Ed­ward Gorey is an es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult sub­ject for a bi­og­ra­pher

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Born To Be Post­hu­mous

The Ec­cen­tric Life and Mys­te­ri­ous Ge­nius of Ed­ward Gorey

By Mark Dery, Lit­tle, Brown, 512 pp. $35.

Ed­ward Gorey’s mod­ern Gothic world is as eerie as it is in­stantly rec­og­niz­able: Grim, house-coated pa­tri­archs; wilt­ing, kohl-eyed flap­pers; faint­ing hostesses and hap­less tots; fig­ures posed pe­cu­liarly in deep-shad­owed draw­ing rooms or be­side omi­nous urns. Gorey’s ad­mir­ers could be for­given for be­liev­ing that he was English, per­haps a con­tem­po­rary of Ed­ward Lear or Eve­lyn Waugh. They might be sur­prised to learn that their fa­vorite pur­veyor of mor­bid tableaux and sin­is­ter verse was not only Amer­i­can but also worked right into the In­ter­net age.

Gorey presents an es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult sub­ject for a bi­og­ra­pher. He took pains to con­ceal him­self even from those clos­est to him. Mark Dery at­tempts to dis­pel some of the mystery in “Born to Be Post­hu­mous: The Ec­cen­tric Life and Mys­te­ri­ous Ge­nius of Ed­ward Gorey,” the first full-length bi­og­ra­phy of Gorey.

He sug­gests that the in­scrutable Gorey lived “as if he’d been born in the wrong time, maybe even on the wrong planet.” Both his sub­jects and style make him seem a prod­uct of a by­gone age: His Vic­to­rian, Ed­war­dian and Jazz Age draw­ings look like lith­o­graphs, thanks to dense hatch­ing. (Dery calls them “hand-drawn en­grav­ings.”)

He re­ferred to his spooky il­lus­trated books as “Vic­to­rian nov­els all scrunched up,” adding that his aim was al­ways “to make ev­ery­body as uneasy as pos­si­ble.” Gorey mined ev­ery­thing from French silent films and Agatha Christie nov­els to Pu­ri­tan primers and Dick­en­sian tear-jerk­ers to cre­ate a style lit­er­ary critic Edmund Wilson de­scribed as “equally amus­ing and somber, nos­tal­gic and claus­tro­pho­bic, at the same time poetic and poi­soned.” Gorey him­self called it “sin­is­ter-slash­cozy.”

So what do we know about the ever elu­sive Gorey? Con­trary to ex­pec­ta­tions, he claimed to have en­joyed a “typ­i­cal sort of Mid­dle-West­ern child­hood.” Born in 1925, the only child of a dot­ing mother and a dash­ing news­pa­per­man fa­ther, his bud­ding in­tel­lec­tual fan­cies were lav­ishly in­dulged. He be­gan draw­ing be­fore age 2 and, by 8, had read “Franken­stein,” “Drac­ula” and the col­lected works of Vic­tor

Hugo.

By the time he fin­ished high school and a stint in the Army, he had de­voured thou­sands of books, from dime­store mys­ter­ies to “Ulysses,” ac­cord­ing to his Har­vard ap­pli­ca­tion. Once at Har­vard, he cul­ti­vated a bo­hemian per­sona and be­friended the poet Frank O’Hara, with whom he formed a “twoman coun­ter­cul­ture.” Though Gorey claimed to be “asex­ual” and celi­bate while in col­lege, he found him­self gripped by a num­ber of ho­mo­sex­ual “crushes” of a kind that would con­tinue through­out his life, though all seem to have quickly fiz­zled.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he made his way to Man­hat­tan, where he made rent with mem­o­rable dust-jacket il­lus­tra­tions for such works as T.S. Eliot’s “Old Pos­sum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats.” He man­aged nearly per­fect at­ten­dance at the New York City Bal­let dur­ing the era when Ge­orge Balan­chine presided, which ex­plains why his enig­matic fig­ures tend to strike Balan­chinian poses.

He could be spot­ted at in­ter­mis­sion in his trade­mark rac­coon coat, jeans and scuffed Keds, Vik­ing-like rings clank­ing on his fin­gers as he gos­siped about his fa­vorite dancers. When not at the bal­let or work ta­ble, he read or went to the movies. He even­tu­ally amassed more than 20,000 books and some­times took in as many as a thou­sand films a year.

Gorey’s path from ob­scu­rity to cult fig­ure in the 1960s and fame in the ’80s was grad­ual but unswerv­ing. His first book, “The Un­strung Harp,” a tale of writer’s block, ap­peared in 1953. Four more books fol­lowed be­fore the decade was out. The ‘60s saw some of his most am­bi­tious, and most no­to­ri­ous, work, in­clud­ing “The Gash­ly­crumb Tinies,” an al­pha­bet book that de­tails the un­timely deaths of young chil­dren. Some­how Gorey man­ages to be at once dread­ful and droll: “M is for MAUD who was swept out to sea. N is for NEVILLE who died of en­nui.”

By the ’70s, Gorey had be­come some­thing of a brand. Mer­chan­dise, sold at Gotham Book Mart, grew to in­clude book­marks, posters, mugs, stickers, bean­bag dolls, pins and watches. There was even a line of fur coats for men. The ti­tle se­quence for PBS’s “Mystery!” brought Gorey into liv­ing rooms across the coun­try, and his de­signs for “Drac­ula” on Broad­way en­abled him to buy a house on Cape Cod. How did Gorey re­act to this ex­plo­sion? “How very apt. Lit­tle bits of me all over the place.”

Gorey’s “un­der­state­ment, omis­sion and am­bi­gu­ity” may have seemed un­con­ven­tional in the ’50s, but they have come to feel al­most or­di­nary in our newly Gothic age. In fact, Dery makes the case that with­out Gorey, we wouldn’t have the likes of Neil Gaiman, Daniel Han­dler or Tim Burton. Dery’s smart and en­ter­tain­ing bi­og­ra­phy is alert to the count­less hints and clues Gorey left ly­ing about for his fans. It brings us closer than ever to un­der­stand­ing a man de­voted to enig­mas; yet, af­ter show­ing us so much about Gorey’s artis­tic life, even his bi­og­ra­pher is obliged to ad­mit that “the man who loved mys­ter­ies was him­self a mystery — even to him­self, it seems.”

LIT­TLE BROWN

‘Born to Be Post­hu­mous, The Ec­cen­tric Life and Mys­te­ri­ous Ge­nius of Ed­ward Gorey' by Mark Dery.

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