Interviewer: “You are a noted macabre, of sorts.”
Edward Gorey: “It sort of annoys me to be stuck with that. I don’t thing that’s what I do exactly. I know I do it, but what I’m really doing is something else entirely. It just looks like I’m doing that.”
Interviewer: “What are you doing?”
Edward Gorey: “I don’t know what it is I’m doing; but it’s not that, despite all the evidence to the contrary.”
Those who say they possess no knowledge of Edward Gorey probably do, or don’t, or may recall something. His drawings are vaguely memorable, disquietingly familiar, seen as often as not. The stories are darkly whimsical, irresistibly repugnant, somehow like a bad tooth. His elaborate but plain illustrations have appeared on paperback covers and in children’s books and accompanied the poems of Edward Lear and T.S. Eliot. Yet it is the animated montage that opens PBS’s “Mystery” series that is the most identifiable of his art. What Gorey would have laughingly referred to as his career spanned 50 years of commercial illustration, theatre production, a long association with the New York City Ballet, and the creation of the many books it pained him to start, finish or discuss. Everything about Edward Gorey is contradictory, so it is appropriate that the most we can know of him is what he allows to be known, in his own words.
Ascending Peculiarity, a collection of interviews with Gorey ranging from “The Dick Cavett Show” to a quiz from Cats magazine, is one of the few resources available on such a reluctant celebrity. Karen Wilkin, who, with two publications about him is possibly the only extant Gorey expert (she co-authored The World of Edward Gorey in 1996), selected interviews from the 1970s to Gorey’s death in 2000. Some are repetitive, for it was the difficult task of the interviewer to engage the man on a level above the usual “Gorey details,” to which he would respond with labored sighing. The best pieces of the collection are a 1992 interview with Stephen Schiff of The New Yorker, and a discussion with Scenario magazine specifically dealing with Gorey’s The Black Doll, in which his knowledge and love of film are revealed.
Each interview also bears a small amount of crossover, mostly in describing Gorey’s personal history and more well-known peculiarities, such as his usual mode of dress (a fur coat, Converse hi-tops and lots of jewelry) and his obsessive attendance at NYC Ballet performances.
What we find in Ascending Peculiarity is that Gorey is like nothing he is imagined to be. Throughout years of critical examination of his art, Gorey has been alternately considered brilliantly eccentric or morbidly cruel. For those unfamiliar with his small, elegant hardcovers, examining one will separate those who appreciate black humor from those who prefer precious moments. Against a backdrop of elaborately crosshatched wallpapers, woods and water, his world-weary characters are frozen within scenes that often bear only limited relation to those before or after. People wear striped bathing suit things, flapper dresses, cloaks and pointy shoes, but the period costumes never exactly set the period. There are sinister top-hatted men and mysteriously veiled women, unsmiling and peering at something out of frame. The children are blank, unaware blobs, either awaiting their fate or vaguely heading toward it. In amongst the discernable humans are prehistoric birds, giant insects and anamorphic creatures that show up and create chaos.
The comforting, childish form of the text—a ghastly abecedarium, a sing-song rhyme—typically encloses a doomed outing or an unfortunate accident, though it is never a cautionary tale of the Struwwelpeter variety where naughty and unkempt children get their just desserts. In Gorey’s world, there is no causal sense to the bad things that befall good people. Heavy things just fall from the sky. A chasm opens in the earth as someone unwittingly steps backward. ‘L’ is for Leo who swallowed some tacks.
In fact, so many of Gorey’s little books involve little people being tragically struck down that he is often pigeonholed as a hater of children—an allegation he denies repeatedly.
“Well, I think I’m much more optimistic that I am pessimistic,” he tells one interviewer, “but every now and then I do think life is a crock, there’s no getting around it. Basically, it’s really just awful. I do think it’s stupidity that makes the world go round. And 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.”
There seem to be three ways to think on Gorey: With love, with hate or not at all. The third choice would undoubtedly have been most to his liking. Gorey’s relative nonchalance toward the creative process makes him either the most uptight subject for scrutiny or the least, depending on the interviewer. The selections in Ascending Peculiarity glean offhand yet insightful comments from what must have been countless interviews gone awry for lack of better questions.
Aside from his obvious intelligence and overwhelming cultural knowledge evidenced countless times in discussion, Gorey inevitably comes off as being no more aware of why he does what he does than those who are asking him. He would rather talk about almost anything else he finds more interesting: British and Japanese literature, the mentality of cats, Surrealism, the TV show “Dallas.” His personality is immensely likeable and self-effacing, but there is also a quality to Gorey that suffers no fools overtly probing. One has to believe that had he courted the limelight more, was more analytical and less cryptic, he would cease to be as interesting. As Gorey himself once said, though never about himself, “Explaining something makes it go away…Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable.”
Edward Gorey would have turned 76 on Feb. 25.