Wes Anderson Is Under Edward Gorey’s Spell

He was a writer-artist ahead of his time, but Tim Burton, Lemony Snicket, and American culture have finally caught up.

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As a smelly little boarding-school boy, I could have done with some Edward Gorey. His lunar campness, his toys-in-the-attic surrealism, his easy way with cruelty, and his remote compassion, coldly and distantly flaming—all of this would have nourished and amplified my child-mind. His tiny, twisted books would have helped my development. But I grew up in England, where—despite his rarefied Anglophilia and profound relation to English literary tradition—no one knows about Edward Gorey. So I pickled myself in Edward Lear and then, later, a more modern master of English nonsense: Morrissey, from the indie-rock legends the Smiths. As Rose collects the money in a canister / Who comes sliding down the banister / The vicar in a tutu / He’s not strange / He just wants to live his life this way. (What’s that, if not a Gorey drawing set to music?)

Gorey comes sliding down the banister of Mark Dery’s Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, not in a tutu but bejeweled, multi-ringed, otter-fur-coated, Lear-ishly bearded, crazy for the New York City Ballet and definitely wanting to live his life this way. “I tend to think life is pastiche,” he said once, or possibly more than once. “I’m not sure what it’s a pastiche of—we haven’t found out yet.”

What shall we call him? A children’s writer who didn’t particularly like children? Gorey produced small illustrated books, booklings, more than 100 of them: black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings of serrated quaintness, elaborately crosshatched, with accompanying text—some prose, mostly verse. Children suffer greatly in these works. They are sold on the street or carried off by eagles. As in Lear’s limericks, many of which function like little torture machines (Till at last, with a hammer, they silenced his clamour), absurdist violence is everywhere.

Little, Brown

And nowhere. In 1957’s micro-masterpiece, The Doubtful Guest, a Victorian or Edwardian household (all of Gorey’s households are Victorian or Edwardian) is abruptly infiltrated by a tender-looking, proboscile creature in white sneakers and a long, stripy scarf. It says nothing. It has no expression, except for the ring of wild fatigue around its eye. It behaves oddly, unmanageably, its disruptions cataloged in sturdy and nursery-ready anapestic tetrameters: It joined them at breakfast and presently ate / All the syrup and toast, and a part of a plate. It lies down in a large tureen; it stands with its nose to the wall. What does it want? Nobody knows. What does it mean? You tell me. Like a trauma, like a gift, like an unaccommodated fact, it sticks around, with weirdly devoted constancy. Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat was published the same year, and Dery does some excellent work comparing the two texts, the two chaos-bringers, noting with Gorey-esque satisfaction that while The Cat in the Hat “changed children’s books as America knew them”—zapping the early-reader market with trickster-ish cartoon energy—The Doubtful Guest “sank with barely a trace.”

Gorey was an only child. He was a cat person. Otherwise, the rude facts of his biography seem a bit incongruous, a bit anti-Gorey. He was born in Chicago in 1925; his father was a newspaper reporter; his parents got divorced, and he moved briefly to Miami with his mother. Then, the summit of dissonance: The Second World War arrived, and Gorey joined the Army. He saw no combat. In June 1944, he was posted to a weapons-testing area in the Great Salt Lake Desert, a base called Dugway Proving Ground. “All around lay wastelands,” Dery writes. “The stillness was profound, a ringing in the mind. The sky was painfully clear.” In this futuristic void, this atomic birdbath, the young aesthete sipped tequila and listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

When the war was over, Gorey went to Harvard, where he set about the business of—as Dery puts it—“becoming Gorey.” His assistant dean found him to be a “queer looking egg.” But his best buddy was the poet Frank O’Hara, so who cares? There began the long coats, the many rings, the weary supremacy. He had crushes on other men. No sex, though, as far as Dery can ascertain, and no long-term companionship. Sedulous bachelorhood became the MO. Morrissey again: The hills are alive with celibate cries. Gorey moved to Manhattan in 1953 and churned out book covers for Doubleday’s mass-market imprint Anchor. This was also the year he published the first of his small books, The Unstrung Harp, about a novelist named Mr. Earbrass. Gorey would never again use so much prose in a book, but the prose was good and, more important, it was Gorey: “Mr. Earbrass stands on the terrace at twilight. It is bleak; it is cold; and the virtue has gone out of everything.”

His poetry, meanwhile, was poetry. A fugitive and lurid gleam / Obliquely gilds the gliding stream. So run the lines beneath a panel in his 1969 book The Iron Tonic. Parodic? Iron-tonic ironic? Yes and no. These are lovely, Tennysonian lines, but with a slight chemical distortion, as if Tennyson had forgotten to take his lithium. In the illustration, a tiny-headed man in a huge fur coat stands (transfixed? lost? dreaming?) in a snowy landscape, on the bank of a dark stream. Rods of light come poking through the low clouds, and the gliding stream is indeed obliquely gilded. It’s Gorey all the way down: a heavy-hanging antique atmosphere retro-injected with modernity, with anomie, with freaky deadpan emptiness.

Gorey entered the American cultural mainstream quite suddenly on the evening of February 5, 1980, when WGBH, the Boston PBS affiliate, debuted its Mystery anthology of British crime dramas. Mystery featured title sequences tracked by tango music and worked up by the animator Derek Lamb and his team from motifs in Gorey’s books: a pen-and-ink montage of rain, tombstones, flitting aristocrats, a disconsolately struck croquet ball being crushed by falling masonry, a woman’s cry, wilting and droopily orgasmic. The series was a hit, and Gorey—in his creeping, ivylike way—went nationwide.

His influence today, the seep of his sensibility, is pervasive: Dery efficiently lays out the debt owed him by the graphic-novel author Neil Gaiman, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the filmmaker Tim Burton, and any other fantasist who loiters in the dark gardens of childhood. “When I was first writing A Series of Unfortunate Events,” remembers Daniel Handler, the author of the Lemony Snicket series, “I was wandering around everywhere saying, ‘I am a complete rip-off of Edward Gorey,’ and everyone said, ‘Who’s that?’ Now everyone says, ‘That’s right; you are a complete rip-off of Edward Gorey!’ ” You can hear Gorey’s feline phrasing in the voice-overs of Wes Anderson movies. Or you can just look at a dusty chandelier, or someone in jodhpurs, or a particularly knotty, obscurely communicative tree, and say: Yup … Gorey-esque.

Gorey ended his days in his house on Cape Cod, contented after his fashion—that is, gently and wittily moaning. He lived alone: silver-bearded, buried under cats, with his books in heaps and his mini-hoards—of tassels, rusty cheese graters, antique potato mashers—around him. Was there a clinical component to his unwavering furry presence at every single bloody performance (just about) of the New York City Ballet between the years 1956 and 1979? Something OCD about all that crosshatching, that endless scritchy-scratching? Probably. And Dery does bang on a bit about Gorey’s monastic sexuality, the “mystery” of his gay-in-everything-but-the-deed-ness. But enigmas invite speculation—that’s what they’re for.

Edward Gorey is the doubtful guest in this fine biography: a stubbornly evasive and irreducible essence, now sprawled in a tureen, now chewing on crockery, now standing with his nose to the wall. He lived 30 years too early and 100 years too late. His solitude was significant, that’s for sure—but not as significant as his genius, which put him in touch, eventually, with the audience that could not do without him. The words that end Auden’s tribute to Edward Lear apply equally to Lear’s truest successor, his transplanted and violently wistful inheritor, Edward Gorey: Children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

This article appears in the March 2019 print edition with the headline “The Father of Children’s Goth.”