Edward Gorey and the Power of the Ineffable

The writer-illustrator, whose darkly comic works remain enormously influential today, disdained explanation in favor of the playfully irrational.

Edward Gorey as a young man (Sandy Everson-Levy / Bambi Everson)

“Everyday life is very discomfiting,” the American writer and illustrator Edward Gorey told The National Observer in 1976. “I guess I’m trying to convey that discomfiting texture in my books.” But Gorey’s art did not merely aim to discompose audiences with its macabre Victorian-Edwardian overlays and casual depictions of darkly comic cruelty. It also sought to unsettle by resisting definitive explanations or solutions. In a later interview, Gorey clarified—in a manner of speaking—the dominant philosophical theme of his work: the power of the ineffable, the value of what is left unsaid. “Explaining something makes it go away ... Ideally, if anything were good, it would be indescribable,” grumbled Gorey, who died in 2000 at age 75. “Disdain explanation,” he similarly wrote in a meandering postcard to Andreas Brown, a fan and publisher of Gorey’s books.

The author is, of course, better known for his period Gothic aesthetic and funereal humor than for his skepticism of clarity. Gorey’s influence is evident throughout British and American pop culture, notably in works by Tim Burton—including the stop-motion films The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride—and by Neil Gaiman, particularly the 2002 novella Coraline and its 2009 movie adaptation. Exhibitions of work by Gorey still routinely draw crowds today, much as his wildly popular and acclaimed 1977 stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula did decades ago.

At first glance, Gorey’s oeuvre might not appear to require much explication or invite readers to search meticulously for meaning. Most of Gorey’s books consist of brief blends of rhyme and lavish black-and-white drawings. Many seem to exist simply for the sake of existing. Such is the case with The Gashlycrumb Tiniesthe first book of Gorey’s I read after stumbling across it in a London bookstore—a slim abecedarian that chronicles the ghastly demises of 26 children in a tone at once hilariously and eerily deadpan.

Because his books are slender and feature illustration, a medium long dismissed by establishment critics as less worthy of analysis than fine arts like painting, it is only relatively recently that Gorey has begun to receive scholarly attention. Many of his texts, under more scrutiny, are playfully and disturbingly irrational, resisting easy elucidation—a quality that reveals Gorey’s ideological views on both art and the universe. An impressively expansive new biography by Mark Dery, Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, attempts, often with success, to demystify the illustrator’s wide-ranging elusiveness—a quality that was also explored in two recent art shows, Gorey’s Worlds and Murder He Wrote. To varying extents, the book and the exhibitions delve into both Gorey’s surrealism-influenced philosophy of art and into perhaps the ultimate puzzle of Gorey—the private life of the man himself.

The hallucinatory logic of surrealism, a 20th-century movement in the arts and philosophy that sought to capture the irrational air of dreams, pervades Gorey’s work. Surrealism “appeals to me,” Gorey said in 1978. “I mean that is my philosophy if I have one, certainly in the literary way … What appeals to me most is an idea by [the surrealist poet Paul] Éluard,” Gorey continued, referencing one of the movement’s founders. “He has a line about there being another world, but it’s in this one. And [the surrealist turned experimental novelist] Raymond Queneau said the world is not what it seems—but it isn’t anything else, either. Those two ideas are the bedrock of my approach.” Far from some purveyor of stock Gothic fare, Gorey embraced enigma and sought to relay, if indirectly, his surrealist philosophy through his art. “Gorey was a surrealist’s surrealist,” Dery aptly notes.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in The Doubtful Guest (1957): an illustrated poem in which a bizarre figure—part penguin, part reptile, wearing sneakers—shows up one night to a family’s house, uninvited, causing dismay and disarray. Gorey provides no sense of why it has come or when it might leave, a state of affairs resembling the existential absurdism of Franz Kafka or Albert Camus. The Doubtful Guest appeared the same year as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, another book in which an unexpected entrant brings anarchy into a home.

