Monday, August 9, 2010

The Mysterious Edward Gorey

by Julia Buckley

I first fell in love with Edward Gorey art back when MYSTERY appeared on PBS. Notice in this clip that MYSTERY was hosted by Vincent Price? I watched it even before Price hosted--Gene Shalit spoke the introductory words when the show aired in 1980. Then Price became the host, from 1980-1989, and finally the great Diana Rigg, who was the final host. Afterward MYSTERY aired with no host at all, which was, I think, a shame.

In 2008 MYSTERY became MASTERPIECE MYSTERY, hosted by Alan Cumming, and the Gorey introduction (with memorable theme song by Normand Roger) was dropped.

Still, when I think of MYSTERY, I think of Gorey and those wonderful title sequences.

It wasn't only MYSTERY that made Gorey famous, but his work is as recognizable on that show as it is in the various books, posters, and cards that bear his distinctive images. Gorey is a wonderful example of dark humor, and he created faux Gothic worlds, seemingly Edwardian or Victorian worlds, in which very mysterious and creepy things happened. Many fans assumed Gorey was English, but he was, in fact, born in Chicago, Illinois, and briefly attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1977 Gorey won a Tony Award for set design--appropriately for the play DRACULA. He loved ballet, cats, books and television.

One of my favorite Gorey works is called THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES, a book that was eventually made into a poster (and a poster which, in my own stab at dark humor, I once hung in my classroom). It tells the tale of a group of schoolchildren who all gradually died, some of quite dreadful causes. Gorey told the tale as a way of remembering the alphabet, but in true Gorey style, he tells it in rhyming couplets: "A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil, assaulted by bears." My personal favorite is Neville, who dies of ennui. :)

Last year my husband bought me a Gorey calendar which, month by month, tells the story of THE DOUBTFUL GUEST, a strange creature who shows up one day and doesn't leave. "When they answered the bell on that wild winter night, there was no one expected and no one in sight; then they saw something standing on top of an urn; his peculiar appearance gave them quite a turn . . ." The guest himself looks like a cross between a penguin and a short man cartoon, done in Gorey's distinctive, moody style. The family's travails with the "guest" become funnier and funnier, despite the gloom of the setting.

The same is true of the Gorey pop-up book my children had when they were small. It was called THE DWINDLING PARTY, and as with the TINIES, it told the tale of a group that grew smaller and smaller as all sorts of scary monsters consumed them one by one. It was deliciously funny and not at all scary to my six-year-old son, who enjoyed reading it repeatedly.

Perhaps Gorey's work was described best by Gorey himself, who called it "literary nonsense."

(Image: Wikipedia).


Sheila Connolly said...

Gorey's work is delightful.

We live not far from his home in Yarmouthport, MA, which I have toured several times. It's filled with the many small things he collected and scattered everywhere. What is so interesting is that you can look at them collectively and see his style in them (there are many curved and round things).

(And if you're in the neighborhood, there's a great restaurant and a used bookstore nearby.)

Sandra Parshall said...

I love Gorey's work! I still have a Mystery! mug I bought years ago from PBS. When it's cold, you see only the woman on the chaise and the cat on the big ottoman (or whatever it is), but when hot liquid is added, the Mystery! logo becomes visible -- along with the villain lurking behind a curtain. The handle is broken off the mug now, and the background images have become permanently visible. I use it on my desk as a pen/pencil cup.

Julia Buckley said...

He is so delightfully macabre. That sounds like a perfect pencil cup for a mystery writer, Sandra!

Sheila, what a neat tour that must be. I'm guessing visitors to your house are never at a loss for things to do.

Anonymous said...

I love the Ghastly Crumb Tinies! I'm thinking of photocopying and laminating each page separately and hanging it up over my blackboard, the way that some elementary school teachers hang up the alphabet. Do you think that is going to work?


Anonymous said...

I mean Gashlycrumb*! oops!

Julia Buckley said...


Don't go to the trouble--just buy the poster, which must be very reasonably priced on Amazon. It really is fun in a classroom.

David Cranmer said...

What a terrific opening. Classic.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Ah, Gorey -- creepy without being, well gory.

When I worked in bookstores in the late 1970s and early 1980s, two collections -- Amphigorey and Amphigorey, Too -- were popular. And despite the obvious appeal to teens and 20somethings, older readers liked him, too. Something in us loves a rhyme, and a line drawing, and a humorous touch of the macabre.


Julia Buckley said...

Yes, I miss it.

lil Gluckstern said...

Thank you for this reminder. Although I really like Alan Cumming, the Gorey opening was just wonderful. I still have a Mystery tote bag with those wonderful figures. Sometimes new is not better.

Diane said...

I, too, miss Gorey's wonderful intros to Mystery. Though I had no idea who had done them. I'll have to look out for some of his works. I know my grandkids would find them wonderfully funny. I'll have to go to Google and check out where Yarmouthport is in relation to Cape Cod. My former son-in-law is from there and his parents are still there. In fact, my granddaughter is there now, so if it's not far, maybe they could check it out before coming home to VA.

Marlyn said...

I discovered Gorey through PBS as well, though it wasn't until the Diana Rigg years. I'm proud to say that I introduced my stepdaughter to him, and she's become quite a fan.

Mare F said...

I love Edward Gorey and beleive I began when you did with Mystery! I have several of his books and long to have a signed print. Maybe someday.

Julia Buckley said...

Lil, I haven't really watched too many with Alan Cumming. I guess I'll have to give him another chance.

Diane, your grandkids absolutely would love him. I know my children "got" his humor despite the fact that it's macabre.

Marlyn, I did love Diana Rigg as host.

Mare, I couldn't even begin to guess what that would cost, but it would be a neat acquisition. :)

Diane said...

Well, I went to Google Maps, and lo and behold - Yarmouth Port is not near Cape Cod - it's on it. I texted my wasinlaw and asked him if he knew of Edward Gorey. He texted back 'Yes!' and started quoting the Ghashly Crumb Tinies. I told him about Gorey's house and sent him a link to this site (though he's at work at the moment). My 13 yr old grandson was here, so I showed him the blog and Mystery intro. He, too, loved it. So there may be some visitors from VA visitign the home soon.

Julia Buckley said...

That's great, Diane! More Gorey fans are born.