YARMOUTH PORT, MASS. -- Teatime at the home of Edward Gorey. He fills the teapot but leaves the water running because a ginger cat who's hopped up on the sink -- Billy, is it? Or Charlie? With seven in residence, it's difficult to keep track -- is slurping thirstily from the tap.
"Yes, dear, are you through?" Gorey asks mildly, after some time. "Can I turn the faucet off now? Thanks ever so." A moment later, he yelps in alarm. "Sweetie!" Another cat -- Jane? Alice? -- is about to devour the cranberry muffins.
What a comfort to learn that an artist and author whose work is so profoundly strange -- whether found between book covers, at the start of public television's "Mystery!" series or onstage at the Kennedy Center tonight in BalletWest's production of "The Gilded Bat" -- does not live a prosaic, split-level sort of life.
"You'll see a decrepit gray house," he had said, giving directions on the phone. He did not exaggerate. The house, a rambling 19th-century relic, is so overgrown with clematis vines and venerable lilacs as to appear uninhabited. Layers of paint alligator off the old clapboards. Inside, though it's brighter than one might expect for the creator of so much sinister crosshatching, Gorey's house is satisfyingly singular, each room tilting in a different direction and all of them overwhelmed by piles of books.
There may even be -- if the wooden houses he's hung outside attract tenants -- bats. "I love bats," says Gorey. "I don't know any bats, but in principle."
For nearly 40 years, Gorey has been known for his precise pen-and-ink drawings of vaguely Victorian Englishpersons suffering ghastly fates and demises, often described in droll rhyme. So resistant is his oeuvre to classification that critics reach for dueling descriptives like amusingly macabre or horrifyingly whimsical, while booksellers and librarians wonder where to shelve his books.
Take the classic "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," an alphabet book. Does this set of 26 carefully illustrated childhood catastrophes ("M is for Maud who was swept out to sea/N is for Neville who died of ennui") belong among the juvenilia? It's like Dr. Seuss on a bad trip, though possibly funnier.
How many adults, on the other hand, picked up "The Gilded Bat," a mordant 60-page spoof of the ballet world and its mythologies? What to make of "The Curious Sofa," subtitled "a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary" -- one of Gorey's anagrammatic aliases, along with G.E. Deadworry, Deary Rewdgo, and Mrs. Regera Dowdy. Gorey has illustrated scores of other authors' books as well, and articles in magazines from the Partisan Review to the National Lampoon.
Not that Gorey, to whom contemporary marketing notions about target audiences and so forth are entirely alien, seems bothered by this uncategorizability. "Who's going to like what, or why they're going to like it, or if they're going to like it, I don't think anybody has any idea," he says.
Accordingly, he's only rarely been persuaded to please anybody -- publishers, merchandisers, agents, accountants -- but himself. With each passing year (he'll turn 67 this winter) he seems less concerned with other people's timetables or expectations and less willing to leave Cape Cod. The Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, which does a brisk business in Goreybilia, occasionally sends vanloads of books to Yarmouth Port for Gorey's signatures; he won't come to New York for signings because, he tells Mart proprietor Andreas Brown, he can't leave his cats.
"Washington seems far away," is Gorey's explanation of why he won't be coming to see "The Gilded Bat," which despite (or because of) its melancholy has audiences laughing throughout. "New York seems far away." He hasn't been there since he gave up his rent-controlled apartment several years ago. "Boston seems far away."
A cat is digging its claws into the shoulder of Gorey's worn brown sweater. Occasionally, one has been known to pounce on his drawing table and casually ruin a day's work by knocking over the ink bottle. "Oh, Billy dear," he sighs. "Silly puss."
Childhood and First Fantods A small crystal frog hangs from a string around his neck. He still wears a full white beard, classic white sneakers and a variety of rings in his ears and on his fingers -- Gorey signatures for decades -- but he has given up the long fur coats in which he used to sweep about New York. "I was perhaps insensitive at the time," he says penitently.
There is no simple clue of autobiography or psychology that explains Gorey's eccentric imagination. He's a Chicagoan and an only child but not, he explains, the sort of only child often evoked by the term. "I think of myself as being sensitive and pale and wan but I wasn't really at all," he says. "I was out there playing kick-the-can."
