Mr. Edward Gorey, that is, who died in a rather ordinary fashion,
following a heart attack, at the age of seventy-five. He died on April 15,
2000, a date fraught with menace as the first tax day of the two-thousands.
Except, this year April 15 fell on a Saturday, and tax day was actually
April 17. Is there any significance to this? Probably not.
If Edward Gorey had been born in 1975 he would probably have been
diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and force-fed Prozac until
he stopped doing all that infernal cross-hatching
He lived in a little town in New England, with one of those vaguely
Lovecraftian-sounding names, where he ate breakfast and lunch every single
day in the same little cafe and was bemused and cooperative when people
asked for autographs. Before that he lived in New York City, in a small
apartment full of cats, where he saw every single performance of the New
York City Ballet for about thirty years, until choreographer George
Balanchine died. Every single performance. If Edward Gorey had been born in
1975 he would probably have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive
disorder and force-fed Prozac until he stopped doing all that infernal
cross-hatching. But he was born in 1925, and we’re all grateful for that. He
never admitted to any romantic entanglements whatsoever.
I first saw his work on an edition of Freaky Friday that was from the
sixties or seventies, but it wasn’t the movie tie-in version. I can’t find
it now. But it had a pink cover. There was a sequel called A Billion for
Boris that had a blue cover, and also a Gorey illustration. There was, there
is, something obscurely fascinating about even his simplest work. I remember
the way the figures on the cover balanced tenuously on the tips of their
narrow pointy feet, like awkward ballerinas. I remember the dense textures
of their rumpled, vaguely old-fashioned clothing. And I remember the
enigmatic, but vivid expressions on their faces, which were stylized in that
distinctive Gorey manner. I spent a lot of time staring at that cover. I
wasn’t even sure I liked it–it didn’t have the realistic proportions and
features I, at that young age, associated with “good” art. But I couldn’t
stop staring all the same. So I think I must have liked it, on some deep
down level that I was too young to recognize. I know I eventually saw the
MYSTERY! introduction, and loved it, but I think that was after I knew who
Edward Gorey was.
I felt totally suburban and dull, and way too blonde.
When I was fifteen years old I had a punk pen pal. Her name was Colleen.
It was 1981 and she lived in Altadena California, so when my family visited
relatives down there I spent the night at her house. We wandered around
Hollywood, checking out thrift stores and record shops. We went to a party
at one of the thrift stores where she knew the people who ran it. The store
had mostly black clothes inside and lots of weird, do-it-yourself art
involving Barbie dolls, broken mirrors and things like that. They were cool.
I was intimidated. I split a beer with Colleen because she was driving. I
didn’t like the beer much. I loved the art and the people, even though I was
too shy to talk to them. I felt totally suburban and dull, and way too
He had an ear for the language. A sense of timing. He wrote many of his
books as if they were for children, with alphabets and strange little
animals and few words and deceptively simple storylines. And that’s another
part of the magic of his work, I think. It reminds us of some of the very
first books we read. It makes us feel a bit like children, being told a
little picture-story. His work is disquieting, but there’s something
obscurely soothing about it as well. The archaic fashions, the quaint
technology. Little Hector may be about to be done in by a thug, but doesn’t
he look cute in his sailor suit? Doesn’t he?
Little Hector may be about to be done in by a thug, but doesn’t he
look cute in his sailor suit?
During the eighties, I spread the word about Edward Gorey, showing his
work to anybody who would sit still long enough. As I went through college,
it seemed that more and more often people I ran into already knew who he
was. Maybe they’d watched MYSTERY! or bought one of those
Gashlycrumb Tinies posters (I don’t know what happened to mine. It had a
lipstick stain on one corner.)
I never seriously tried to draw like him, because I knew I couldn’t,
although I drew a few deliberate homages for invitations and things like
that. But I know he was a big influence on how I thought about art,
illustration, humor. He was the first artist I really cared about, and
certainly the first living artist who meant anything to me. Sometimes I see
the work of people I think are obviously influenced by Edward Gorey. For
instance Tim Burton’s collection of drawings and stories, The
Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, seems a pretty clear case. But when I
look at what other people do, it’s never as good. It’s too obvious, too
crude, too modern, too simple. And it’s never drawn with the same
painstaking fervor, the amazingly disciplined riot of lines and textures.
Lord knows, I’m not capable of it. But I’m pretty sure Goth House
would not exist if I had never discovered Edward Gorey’s work.
In 1991 I wrote and asked him to be Art Guest of Honor at VikingCon 13. I
got his address out of a book, some kind of compendium of living authors at
the library. I didn’t expect him to accept, of course. I didn’t even expect
him to reply.
He responded with one of the most charming rejections I have ever
Throughout the nineties, he would come out with new work every so
often–cards, books, illustrations, which I snapped up eagerly whenever I
saw them. Some of his little books were re-released as actual little books,
which was neat. I started to see more interviews with him. In most of them
he mentions his own death, one way or another. In one he talks about wanting
to die quickly, with a minimum of pain, while he is still healthy enough to
It seems he got his wish.
So I guess that’s something