Edward Gorey’s modern Gothic world is as eerie as it is instantly recognizable: Grim, house-coated patriarchs; wilting, kohl-eyed flappers; fainting hostesses and hapless tots; figures posed peculiarly in deep-shadowed drawing rooms or beside ominous urns. Gorey’s admirers could be forgiven for believing that he was English, perhaps a contemporary of Edward Lear or Evelyn Waugh. They might be surprised to learn that their favorite purveyor of morbid tableaux and sinister verse was not only American but also worked right into the Internet age.
Gorey presents an especially difficult subject for a biographer. He took pains to conceal himself even from those closest to him. Mark Dery attempts to dispel some of the mystery in “Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey,” the first full-length biography of Gorey. He suggests that the inscrutable Gorey lived “as if he’d been born in the wrong time, maybe even on the wrong planet.” Both his subjects and style make him seem a product of a bygone age: His Victorian, Edwardian and Jazz Age drawings look like lithographs, thanks to dense hatching. (Dery calls them “hand-drawn engravings.”) He referred to his spooky illustrated books as “Victorian novels all scrunched up,” adding that his aim was always “to make everybody as uneasy as possible.” Gorey mined everything from French silent films and Agatha Christie novels to Puritan primers and Dickensian tear-jerkers to create a style literary critic Edmund Wilson described as “equally amusing and somber, nostalgic and claustrophobic, at the same time poetic and poisoned.” Gorey himself called it “sinister-slash-cozy.”
So what do we know about the ever elusive Gorey? Contrary to expectations, he claimed to have enjoyed a “typical sort of Middle-Western childhood.” Born in 1925, the only child of a doting mother and a dashing newspaperman father, his budding intellectual fancies were lavishly indulged. He began drawing before age 2 and, by 8, had read “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and the collected works of Victor Hugo. By the time he finished high school and a stint in the Army, he had devoured thousands of books, from dime-store mysteries to “Ulysses,” according to his Harvard application. Once at Harvard, he cultivated a bohemian persona and befriended the poet Frank O’Hara, with whom he formed a “two-man counterculture.” Though Gorey claimed to be “asexual” and celibate while in college, he found himself gripped by a number of homosexual “crushes” of a kind that would continue throughout his life, though all seem to have quickly fizzled.
After graduating, he made his way to Manhattan, where he made rent with memorable dust-jacket illustrations for such works as T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” He managed nearly perfect attendance at the New York City Ballet during the era when George Balanchine presided, which explains why his enigmatic figures tend to strike Balanchinian poses. He could be spotted at intermission in his trademark raccoon coat, jeans and scuffed Keds, Viking-like rings clanking on his fingers as he gossiped about his favorite dancers. When not at the ballet or work table, he read or went to the movies. He eventually amassed more than 20,000 books and sometimes took in as many as a thousand films a year.
Gorey’s path from obscurity to cult figure in the 1960s and fame in the ’80s was gradual but unswerving. His first book, “The Unstrung Harp,” a tale of writer’s block, appeared in 1953. Four more books followed before the decade was out. The ’60s saw some of his most ambitious, and most notorious, work, including “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” an alphabet book that details the untimely deaths of young children. Somehow Gorey manages to be at once dreadful and droll: “M is for MAUD who was swept out to sea. / N is for NEVILLE who died of ennui.” By the ’70s, Gorey had become something of a brand. Merchandise, sold at Gotham Book Mart, grew to include bookmarks, posters, mugs, stickers, beanbag dolls, pins and watches. There was even a line of fur coats for men. The title sequence for PBS’s “Mystery!” brought Gorey into living rooms across the country, and his designs for “Dracula” on Broadway enabled him to buy a house on Cape Cod. How did Gorey react to this explosion? “How very apt. Little bits of me all over the place.”
Gorey’s “understatement, omission, and ambiguity” may have seemed unconventional in the ’50s, but they have come to feel almost ordinary in our newly Gothic age. In fact, Dery makes the case that without Gorey, we wouldn’t have the likes of Neil Gaiman, Daniel Handler or Tim Burton. Dery’s smart and entertaining biography is alert to the countless hints and clues Gorey left lying about for his fans. It brings us closer than ever to understanding a man devoted to enigmas; yet, after showing us so much about Gorey’s artistic life, even his biographer is obliged to admit that “the man who loved mysteries was himself a mystery — even to himself, it seems.”
Ernest Hilbert is a poet and rare book dealer.
By Mark Dery
512 pp. $35.