But whereas Seuss’s carnivalesque cat seeks to entertain, and cleans up before leaving so that the children don’t get in trouble when their mother returns, Gorey’s guest arrives with no clear agenda, does not remove its destructive messes, and shows no sign of departing. It is just comically, exasperatingly there, a discombobulation of domestic order far beyond the antics of Seuss’s feline. The Doubtful Guest distills Gorey’s surrealistic aesthetic into a stark message: that events resist human control, that the mysteries that lie in the mundane cannot be fully solved. It’s telling, too, that Murder He Wrote, an exhibition at the Edward Gorey House, explores how influential murder mysteries were for the writer—and yet his stories regularly subverted the genre’s promises of resolution, planting misleading clues and reveling in maddeningly ambiguous endings.

If Gorey’s work embraced the inexplicable, Gorey himself was as enigmatic and textured as his art. Bedecked, in his best-known look, in a Harvard scarf, half-moon spectacles, the thick beard of a wizard, a voluminous technicolor fur coat, and blue jeans with scuffed white Keds, Gorey was easily seen as a figure of delightful contradictions: ostentatious pomp on the one hand, a sort of suburban simplicity on the other. “Half bongo-drum beatnik, half fin-de-siècle dandy,” Stephen Schiff memorably described him in a New Yorker profile. As much a persona as a person, Gorey partly seemed like one of his own illustrations, a dapper Edwardian gentleman fresh from attending executions or exequies, while simultaneously bearing the aspect of some beach-combing uncle. Gorey enjoyed things ostensibly removed from the high elegance of his illustrations: watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Golden Girls with cats perched on his shoulder while he did crossword puzzles.

Gorey’s personal art collection, on display in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art’s 2018 exhibition Gorey’s Worlds, offers a rare window into some of the works that shaped his sensibility. Dozens of these pieces—by prominent European and American artists, as well as by lesser known folk artists—feature subjects that often surfaced in Gorey’s own creations: the ballet, cats, bats, shadowy landscapes. “These works give us as convincing a picture as we will probably ever have of Gorey’s elective affinities—of his own private tradition,” Jed Perl wrote for the New York Review of Books.

As Perl suggests, despite the overtness of Gorey’s outward eccentricities, the artist’s personal life was more shrouded. When pressed by interviewers about his sexuality, Gorey declined to give clear answers, except during a 1980 conversation with Lisa Solod, wherein he claimed to be asexual—making Gorey one of few openly asexual writers even today, a short list that includes the Kiwi novelist Keri Hulme. In his interview with Solod, Gorey said, “I suppose I’m gay. But I don’t identify with it much.” Yet this admission, Dery reveals, was deleted from the published version of their exchange, possibly by an editor who believed an openly gay author would be taken less seriously.

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.

But nearer still is the profound sense of unfailing, even irrational cruelty in The Hapless Child’s narrative: the feeling that Gorey’s protagonist, who did not appear to do anything to deserve her fate, was just as helpless to do anything to soften it. After all, Gorey averred in a 1976 interview that “I stand by the idea that you can’t prevent things.” What does one do, when an ineffable universe sets its sights on you?

In 1984, Gorey declared that “my mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible ... because that’s what the world is like.” Gorey’s longtime friend, the writer Alexander Theroux, recorded the artist remarking that “life is intrinsically ... boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment, the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does.” Gorey’s books unquestionably achieve unease—even wordless tales like The West Wing, which unnerve solely by their sepulchral atmospherics. But Gorey’s tales are also ludic, winking at the reader with a combination of frightfulness and fun that is apparent throughout the pieces featured in Murder He Wrote and Gorey’s Worlds. Ultimately, Gorey’s work is an altar to the writer’s faith in art as a medium for attempting to translate the untranslatable language of living.

Amid the terror and tumult of the world today, the floor may already feel as if it has opened up, again and again. Gorey chose to reweave horror into odd but indelible imagery. At least, his work suggests, art can console in times of dismay, and, perhaps more important, unsettle when one grows too consoled.