Gorey Masterpieces



Fans of PBS’s Mystery! series may know Edward Gorey as the illustrator who drew the title animations seen at the beginning of the show for many years. The animated sequence was famous enough that when PBS redesigned all the titles for the Masterpiece programs (of which Mystery! is now a part) they kept a few brief glimpses of the original Gorey drawings, the implication being that his work is so recognizable a part of the personality and atmosphere of the series it couldn’t quite be eliminated.

But Edward Gorey was much more than a Mystery! illustrator—he was a highly original and extremely prolific illustrator, artist, designer, playwright, poet, and creative personality. Gorey was well-educated at Harvard, but amazingly had very little training in art. He studied for one semester at the Art Institute of Chicago, but besides those few months he was self-taught. Early in his career he got a job working for a publisher and began drawing book covers; his work was successful enough that he quickly began writing and illustrating his own books.

Though he became famous as an illustrator, his creative personality overflowed into everything he did. He loved ballet and the theater; he wrote and designed his own puppet plays, and even won a Tony for costume design for Dracula. He was eccentric in his dress and loved huge fur coats. He drew inspiration from artists and authors as diverse as Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and Vermeer, as well as from his favorite movies and TV shows (he loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the X-Files) and even commercials.

In his books he constantly tried new approaches or ideas: sometimes the books were completely wordless, and some were tiny or an unusual size or format. The books were sometimes written for adults and sometimes for children, but they generally featured a morbid sense of humor, parody, wordplay, and of course his trademark gloomy illustrations.

What made this self-taught artist so instantaneously popular and recognizable? Part of the Gorey phenomenon is the way his work brims over with personality and style. His illustrations resemble old woodcuts or Victorian gothic drawings. Done in pen and ink, they often have strong dark / light contrasts, heavy crosshatching to show texture, and striking compositions. Gorey knew just how much to show and how much to leave to the imagination. Sometimes there are dark shadows lurking in the background of his work, but he leaves them undefined to make them even more spooky. His figures are at times dressed in unrelieved black to highlight their creepily emotionless faces.

Gorey’s work is also unique because his own overactive imagination floods every piece. The concepts are over-the-top bizarre and funny or whimsical or naughty. One of his most famous books, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, is an ABC book of children who die in morbidly strange ways such as choking on a peach or being mauled by bears. In The Doubtful Guest, a mysterious person shows up in the house but never says a word.

Critics claim his work is too morbid for children, that he had ulterior motives in creating it, or that it should be pigeonholed as only appropriate for weirdos and goths. Certainly, Gorey is not for everyone. If you’re easily disturbed by gallows humor, don’t like surrealism, and prefer sweet optimism, you’re unlikely to appreciate him. A summary of his book subjects makes him sound like a horribly depressing person: they feature death, demons, ghosts, swooping bats, and naughty innuendo. But on the other hand, friends remember him as a charming man who was genuine and honest, hated pretentiousness, and loved all kinds of art and culture. He lived alone with his pet cats but maintained several lifelong and very loyal friendships.

Summarizing his topics leaves out the sly humor and social commentary. They are subtle and ironic rather than shocking or violent; he even described his books as “mildly unsettling.” Even children are capable of taking Gorey’s work with the irreverent but understated humor he intended. They can be read on many levels and categorized in many different ways. The Doubtful Guest, mentioned above, can be a spooky story, but it is also metaphor for the way harried parents of newborns often feel. (It was inspired by one of his friend’s letters about a new baby.) The Gashlycrumb Tinies, according to Gorey, was just an outpouring of exuberant imagination on his part, and intended to be a spoof on cautionary Victorian moral tales. But it also pokes at a subject that many people find frightening and mysterious.

And no matter what you think of Gorey’s work, any artist or creative person must admire the way he pursued his craft. He nurtured his imagination in every way possible—the ballets, theater, movies, literature, and TV he loved gave him ideas. When he was struck by concepts in talking to friends, he transmuted those everyday ideas into fantastic new illustrations. Yet despite the wild flights of his imagination he was described as “calm and sane” by those who knew him, a person who was clearly grounded in the quiet pace of his own life. The consistency and dedication of this approach is a great model for anyone who longs to create a unique style. ■



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