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The Mysterious and Macabre Life and Work of Edward Gorey

Unsettling and unconventional tales.

edward gorey
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Gorey was an American writer and artist, known for his illustrations depicting unsettling scenes set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Gorey was born a child prodigy in Chicago in 1925, drawing by the age of two and teaching himself to read by the age of three. Attending public schools alongside greats such as Charlton Heston and Warren MacKenzie, some of Gorey's earliest works can be found in the 1937 Stolp School yearbook. Gorey attened high school at the prestigious Francis Parker School, where he flourished with work in annual art shows, school publications, and even a few Chicago newspapers.

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Following his graduation at the age of seventeen, Gorey not only had scholarships to institutions like Harvard, but draft notices looming on the horizon. After enrolling in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gorey enrolled in the U.S. Army in 1943 and served through the end of World War II.

After his time in the war, Gorey studied at Harvard, where he pursued an array of artistic endeavors, including publishing stories, writing poetry, designing sets, and directing and writing for the Poets Theatre. In 1950, Gorey was featured for the very first time in a published book. Two years later he found a position in the art department at the Doubleday Anchor imprint in New York City, designing upwards of fifty covers and building a name for himself as a major commercial illustrator. While bouncing around through other publishers—and eventually making the shift to freelance work—Gorey also turned his time to writing and illustrating his own works. Works which now total to over 100 tales.

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His first published work was his 1953 illustrated novella, The Unstrung Harp. The story follows Mr. Earbrass as he struggles to write his newest novel—which shares the name of this very work. Centered around the pains, boredom, and vicious jealousies of a literary career, this novella also expands to encompass the wild turns of life. Due to its multi-media format, The Unstrung Harp is considered to be one of the early precursors to the graphic novel.

Ten years later Gorey published The Gashlycrumb Tinies. This work takes readers through the alphabet on a journey that is witty, dark, and surreal. In this work "C" does not stand for "cat," but rather for "Clara who wasted away."

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the gashlycrumb tinies
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  • Photo Credit: "The Gashlycrumb Tinies"/Harcourt Brace

As he lived and worked in New York City, Gorey began attending George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. A devoted admirer of the art, it's said that Gorey was actually present at every single performance of every single production that Balanchine produced. This love which bordered on obsession became a great influence on Gorey's work.

Similarly, Gorey had a fascination with theater, as well, and became involved in both off-Broadway productions and summertime Cape Cod productions of experimental plays. Gorey designed a production of Dracula in 1973 on Nantucket Island, and the venture was so successful that it opened on Broadway four years later, raking in extraordinary reviews and Tony Awards for Best Revival and Best Costumes.

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Aside from his eccentric deviations, Gorey's illustrated writings had been picking up steam over the years, as well. His first anthology, Amphigorey, was published in 1972, and included fifteen stories that ranged from the light-hearted to the deeply morbid. Amphigorey Too, Amphigorey Also, and Amphigorey Again followed the success of his first anthology to establish themselves as essential works in the Gorey catalogue.

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  • Photo Credit: "Amphigorey Also"/Mariner Books

Because Gorey had such a strong interest in book design, his work began to branch out into other literary forms, such as miniatures, pop-up books, and books with movable parts or otherwise non-traditional formats. One such example is The Tunnel Calamity, a pop-up book which follows a massive, claw-footed creature that skulks through tunnels.

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Gorey leaned into print making in 1975, producing a vast selection of limited-edition prints. His print making evolved into an assortment of etchings and holographs when he began to work with Emily Trevor—a printmaker in Brewster, Massachusetts—in the 1980s and '90s.

In 1979, Gorey's eccentric nature led him to use the royalties from the Broadway production of Dracula to purchase a two-hundred-year-old sea captain's home in Cape Cod. He invested more time in his love of small experimental plays, and while he continued to be a prolific publisher of his own stories, he was also tapped for notable commercial projects. In 1980, Gorey was the designer of the animated introductions for Boston Public Television's Mystery! series, collaborating with animator Derek Lamb to produce what may be known as some of his most iconic work.

the tunnel calamity
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  • Photo Credit: "The Tunnel Calamity"/Pomegranate

There have been many questions about Gorey's unusual and enigmatic books. While Gorey wasn't keen on providing an explanation behind his stories, some understanding may be found in the fact that Gorey described himself as a Taoist as well as a surrealist. His art has drawn heavily on the works of Di Chirico, Dali and Ernst, and his work shows a clear admiration for Sir John Tenniel, George Herriman and James Thurber.

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Throughout his life, Gorey was a devoted advocate of animal welfare. Following his death in 2000, his Cape Cod home was turned into the Edward Gorey House—a museum that supported animal rights and literacy with its profits and a variety of programs.

Edward Gorey was a strange man with an incredible mind and talent. With an artistic eye that was both humorous and macabre, he established himself as an innovative creator in the fields of literature, illustration, and theater. To learn even more about this incredible artist, check out the riveting biography by Mark Dery below.

born to be posthumous

Born to be Posthumous

By Mark Dery

The definitive biography of Edward Gorey, the eccentric master of macabre nonsense.

From The Gashlycrumb Tinies to The Doubtful Guest, Edward Gorey's wickedly funny and deliciously sinister little books have influenced our culture in innumerable ways, from the works of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman to Lemony Snicket. Some even call him the Grandfather of Goth.

But who was this man, who lived with over twenty thousand books and six cats, who roomed with Frank O'Hara at Harvard, and was known -- in the late 1940s, no less -- to traipse around in full-length fur coats, clanking bracelets, and an Edwardian beard? An eccentric, a gregarious recluse, an enigmatic auteur of whimsically morbid masterpieces, yes -- but who was the real Edward Gorey behind the Oscar Wildean pose?

He published over a hundred books and illustrated works by Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Edward Lear, John Updike, Charles Dickens, Hilaire Belloc, Muriel Spark, Bram Stoker, Gilbert & Sullivan, and others. At the same time, he was a deeply complicated and conflicted individual, a man whose art reflected his obsessions with the disquieting and the darkly hilarious.

Based on newly uncovered correspondence and interviews with personalities as diverse as John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman, and Anna Sui, Born to Be Posthumous draws back the curtain on the eccentric genius and mysterious life of Edward Gorey.

Featured photos: Wikimedia Commons. Additional photos: "The Gashlycrumb Tinies/Harcourt Brace; "Amphigorey Also"/Mariner Books; and "The Tunnel Calamity"/Pomegranate.