Oct 12

Edward Gorey


I picked up a copy of Dracula, illustrated by Edward Gorey, this weekend at our local library sale and it brought back a whole raft of fond childhood memories. Sweet, nostalgic memories of rotting jack-o-lanterns, lost friends entombed in frozen ponds, and dark, deserted schoolyards still wet with tears…

There is no doubt that the subtle, subversive images of Edward Gorey greatly shaped my worldview. He gained fame as a children’s author and illustrator, but he brought death and creeping horror to a whole generation. Gorey marked us with a dark worldliness that was more profound than the standard images of werewolves and shambling corpses we found in movies and comics.

I discovered Gorey right around the time that I experienced death for the first time. One of my childhood friends died of leukemia when I was in second grade, and I refused to go to the funeral with the rest of my class. Since then, I have hated funerals, not because of a fear of death but rather a distaste for grief. Somehow, Gorey helped me to understand very early that death, if nothing else, is final and arbitrary. Asking why or lamenting loss was pointless; death would come for us all and often when least deserved or expected.

My favorite Gorey work is the Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet primer featuring a different mode of child death for each letter of the alphabet. Each was accompanied by a suitably chilling but slyly comic rendering by Gorey. Gashlycrumb Tinies was firmly in the stern tradition of Victorian cautionary tales or the bloody, original Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

In these more “enlightened” times it might be instructive to remember that one of the most important services that an author or illustrator can provide to children is to give them insight into the adult world. Too many modern authors render this service pedantically, with pre-teen melodramas heavy with meaning or not-too-subtle attempts at brainwashing. There is more power in a single Gorey illustration than a whole shelf of Judy Blumes. 

“Although Gorey’s books were popular with children, he did not associate with children much and had no particular fondness for them.” Wikipedia

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs,
B is for Basil assaulted by bears.
C is for Clara who wasted away,
D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.

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