ogdred Weary, Drew Dogyear and Mrs. Regera Dowdy (another thing in common with Asimov).

Gorey loved illustrated alphabets; the most famous of him is The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1962), which tells the story of 26 children, for example: “M stands for Maud who was dragged into the sea / N stands for Neville who died of boredom”. His success as a book illustrator, at this stage, includes two volumes by Edward Lear, (“The Dong with a Luminous Nose”), as well as the works of H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, John Updike, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, etc.

Gorey gained more and more following thanks to his writing and styled illustrations in gothic style, dark humorous stories, a taste for the macabre and Victorian-style settings. In addition to other authors’ books, Gorey also continued to write his own stories, including The Hapless Child (1961), The Gilded Bat (1966), The Other Statue (1968) The Deranged Cousins: or, Wutely (1969).

Among these last titles we remember The Other Statue because it is dedicated to another acquaintance of ours, Jane Austen. It was Gorey himself who called her “certainly my favorite author in the world“. He also added, “The illustrations shouldn’t be smaller than the book, that’s why you couldn’t illustrate Jane Austen. At the same time, they shouldn’t be bigger. Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings for Salome make Oscar Wilde look pretty idiotic in some ways. “ 

And in the Seventies

From the 1970s Gorey focused more on adult works, although he still wrote children’s stories. His anthologies Amphigorey (1972), Amphigorey Too (1975) and Amphigorey Also (1983) had great commercial success.

Gorey also had a notable impact on the world of theater with his plans for the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Production Design. 

Speaking of Dracula, Gorey also created a Toy Theatre: Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre. As an enthusiastic buyer writes in the product review: As the title says it is a toy theater so inside you will not find illustrated pages like the usual Gorey books, but you will find 3 cards / sets with characters and stage furniture to be mounted on their pedestals with a leaflet containing the instructions (all in English of course) !!! A must have !!!

We recommend it to all Dracula and Gorey fans!

Gorey from the Eighties

In 1980, Gorey became particularly well known for his animated introduction to the PBS Mystery! series. In the introduction of each episode, the conductor Vincent Price (do you remember who he is? He is Edward Scissorhands’ “dad”) welcomed viewers to the “Gorey Mansion”.

This show, like so many of the things Gorey did, greatly influenced posterity. Indeed PBS Mystery! had a large following in a great number of crime series and television films around the world.

Edward Gorey, in addition, wrote and directed theatrical pieces with his papier-mâché puppets, known as Le Theatricule Stoique. The first of these productions, “Lost Shoelaces“, was premiered in Massachusetts in 1987 and the last was “The White Canoe: an Opera Seria for Hand Puppets“.

Later works include various books including The Haunted Tea-Cozy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas (1997) and The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium (1999).

Although, for his dark and macabre taste, many attributed to Gorey a British origin, in reality the protagonist of today was born and raised in America. In the later years of his life, she moved to Cape Cod, Massachussetts, which was where the family had spent many summers.

Gorey’s last years in Cape Cod

The Cape Cod house was referred to as the ‘Elephant House‘ and is the theme of a photo book, ‘Elephant House: Or, the Home of Edward Gorey’, with photographs and text by Kevin McDermott. Now it is also the ‘”Edward Gorey House Museum” (clic to visit!). 

In this house Gorey led a rather normal life. In the volume  Born to be Posthumous, author Mark Dery narrates that today’s protagonist would watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer on the TV, with a few cats on his shoulders, maybe even doing a crossword puzzle in the meantime.

Also being a collector, he videotaped every single episode of Buffy, manically labeled the videotape writing additional information beyond the title, such as various dates.

And in that house Edward Gorey died on April 15, 2000, after leading a life as a recluse. He never married, which led many to ask him about his sexual orientation. And Gorey gave the best of answers:

“I am neither one thing nor the other in particular. … I have never said I am gay and I have never said that I am not … what I am trying to say is that I am a person before I am any other thing … Well, I’m neither one thing nor the other in particular. I guess I’m gay. But I don’t identify much with that. “

Why do we remember Edward Gorey?

Apart from the wonderful answer given to those who didn’t mind their own business, Gorey could not fail to become famous: he really knew how to do many things (and all very well).

He was able to create unconventional dark humor storylines and beautiful illustrations with designs and ideas set in the Victorian and Edwardian era, without ever once having visited England!

In addition, he has published, in the course of his life, more than 100 independent works and illustrated an infinite number of works by other authors, including Samuel Beckett, Edward Lear, John Bellairs, Charles Dickens, TS Eliot, etc.

He could have worked on the “Puzzle Week”. He was indeed very fond of anagrams and published most of his works under different aliases which were usually anagrams of his own name.

Let’s not forget that he has also written and directed plays such as the Broadway production of “Dracula”, the acts of Le Theatricule Stoique and worked on PBS’s Mystery series, among other things.

Goreyesque in popular culture

But the most indicative factor of how much Gorey has become a cultural reference point is the birth of an adjective related to his name “goreyesque“.

The first to be defined with this description must be Tim Burton, who pays homage to Gorey directly or indirectly. Let’s think for example of The Nightmare before Christmas replicating The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari di Gorey. Or of Miss Peregrine, a clear and obvious reference to Gorey’s typical “Victorian oddity”.

Or even The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories, a collection of stories by Tim Burton, an illustrator himself, who pays homage to Gorey both from a stylistic and content point of view.

Edward Gorey, in the last years of his life, also influenced the world of music. Just think of the 1997 Perfect Drug video by Nine Inch Nails. In the clip, there are women dressed in Victorian mourning veils on a windy hill, a trio of men in top hats on a windswept moor, an obelisk lying in pieces, and finally, there is a sculpture in the shape of a hand, which directly recalls Gorey’s The Raging Tide.

Gorey was gothic, macabre, surrealist, victorian … he really was all of these. And, on his death, he gave the world to those who gave the world to him: he left most of his property to a charitable foundation for the benefit of dogs and cats, as well as other species, including bats and insects.



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