King of the Gashlycrumbs

Our humans are fond of reading, and we’ve been known to pick up a book or two as well, as long as the topic is interesting enough. One of the humans received a new biography of Edward Gorey as a Christmas gift this year, and though most things human are of little interest to us, we do enjoy all things Gorey. So we’ve been waiting for our chance to enjoy the book in peace. At last, the humans finally finished their own perusal of “Born to be Posthumous” and we’ve been able to purloin it for ourselves.

Most people are familiar with Gorey’s work through the opening to PBS Mystery he designed. That strange, slightly off-kilter world, vaguely Victorian or possibly Deco in its look. It’s a dark world, with a body in the garden while the ball goers continue their dance. Yet for all its macabre surface appearance, there’s something more there as well. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, but that’s the wonder behind much of Gorey’s work.

By the time Gorey passed away in 2000, he had staged several plays, produced puppet shows and published over a hundred of his little books, those distinctive collections of short verse coupled with his well-known drawings. The verse was always short, another distinct Gorey trademark, who firmly believed that the less said, the better.

Perhaps his most famous book of verse is “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”, a fabulous collection of 26 one-liners describing the deaths of 26 children. Not in any gruesome way, mind you. As Gorey moves through the alphabet, each child dies a bizarre (and rather funny) if somewhat boring death – like poor Ida, who drowned in a lake, or little Neville, who died of ennui. Gorey always intended the Tinies to be a children’s book, a thought that horrified his publishers. (How drowning in a lake would be more scary to a child than being captured, fattened and baked in an oven by an old witch is something of a mystery itself.) Were Gorey alive today, though, he would be ecstatic to know that modern moms and dads have indeed turned “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” into one of the most popular children’s books around.

But back to Gorey. Gorey was incredibly ordinary in many ways. He loved to watch a favorite TV show in the evening, sometimes while working on a crossword or reading a favorite book. He had a local joint he liked to go to for breakfast almost every morning. He was a lover of the routine, and often said it was necessary for his own survival.

Yet much of his life remained a mystery even to his closest friends. He expressed nothing but disdain for sex, though rumors of his attractions abounded. He often found himself caught between the happy world of American consumerism and the testosterone driven view of manhood. He enjoyed having an audience yet would often go out of his way to be alone. His one constant throughout his career? His cats.

Gorey, it turns out, was an ailurophile. Well, it makes sense, really. Cats, after all, are true afficianados of the absurd. Who else but a cat lover could write about the Haunted Tea Cosy? Gorey always had cats around, and if you look through his artwork, you’ll find that the happiest creatures are always the cats.

Dery does a wonderful job parsing through Gorey’s life. It’s fascinating, to learn so much about a man with such an odd view of the world, yet at the end, to still feel as if much about him remains an enigma. We put the book down and felt that we understood so much more about this author/artist/performer but still had only begun to unravel the riddle. It’s a mystery that Gorey would truly appreciate.

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