I was introduced to Edward Gorey by his illustrations for Mystery on Masterpiece Theater. I loved their unique look, the mysterious quality about them, and though I had no words for it at the time, their carefully implied violence. I hate it every time I see the ‘new’ edited down version used now.
However, I came to his books too soon. I tried them out when I was young and was all but disgusted by them. Recently, I decided to give him a second try and checked out this book, which contains 15 of his works. I don’t feel that this should be treated as one work so I’m going to look at each book on its own merit.
The Unstrung Harp – This is my personal favorite of his. Mr. Earbrass’ journey through writing his book is plausible while simultaneously being pure Gorey. We travel along with him as his brain creates the book ‘The Unstrung Harp’ and every step makes him question not only his choices in the text but often what he is doing writing in the first place. I’ve been writing and largely not sharing for years and I know I question every step I take, every door I close, etc. I can’t imagine what that’s like for people who publish. Also, as my characters have minds of their own and never seem to do as I wish, I can completely see having one appear in front of you as Glassglue did to Mr. Earbrass. They appear fully formed in my mind.
The Listing Attic – These couplets are rather fun to read poetically but are very often morbid and disturbing (of course) as are the illustrations. I love the willowy arms and sinister shading. The poems cover such topics as infanticide, murder, violence, suicide, and more. Some of the poems are in French and I haven’t found a translation of them yet. My favorite (and one that is not too disturbing) is:
"The sight of his guests filled Lord Cray
At breakfast with horrid dismay,
So he launched off the spoons
The pits from his prunes
At their heads as they neared the buffet."
The Doubtful Guest – I’ve seen this creature called a penguin thing, but I personally don’t see it. I prefer to think of it as an unknown animal. I like how the story starts only with the illustrations. They are all wonderfully drawn and the words are crazy and oh so humorous. Two of my favorites are: (the screaming part cracks me up every time!)
I didn’t much care for the tearing up of the books though.
The Object Lesson - *bangs head on desk and mumbles something about nonsense verses* This thing drove me up the wall! I actually went online to look for literary critics to try and figure out the meaning. But see, I’d forgotten something very important – this is Gorey. The story, to me, is what you make of it. You are given glimpses at moments in various peoples’ lives. Always there is something wrong and rarely do we see either the beginning or the conclusion of their stories. You have to guess; certainly the atmosphere lends itself to the worse possible interpretation, but I know I certainly leapt to some interesting ideas concerning Madame O___ and here ‘cousin’.(show spoiler)
Either that or there is no lesson – very Gorey! I think one of my favorite figures ever of his is the woman in the veil who shows up in this story.
The Bug Book – Some of the only color in the book (bugs have color but people don’t?), this is a tale concerning a family (cousins) of red, blue, and yellow bugs who are menaced by a scary beetle. They manage to take care of their problem…and I’m never opening another letter! Again, not sure there is a lesson here…and if there is, I’m not sure I’d want to know anyway.
The Fatal Lozenge – An extremely creepy ABC book that should never be used by a child. Each four verses for a letter show the fatal moment or what will directly lead to it for every person. The people have names like Apparition, Fetishist, and Resurrectionist. Some of my ‘favorites’ were A, R, S, and the drawing of W.
The Hapless Child – Don’t read this on a difficult day; what a depressing story! From early on, you know where it’s going, but particularly with a certain twist, you can’t help but hope for a different ending. What I found interesting were the almost demonic looking figures on the front and back page, not to mention the ‘imps’ that crept and hide throughout the story. That implies their interference in the child’s life.
The Curious Sofa – This is labeled a pornographic work but while there are unclothed figures, nothing is shown. The text implies heavily everything under the sun…or maybe it’s only your mind looking in the gutter.(show spoiler)
The Willowdale Handcar (The Vinegar Works I) – This, in hindsight, reminds me of The Object Lesson. Except this time we have three characters who are flittering in and out of stories as they make their way down the railroad tracks – in a fixed line to an inevitable end. One story they keep bumping into is a friend Nellie. Something is happening with her and everything surrounding her. While we get enough to make an educated guess, we won’t know for sure. Violence, horror, and death surround their trip and yet they seem to see none of it.
The Gashlycrumb Tinies (The Vinegar Works II) – This reminds me of the poem in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (or And Then There Were None), each character faces a different death. Here, however, we have 26 of them. Each have a name and each face a death, often a pretty crazy one. Several of them are rather gruesome.
The Insect God (The Vinegar Works III) – Ugh. I usually hate insects but this was so much worse. I don’t even want to think about it. Gack. Don’t want to read this again.
The West Wing – Thank you Gorey; just when I thought you couldn’t get any more incomprehensible, you give me this. All we have is a series of pictures numbered sequentially. They don’t seem to connect or have any rhyme or reason. I somehow feel that if you mixed them in the right order, a story would form. Or maybe it’s simply the West Wing; maybe once you enter everything becomes warped. Incidentally, one image in here reminds me of a scene from MYSTERY, a man lying alone on the floor. No matter how crazy this is though, I rather like this one.
The Wuggly Ump – Is it bad that I absolutely love saying that name? It sounds like a fun children’s story character…but it isn’t. Remember…Gorey. We see children playing and a grey dragony-looking creature with lots of pointy teeth. The rhyme is playful and the illustrations are in color…I still really like this one.
The Sinking Spell – I really liked the lay out of this one. Something is sinking slowly to the ground but we never see it. We see where people are looking, we see their reactions to tit, but we never see it. We know nothing about it except it apparently can fall through structures and has a face but does not speak. Doesn’t that make you crazy to know exactly what it is? Again, nice rhymes and a very interesting story.
The Remembered Visit – What a dismal story! At least that’s how I read it, I’m sure there are other ways. A young girl is on vacation and goes to visit an old man with her aunt. She promises to send him some interesting insides of envelopes she’s saved. Used to be – I haven’t seen them in a decade – stationary envelopes had patterns inside and I’ve seen them in older envelopes. I miss nice stationary. Years go by and memories fade, that is the way of things. This made me resolve to write down what happens on vacations, so I can remember them as I’m trying to books.
Apart from one story I wish I never read, I in the end enjoyed or at least was made thoughtful by many of the stories in this book. I hope to read more of his work, though sometimes my brain scrambles trying to find meaning. These stories can be interesting and fun but they are also violent, depressing, dark, and – yes – Gorey.