Edward Gorey was an American author and illustrator of many books which enjoy cult status due to their cerebral and disquieting drawings. They look like something out of a late 19th century, early 20th century picture book but have a surreal, ominous, sinister atmosphere about them. Gorey wrote both for children as well as adults, though their macabre tone has made some guardians wonder whether they are really that appropriate for a young audience? Nevertheless, the books have an oddly humorous undertone which quite some children enjoy. As often with authors of eccentric books, Gorey himself was quite an unusual man too. He published many of his works under anagrams and was one of history's most well known asexuals. The artist was furthermore fascinated with ballet, fur coats, tennis shoes and cats, all themes which appear regularly in his work, which he referred to as "literary nonsense".
Born in 1925 in Chicago as the son of a journalist, Gorey hardly had any formal art training. He spent only one semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943. Among his graphic influences were Giorgione, Michelangelo, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Winslow Homer, John Tenniel, Pablo Picasso, Edward Lear, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Giorgio di Chirico, Balthus and James Thurber. He loved novelists like Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Robert Musil, Anthony Trollope, Ronald Firbank and Louis Feuillade, adored ballet performances by George Balanchine and followed TV shows like 'Doctor Who', 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'The X-Files' religiously. He was also fond about animated TV series like 'Batman: The Animated Series' (1992-1995) - which was based on the DC comic created by Bob Kane - and 'Ned's Newt' (1997-1999). In terms of comics Gorey loved George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, DC Comics and Marvel Comics and - surprisingly enough - the works of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. His personal library not only lists several 'Astérix' albums, but also rare English translations of the series 'Oumpa-Pah'. When Gorey was interviewed for Proust's famous Questionnaire in 1997 he even named 'Astérix' one of his favorite names.
After graduating from the University of Harvard in 1950 with a Bachelor of Arts in French he co-founded the Poets' Theatre in Cambridge with a couple of fellow students. He worked in several book stores as an office clerk. Between 1953 and 1960 he did his first art assignments at the Art Department of Doubleday Anchor in New York City. His art appeared on the covers of books like Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', H.G. Wells' 'The War of the Worlds' and T.S. Eliot's 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats', and he has illustrated many works of children's book author John Bellairs and his successor Brad Strickland. Summarizing Gorey's full bibliography is somewhat difficult, since he illustrated over 300 books, several of which under pseudonyms. He enjoyed using vowels and consonants of his own name and rearranging them into anagrams.
His personal works, starting with 'The Unstrung Harp' in 1953, have gained a cult following. 'The Unstrung Harp' (1953) shows the process behind a writer working on a book, told in 30 images. Yet every image is full of odd details, which the equally strange text never explains. In many ways it was somewhat similar to the Dadaist graphic novels of Max Ernst. Novelist Graham Greene (best known for 'The Third Man') was nevertheless in such awe of 'The Unstrung Harp' that he even called it "the best novel ever written about a novelist, and I should know!" Many of Gorey's illustrated novels echo the Victorian and Edwardian age and have the same "scare 'em straight" undertones of ancient fairy tales and children's books like Heinrich Hoffmann's 'Der Struwwelpeter'. In 'The Gashlycrumb Tinies' (1963) the deaths of 26 children are told in alphabetical order and on rhyme. 'The Stupid Joke' (1990) follows a young boy who stays in bed all day and tricks his family into thinking he is dead, with dire consequences afterwards. What saves these gruesome stories with nightmarish imagery from being truly disturbing is the dry writing style and surreal atmosphere. Some audiences therefore find them amusing at the same time. 'The Unknown Vegetable' (1995), for instance, has a woman eat a plant and choke to death from it, which leads to the closing statement: "There is a moral to this fable / of an unknown vegetable." In the same vein there is 'The Curious Sofa' (1961), which was sold under the tagline of being "a pornographic illustrated story about furniture". However, the irony of his book is that none of the illustrations are actually erotic and that Gorey himself was asexual. It's just the reader's own overactive imagination which might find sexual imagery in it.
His art style also found its way to Broadway plays, such 'Dracula' (1977), of which his costume designs won him a Tony Award. He designed the opening credits of the PBS TV anthology series 'Mystery!' (1980-2006), which were animated by Eugene Federenko, Derek Lamb and Janet Perlman. He received several literary awards over the decades, including the New York Times Prize for Best Illustrated Novel (1969) (1971), the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (1977), the World Fantasy Award (1985) (1989) and the 1999 Bram Stoker Award for his entire career. He eventually settled in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where he produced entertainments starring papier-mâché puppets, called Le Theatricule Stoique. In 2000 he passed away from a heart attack. Most of his work has been collected in the books 'Amphigorey' (1972), 'Amphigorey too' (1975), 'Amphigorey also' (1983) and 'Amphigorey also' (2006).
Edward Gorey was a huge influence on artists like Jean-Emmanuel Vermot Desroches, Rob Reger, Neil Gaiman (particularly 'Coraline') and Terry Gilliam. Gilliam was one of several people who are interviewed in Christopher Seufert's documentary, 'The Last Days of Edward Gorey' (2015). Some of Gorey's books have been adapted into musical pieces, like 'The Hapless Child' (1976) by Michael Mantler, 'The Evil Garden' (2001) by Max Nagl, 'The Gorey End' (2003) by The Tiger Lilies and The Kronos Quartet and 'The Doubtful Guest' (2006-2007) by Stephan Winkler. His work was an influence on Mark Romanek's music video for 'The Perfect Drug' by Nine Inch Nails, as well as the films of Tim Burton. Gorey also inspired the webcomic 'Edward Gorey's 'The Trouble with Smithson' by Shaenon Garrity, Robert Stevenson, Brian Moore and Roger Langridge. At the end of 'The Simpsons' episode 'The D'oh-cial Network' (2012) by Matt Groening a short atmospheric film can be seen, 'Story's Too Short', paying homage to Gorey's trademark style. Other celebrities who've praised Gorey's work are painter Oskar Kokoschka and novelists John Updike, Alison Lurie and Maurice Sendak.