Gorey never expressly denied being homoromantic—attracted to men for the purpose of a relationship, not for sex—but, with the exception of that excised quote, he refused to pin down his desires, as most labels repulsed him. (One failing of Born to Be Posthumous is Dery’s repeated insistence on claiming Gorey was obviously gay by virtue of his “flamboyant dress” and “bitchy wit”; here, Dery falls into the trap of equating effeminacy with gay men, an archaic stereotype.) It seemed Gorey just wanted to be himself, whatever that might be, and often found the company of his pet felines as pleasurable, if not more, than that of his fellow humans. Indeed, when asked by Vanity Fair, “What or who is the greatest love of your life?” his reply was simply, “Cats.”
Perhaps fittingly, Gorey’s books also avoided depicting sex, even in the suggestively titled The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary (an anagrammatic pseudonym for “Edward Gorey,” the first name of which also appeared as a vanity plate on Gorey’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle). The 1961 text consists of innuendo-laden sentences about the activities of a household of adults, a number of whom are described as “well-endowed,” but never, despite the subtitle, explicitly have intercourse. In the last scene, a man pulls the lever on a garish couch that seems to double as a machine. A woman screams, but Gorey never reveals what has happened; the reader must imaginatively fill in the blank.
In a relatively more straightforward—and, to me, more distressing—work, The Insect God (1963), the specter of sex also appears, but now as a possible punishment for a young girl who is kidnapped. At the start, the girl naively approached a vehicle filled with strangers, who offered her “a tin full of cinnamon balls” before they “lifted” her into the car; they brought her to be sacrificed before an insect deity, but “stunned” her and “stripped off her garments” first—an act laden with disquieting connotations of rape before murder.
Both of these stories contain subtle morals. The Insect God can be read as a demonstration of stranger danger. By never fully revealing the subtext of its lines, The Curious Sofa becomes a paean to intellectual curiosity, richer and curiouser if readers stop assuming the ending must involve pornography. But beyond that, the tales illustrate how the unexpected, and even horror, can enter at any time in Gorey’s world—and there is little, if anything, one can do to stop it.
Such is the case in Gorey’s heartbreaking tale The Hapless Child (1961), in which a young girl loses her parents and guardians one by one, until the family lawyer sends her to a school, where students torment her. She flees, then is abducted and sold into slavery to a dipsomaniacal “brute.” During one of her captor’s drunken stupors, the girl escapes but is run over by a car—that of her father, who, contrary to what she had been told, was not actually dead. To cap off the cruelty, the book ends with the revelation that the driver’s “dying child” is so emaciated that “he did not even recognize her.” Death, and suffering, is never far off in Gorey’s stories.