Authors Illustrators Profiles

A profile of Edward Gorey, Author and Illustrator

A profile of Edward Gorey, an American artist who is best known for his off-beat, extremely detailed illustrations and stories depicting a strange world of macabre and fascinating characters.

Author and Illustrator Edward Gorey

Edward St. John Gorey was an American writer and artist who is best remembered for his unique style of illustration, marked by Victorian and Edwardian influenced macabre characters and situations.  Gorey wrote over than 100 books, and illustrated works by many great authors.

Gorey was born on February 22, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois.  He was an only child, and a precocious reader who taught himself to draw from an early age.  He graduated from high school in 1942 and went straight into the Army as a clerk during World War II.  Once released from the Armed Services, he went to Harvard and earned his B. A. degree in French literature in 1950.

Even though he was a self-taught artist, Gorey found employment in New York, at the Art Department of Doubleday Anchor from 1953 to 1960. Some examples of book cover illustrations that he is known for include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

In 1953, Gorey published his first work, titled The Unstrung Harp. His first children’s book was called The Doubtful Guest.  This 1957 publication features a penguin who manages to move into the home of a wealthy family.

A portion from Gashleycrumb Tinies

Gorey began to reach his stride in the 1960’s, and in 1962, his most acclaimed illustrated alphabet book was published. The Gashlycrumb Tinies teaches the alphabet as well as a twisted sense of humor, as each letter finds another child dispatched in alliterative fashion:  “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh…

He continued to create book after book, leaving behind quite an extensive bibliography. Gorey had a love for word play, and published some works under pen names that were anagrams of his first and last names.  Some examples are Drew Dogyear, Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, Ms. Regera Dowdy, and many more. He also published as Eduard Blutig and O. Müde, German puns on his anagram pen names.

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Gorey’s illustrated books were creative and stirring, while maintaining an air of mystery and ominous nature.  His style and tone are so unique that many bookstores were uncertain where to shelve his titles, as they varied from wordless tomes of surrealist art to special release publications the size of a matchbox.  Many of his macabre storylines featuring children were deemed too dark for the young ones, but his growing fan base snatched up everything that he released.

In 1978, Gorey won a Tony Award as Best Costume Designer for the stage musical production of “Dracula,” and was also nominated for the same playas Best Scenic Designer.  This increase in attention awarded him a new and long-lasting association with the PBS show, MYSTERY!  Gorey created the opening credits for the series, and it is through that medium that many became familiar with his black and white, dramatic inked characters.

Leaves From A Mislaid Album, First Edition, offered by Between the Covers- Rare Books, Inc. ABAA

Gorey’s world is a distinctly British-influenced combination of Victorian, Edwardian, and American Jazz age characters and settings.  You can expect to find dramatic, large urns and forbidding topiaries, peeling wallpaper and crumbling statuaries.   With his careful pen, he illustrated his bowler-hatted men and wistful flappers in the foreground of intensely perfect cross-hatching and textures.

Edward Gorey classified his writing as literary nonsense, saying “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children — oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.” While he disliked his art being pigeon-holed into the Goth genre, a large part of his fanbase indeed hails from that melodramatic, macabre subculture. His distinct style has influenced many later artists, and you can see Gorey’s work reflected in the themes used by Tim Burton, David Lynch, and Daniel Handler (author of Lemony Snicket).  Author Neil Gaiman wanted Gorey to illustrate his dark fantasy tale for children, “Coraline,” but completed the book just around the time of Gorey’s death of a heart attack in April 2000.

Edward Gorey’s home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts (once called the Elephant House) is open during the spring and summer seasons to the public as the Edward Gorey House.  It stands as a museum to the author and illustrator, as well as furthering Gorey’s work as an animal welfare advocate.

All the things you can talk about in anyone’s work are the things that are least important…. You can describe all the externals of a performance – everything, in fact, but what really constitutes its core. Explaining something makes it go away, so to speak; what’s important is what’s left over after you’ve explained everything else.” – Edward Gorey

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