The weird world of illustrator Edward Gorey

Created date

February 15th, 2019
A black and white photo of Edward Gorey posing before one of his line drawings, wearing a denim shirt and jeans.

A black and white photo of Edward Gorey posing before one of his line drawings, wearing a denim shirt and jeans.

Of all the illustrators in history, perhaps none was more imaginative than the late Edward Gorey. Throughout his 50-year career, his macabre ink sketches appeared in his original books and those of numerous major authors.

His work, which generally had an unmistakable air of dark humor, fascinated audiences around the world, attracting a cult following.

Born in Chicago in 1925, Gorey had a decidedly unremarkable childhood. Like most kids at the time, he loved to read. But he was also extremely intelligent and possessed an insatiable curiosity, not to mention an unusually open mind, each of which inspired his true gift, drawing.

After serving a stint in the Army during World War II, he briefly studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then went on to Harvard, gradating in 1950 with a degree in French. As an illustrator, Gorey had minimal training; he once described his formal artistic education as “negligible.”

Years at Doubleday

Nevertheless, he was a natural when it came to sketching pen-and-ink drawings, enough so that, in 1953, he moved to New York City, taking a job as an illustrator in the art department of the publishing giant Doubleday.

For the next seven years, Gorey created cover and interior illustrations for books by authors such as Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, Edward Lear, Charles Dickens, Samuel Beckett, John Updike, and T.S. Eliot. On top of his prodigious workload, he began writing and illustrating his own books of poetry.

Gorey’s style soon elevated him to living-legend status, for his drawings were compositions unto themselves. Stunning for their wit and simplicity, Gorey’s cartoon sketches were often amusing but with an irreverent and gloomy edge.

In fact, some of them were just plain creepy.

For example, among his best-known and bestselling volumes, Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), was as shocking as it was entertaining. Although ostensibly written and illustrated for children, this title was hardly meant for young readers.

An alphabet book composed of 13 couplets, Gorey’s story involves 26 children, each of them representing a letter. All of them meet unfortunate ends.

It opens with: “A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil, assaulted by bears …” And so the tale continues up through Z, with Zillah, “who drank too much gin.”

Unique and unconventional

Literary scholars have attempted to render interpretations of his poetry and artwork, but most never reach definitive conclusions about them, save for one: Gorey’s compositions are inherently unique.

As eerie as his work appeared to be, Gorey drew his ideas from the well of his expansive imagination, presenting his material in the spirit of Edward Lear’s nonsense, Poe’s horror, Lewis Carroll’s fantasy, and Gustave Doré’s Gothic illustrations.

Not surprisingly, his work reflected his personal philosophy. Throughout his life, Gorey flouted convention, not out of pretense but rather a desire to dream without limits.

To Gorey, everything was open to interpretation, especially his books.

Gorey himself confessed that he didn’t know precisely what it was that inspired his work. When his friend Alexander Theroux, author of The Strange Case of Edward Gorey (Fantagraphics Books, 2011), asked him this question about his pop-up book The Dwindling Party (Random House, 1982), Gorey remarked, “I’ll leave you to tell me…I don’t even know.”

That’s why audiences love his work. His drawings speak to different people in different ways, as does his poetry.

Indeed, nonsense is, by its very nature, without rules or structure. It’s boundless, and so was Gorey.

Artistically, he tried his hand at anything he found interesting. In 1977, he brought his dark sensibilities to Broadway, winning a Tony Award for his costume design and a nomination for scenic design for the revival of Dracula.

Three years later, he went to television, creating the animated introduction to the popular PBS series Mystery! at the beginning of which host Vincent Price welcomed his viewers to “Gorey Mansion.”

There was little that didn’t fascinate Gorey. That’s why poetry and illustration remained the driving forces in his life until his death in 2000.

In total, he produced over 100 books and countless drawings. To be sure, they will dazzle and mystify readers for generations to come.

Selected original illustrated books

The Unstrung Harp (1953)

The Doubtful Guest (1957)

The Fatal Lozenge: An Alphabet (1960)

The Beastly Baby (1962)

The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction (1963)

The Utter Zoo (1967)

The Blue Aspic (1968)

The Abandoned Sock (1972)

The Glorious Nosebleed: Fifth Alphabet (1975)

The Loathsome Couple (1977)

The Dwindling Party (1982)

The Stupid Joke (1990)

The Retrieved Locket (1994)

The Headless Bust (1999)