Harvard-educated but largely self-taught as an artist, he passed through such commonplace institutions as the Army and the art department of Doubleday & Co. with his idiosyncrasies intact. The first of his menacing little volumes, now numbering upwards of 75, began appearing in the mid-'50s.
Early on, he'd sent his manuscripts to children's publishers. They'd say, "Oh no, that wouldn't do at all," he recounts, to which he responded, "Oh foof." He's had a slew of publishers since, but when a tale seems too bizarre for any of them Gorey simply publishes it himself in a signed edition of 200 or 500, either under the imprint of the Gotham Book Mart or his own Fantod Press. "A Victorian word," he explains. "If you have the fantods, you have the vapors, the nervous tizzies." A fantod has also become, in several Gorey books, a small, scaly animal with its tail in its mouth, sometimes found stuffed and displayed in a bell jar.
"There seems to be absolutely no commercial calculation in his work," says Chris van Allsburg, author and illustrator of the best-selling "The Polar Express" and a Gorey admirer. "It's purely personal artistic expression."
It's so personal that while connoisseurs can see that 19th-century engravers and illustrators like Aubrey Beardsley influence Gorey, they see little Gorey influence on other contemporary artists. "He's kind of out there by himself," says Walt Reed, owner of New York's Illustration House gallery. "Almost invariably, successful illustrators attract imitators, but I can't think of anyone who's trying to follow him. ... He's sort of a one-man school."
Gorey's quite willing to cooperate in an exploration of his work, of how best to describe it and whence it flows. It's just that one doesn't get terribly far.
"I don't know, I've always vaguely resented being looked on as so macabre," he begins. "It doesn't seem as macabre to me as to other people." Pause. "Though of course some of it is."
Take "The Loathsome Couple," based on an actual British occurrence, in which two misfits matter-of-factly abduct and dispatch several children, eventually being discovered by the snapshots they've taken of their grisly hobby. Gorey's agent sent it to Robert Gottlieb, then an editor at Simon & Schuster and now editor of the New Yorker, who rejected it on the grounds that it wasn't funny. "Well Bob, it wasn't meant to be funny; what a peculiar reaction," Gorey remembers thinking in exasperation.
In fact, he was alarmed to see that "The Loathsome Couple" was included in "Gorey Stories," a 1978 off-Broadway revue. "I thought, 'Are they out of their minds?' " Another pause. "Actually, it was the funniest piece in the show. I was on the floor, night after night. I don't know why. I still think it's one of the most horrifying things I've ever done."
What adjectives, then, would the creator of "The Glorious Nosebleed" and "The Beastly Baby" choose to apply? Gorey sighs. "Oh. Um. I don't know, exactly." He cogitates a bit. "Surrealist, in a way. I'm not very fond of most surrealist art, but I have a great sympathy for the surrealist philosophy."
There follows a short digression and then this confession: "Sometimes I'm aiming to make everyone a trifle uneasy. Life is rather uneasy-making, so art should be too. In a way."
Finally, a good-natured verbal shrug. "The longer I go on, the more it all sort of evades me."
All Gorey knows is, things come to him, visual images and phrases and ideas. He jots all these things down in black 5-by-8 sketchbooks, of which there are now hundreds, making it difficult to retrieve his inspirations afterward. In fact, when he does stumble back upon some germ of a thought years later, he sometimes wonders where it came from and what in the world he ever intended to do with it.
But it doesn't matter terribly much, because there are always scores of projects that editors and publishers and producers want him to take on. First he says yes to too many and then, notoriously lax about deadlines and harried by the pressure, he says no to everything. Brown of the Gotham Book Mart, Gorey's friend and de facto art agent, is waiting for Gorey to get around to illustrating a short story for a long-planned small printing. So is the story's author, John Updike. But much of the summer was taken up with semi-amateur Cape Cod theatrical productions, revues that Gorey has directed and designed and given names like "Useful Urns" and "Flapping Ankles." He is interested, as he puts it, in far too much.
There's a yowl from the general direction of the counter top. One of the cats has claws that don't retract well; he tends to get stuck. "Billy," Gorey says firmly, "you're just going to have to get yourself loose from there."
