Profile of Edward Gorey

Oliver Burkeman ventures into the weird world of Edward Gorey

The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium

80pp, Bloomsbury, £8.99
Buy it at BOL

The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel

64pp, Bloomsbury, £5.99
Buy it at BOL

Edward Gorey

"Many of Edward Gorey's most fervent devotees think he must be both a) English and b) dead," reads the biographical note on one of his darkly illustrated tales of hapless babies, consumptive waifs and sexually traumatising furniture. "Actually, he has never so much as visited either place."

No longer, sadly: though Gorey never did make it across the Atlantic, he is now - owing to a heart attack in April, aged 75, in the cat-filled Cape Cod farmhouse where he lived alone - a permanent resident of the other side. It's easy to see why readers thought he moved there years ago, his more than 50 books seeming to have issued from the pen of the love child (orphaned, of course) of Ivy Compton Burnett and Edgar Allan Poe.

They are cautionary tales bereft of moral resolution - stories of gin-soaked children and pale-faced newborns brought low by nameless monsters, sudden fires and mysterious vapours. The titles set the tone: The Hapless Child, The Listing Attic, The Fatal Lozenge. Gorey always insisted they were aimed at "reasonably small children", and unconvincingly denied taking any morbid relish in their creation. They are, almost without exception, unspeakably funny. "To take my works seriously," as Gorey once put it, "would be the height of folly."

The really morbid stuff all happens out of sight. Winding staircases vanish out of the frame; inscrutable objects can just be made out in the depths of frenziedly crosshatched shadow. The Gashlycrumb Tinies, ostensibly a children's ABC, shows each of its protagonists immediately prior to meeting a grisly end ("I is for Ida who drowned in a lake / J is for James who took lye by mistake"). In The Curious Sofa - "A pornographic work by Ogdred Weary" - elegant furs vanish behind Edwardian screens and drawing rooms stand empty while captions archly tell the tale of a depraved dinner party: "That evening in the library, Scylla, one of the guests who had certain anatomical peculiarities, demonstrated the 'Lithuanian Typewriter', assisted by Ronald and Robert, two remarkably well-set-up young men from the village."

The Headless Bust - Gorey's final work and a sequel (to the extent that the concept makes sense in a world largely lacking in narrative logic) to The Haunted Tea Cosy - is an improvisation on the theme of Dickens's A Christmas Carol . An oversized beetle, The Bahhumbug, accosts Edmund Gravel in the small hours of the morning and takes him on a tour of every kind of haplessness:

Sir U- fell from a speeding train

Which did some damage to his brain

And after that he did not know

How to pronounce the letter O.

The seasoned Gorey reader, though, will not be expecting a moral at the end:

"Who were those people? Why did they

Appear to us along the way?"

"But then again, why should we care?

It's quelque chose d'un grand mystère."

The Unstrung Harp, originally published in 1953, is Gorey's first work, and is largely unconcerned with macabre deaths. Instead, it is a parodic meditation on the masochism of the novelist's life -specifically, the life of Mr Earbrass, a renowned writer resident "near Collapsed Pudding in Mortshire", who begins a novel on November 18 each year. Finding a subject is trial enough, but it is the rewrites that cause him the greatest agonies: "This is worse than merely writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones." Already, Gorey's illustrative style seems fully developed - aspects of Japanese art, Beardsleyesque line drawings and modern American cartooning collide in a dark stew of tenebrous living rooms and sinister antiques shops.

Gorey's works deserve to be far more than a mere cult, and Bloomsbury has made an admirable start at bringing them to a UK audience. Along with these volumes, a handful already published here include The Doubtful Guest, the story of a mournful, plimsoll-wearing, unidentifiable furry creature that disturbs the calm of an elegant family home one winter's night and ends up staying ("It came 17 years ago, and to this day / It has shown no intention of going away").

But there ought to be many more yet to come - plenty to keep "reasonably small children" in Christmas presents for years, though probably also in therapy for several years after that.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Observer review: Father Figure by Ann Widdecombe

Fathers 4 Justice will be delighted by Ann Widdecombe's latest novel, Father Figure, says Frank Kane.

Frank Kane

16, Jan, 2005 @12:48 AM

Article image
Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas review – the gory birth of Christianity
The author of The Slap plunges into the tumult of early Christianity, with a visceral portrait of the life of Saint Paul

Rob Doyle

04, Mar, 2020 @7:30 AM

Interview: Ali Smith

Ali Smith's books attract huge praise and her new novel looks set to do the same. Too bad she hates publicity.

Louise France

22, May, 2005 @11:43 AM

Article image
The best books about the Congo

Richard Lea surveys the best books about a troubled region

02, Nov, 2007 @3:39 PM

Review: Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

In a crowded field, Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, shines with virtuosity

Kathryn Hughes

10, May, 2003 @12:40 AM

Louise France meets authors whose explicit prose is unleashing 'posh porn'

Erotic fiction has been languishing on the top shelf for years, but a new generation of women writers is moving it from the fringes to the literary mainstream, with candid bestsellers such as The Sexual Life of Catherine M blazing a trail. Louise France meets five authors whose explicit prose is unleashing 'posh porn' on an ever-increasing market.

Louise France

05, Mar, 2006 @12:01 AM

Article image
Review: Demonized by Christopher Fowler

Douglas Field enjoys some elegant prose in Christopher Fowler's Demonized

Douglas Field

27, Mar, 2004 @12:34 AM

Tall stories

The new novel by A. S. Byatt is as heavy as a brick; and a brick, in a way, is what it is ' part of the Tower of Babel of which she has appointed herself assistant architect.

05, May, 1996 @3:54 PM

True stories

Forget the city girl oeuvre - if you want to write a successful novel, set it around a historical event. Ros Coward on why books are looking back

Ros Coward

16, Jun, 2000 @1:04 AM

Article image
Fingersmith: sensation novels

Sarah Waters on the echoes of 'sensation novels' in Fingersmith.

Sarah Waters

17, Jun, 2006 @11:22 AM