And Now He Stays Home He was not always so -- reclusive is the wrong word; he sees movies, including every "Friday the 13th" and "Elm Street" horror flick; he visits cousins and friends -- so rooted. He's spent at least half the year on Cape Cod since the mid-'60s, but New Yorkers could always count on Gorey's arriving back in town, where he and the cats kept a flat in Murray Hill, in time for the season opener at the New York City Ballet. He attended virtually every performance, lured less by the company itself than by the choreographic genius of founder-director George Balanchine, then left for the Cape the day after the season ended.
When Balanchine died in 1983, "I should have given it up right then and there," Gorey says. "I always said I would, but I didn't have the guts." Afterward, he increasingly found, "the steps would all be there, though sometimes somewhat eroded. But ... it was being put on in a language that was no longer familiar to you; it made no sense."
Besides, the city whose theater and opera and galleries had drawn him 30 years earlier was no longer the same place. Whatever delight Gorey takes in subjecting his characters to dismal encounters, he's not fond of such events in real life. A few years ago, he relates, he and a friend boarded a subway in midtown in late afternoon. "There were about 20 people in the car, all of them unconscious, either on the seats or on the floor. Several of them might have been dead, for all I knew." He hasn't been back. He's become, he announces, a "total couch potato."
This retreat may make it even more difficult than it intrinsically is to introduce the eccentricities of Goreyland to a wider audience. Suspended somewhere between the cult status of earlier years and the broader recognition accorded someone like Maurice Sendak (reportedly a fan), Gorey says he doesn't much care about being famous.
But, he adds, "I'd like to be rich, still." This house he's lived in for five years isn't unpainted for aesthetic reasons, just financial ones. "My archives will be sold to someone at some point or another, and all my troubles will be over."
That malls and gift shoppes aren't full of Gorey T-shirts, greeting cards and barbecue aprons has partly to do with the blithe morbidity of his style, neither as lovable as Kliban's cats or as off-the-wall as Larson's "The Far Side." But it also reflects Gorey's own ambivalence: He'd be happy to be merchandised (he's done a few items for PBS and other nonprofits) but can't quite stomach the dealmakers and their requirements. He'd be interested in pursuing an animation project, but except for "Mystery!" it has somehow never materialized.
After the 1978 Broadway hit "Dracula," which he designed and won a Tony for, a "merchandise lady" took Gorey to the showroom of a china distributor then heavily invested in Muppets. The china people wanted side and front views of Gorey figures. "I kept thinking, talking to these people, 'They have no eye for anything unless they see it in front of their faces in Technicolor,' " Gorey remembers. Besides, every business proposition invariably involves agents and lawyers and accountants. "Something comes up, some little thing, and they'll go on and on about contracts. I just think, 'Oh God, life's too short for all this sort of thing.' "
This is not the generally recommended way to get rich. Lately, however, producer Clifford Ross, a chum and admirer since he curated a Gorey exhibit as a Yale art student in 1974, has made it a mission to allow Gorey to "paint on a larger canvas," as Ross puts it. Negotiations have been underway for some time, and Ross says that "a live-action prime-time television series based on Edward's work and world," plus a live-action feature film, are in the offing. "Here is a fantastic body of work and a very creative mind," Ross says. "Maybe the time has come."
It's hard to imagine Gorey's work on a network's prime-time schedule, although as Ross points out, a few years back one might not have imagined David Lynch's or Matt Groening's there either. Perhaps the time for wealth and fame has come.
That is, so long as no one's alerted the programming execs to the illustrated limericks Gorey created for "The Listing Attic," viz.:
From Number Nine, Penwiper Mews,
There is really abominable news:
They've discovered a head
In the box for the bread,
But nobody seems to know whose.
Gorey himself has often cherished a different sort of fantasy, though. It used to come to him as he drove from the Cape to New York and back. About midway, in a small town somewhere in Rhode Island, he passed a one-room library and imagined a lovely life as its librarian. "You could have a little house nearby and go to the library every day and sit in the quiet," he says happily, undoubtedly envisioning a few cats dozing atop the card catalogue. "Oh, how soothing."