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Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life And Mysterious Genius Of Edward Gorey

“If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either” – Edward Gorey.

OK. What do Nine Inch Nails, Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket have in common? If you say “Things that might be free-associated by somebody who had just been kicked in the head by a horse”…you might be right (and somewhat mental.) A more correct answer, however, would be that the aforementioned artists, and many more, have all acknowledged how they were inspired by Edward St. John Gorey (1925-2000), the morbid, mordant, now-deceased author of books for-but-not-for children.

The works of homo-cum-asexual writer, illustrator, puppeteer, theatre set designer, silent film lover, and ballet aficionado Gorey are more known in the United States than over here. His images in his homeland are more subcutaneous, pop-culturally omnipresent, with nods turning up in shows like The Simpsons. However, this cultural ignorance is being eroded on this side of the pond by things like, well, this new excellent, in-depth biography of the mysterious man and his weird and wonderful life.

The man digging up Gorey’s professional miserable bugger aesthetic and existential curlicue-crosshatched coffin, dusting it off, opening it up, and exploring the bleak, black-blooded humour and horror inside is noted cultural commentator and agent provocateur Mark Dery. This is a somewhat anomalous work for the author, in that his previous books like Escape Velocity and I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts are full of future-gazing essays and fulminations and ruminations. This is in stark contrast to the strange, retro-Anglophile aesthetic that Gorey used during his lifetime, fondly dreaming of, and drawing, Victorian and Edwardian times in England. Ah, the good old, bad old days, when sex and children were never seen and not heard, and cheerful Dickensian tykes were happy choking down coal dust climbing up chimneys to clean them for ungrateful oleaginous toffs before staggering off to bed with a crust of bread and a slap on the ear for comfort, and were thankful for such luxuries! Bring it all back!

Edward Gorey’s anachronistic use of long-gone England in his drawings is rendered all the more odd by the fact he was of Irish ancestry, so what he was doing fixating on England (which he never visited, except once, in passing through an airport on a trip to Scotland) as The Oul’ Country, as opposed to Ireland, is anybody’s guess. Maybe it was just that we have a lot more representations of English 19th century life (specifically London, of course) to look back on than we do of Ireland. Author Dery’s mutual Irish ancestry, love of words (like Gorey) and art in general, and attraction to dark subjects, makes him a clear natural for sifting through the unnatural subject matter, and we can certainly understand why he undertook this labour d’amour for a love-life-less man. This is clearly a work of obsession to some degree for the author, in that it took him seven years to write, stroking some deep-seated intellectual-aesthetic nerve in his America-diluted Celtic marrow, but his unabashed delighted, awed-professional fanboyism for Gorey’s life and work shows through in the attention to detail he lavishes on a great many of Gorey’s hurt-lurking works. Because the illustrator was pretty cloistered in his life, there isn’t much to speak of with regard to wild interpersonal incidents in these pages. To this end, the book has to stand and fall on its writing and analyses of Gorey’s work, and worldview. And in this it more than succeeds.

Any lover of the eccentric artist under discussion will get a real kick from the treasure trove of anecdotes and analyses of the man and his life and work in these pages. Born To Be Posthumous (the book is so named because it was almost inevitable that the unsettling oeuvre of a left-field artist like Gorey would grow after his death though, it has to be said, he was half-famous before his death at the start of this century) is a work that comprises equal parts psychological and critical and artistic analysis, using things like Freudian examination, queer theory (whatever that is) and Dery’s own deep-dish knowledge of a broad raft of subjects to illuminate cobweb-covered corners of Gorey’s morbid-obsession-squirreling, (pro)lapsed Catholic mind.

One constant disturbing, creepy, gallows-humour trope in Gorey’s work over the decades was his humourous murder of children in offhand, outlandish ways. Dery traces this back, conjecturing that the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, when Gorey was seven years old, clearly had some sort of lifelong-resonating effect on the young boy’s psyche. There is a deep irony to the fact that an artist who did not particularly like children, and did not associate with them, became (in)famous for sort-of-children’s books where he blithely massacred tots en masse for laughs and gasps. You can ask what percentage of this was down to his fatalism-embracing Irish Catholic lineage, but that becomes a quixotic quest when you add it to American mass culture and attendant mindset sculpting. Suffice to say, the cloistered, feline-loving, Oscar Wilde-epithet-throwing aesthete was a wee bit of a dour cunt. But as Dery notes, there was always an element of the sly put-on in the man’s overly stylised dress (fur coats and bling rings and gutties )(Scottish word for tennis shoes)(you’re welcome), and he kept his existential cards close to his chest, with an oh-for-fucksake twinkle in his eye and a dark operatic song in his fluttering schizoid heart.

Maybe a bit too close to his heart, all things told, for any biographer to fully try and explicate some of his more esoteric excesses. Using an obsession-honed, expert cerebral-surgical scalpel, Dery uses a friends-of-Dorothy template for decoding the half-submerged, sexuality-sublimating homoerotic hieroglyphs running through all of Gorey’s works. A loner to the core who expressed his self-diffused desires through his art, Gorey’s biographer can never quite provide a definitive Rosetta Stone to decipher quite what all the gay representation means. But that’s the thing, here – you get the feeling that Dery doesn’t really, fully, truly want to solve the enigma coded into the drawings and aphorisms and bonbon mots, cos that would ruin all the fun. Dery is quite comfortable running his fingers across the forever-unassailably unavailable, giving clues, musing on motives and methods and meanings or lack thereof, clearing a part-path through the dense pathological foliage here with his whimsy sickle.  

“Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable,” Gorey noted, and, despite having a puzzle with this at its core to unravel, Dery does a sterling explicatory job from start to finish. Melanchoholic love-loser and ‘thrift-store bohemian’ Gorey didn’t fuck, he fucked with people on the page, and stuck religiously to his lifelong mission to “make everybody as uneasy as possible.” What better way to push people away, whilst communicating with them at the same time? I read somebody online saying that Dery’s ‘obsession’ with peering at Gorey’s sexuality through the ‘glass closet’ made him (sighing expansively) ‘homophobic.’ Never quite gotten the logic behind that – what homophobe would spend seven years writing aboot a gay artist? They would have to be a totally masochistic nutter whose self-flagellation would put Bob Flanagan’s worst auto-wreckcesses to (thoroughly enjoyed) shame; hyper-sensitive nonsense. Still, that’s the general tone and tenor of these days anyway, so what the Hell, let’s move on.

On a general level, Dery’s tireless, unceasing enthrallment with his subject’s matters adds a rare, energising buoyancy to the proceedings. His love for giving us the gory Gorey hallelujah-details shines through on every page. Dery is a great wee writer whose Celtic-heritage logophilia (Shane MacGowan said that it was a toss-up between the Scots and Irish as to who were the best writers in the world, and, as a Scot, I would say I agree with him)(chuckling here) rises to, and complements, that of the self-negating surrealist semi-Zen koans of Gorey’s work. Consider Dery lines like “The stillness was profound, a ringing in the mind. The sky was painfully clear, by day a vaulted blue vastness, at night a black dome powdered by stars.” (P59) You get the feeling that writing aboot one of his favourite artists is making the thinker and poet in the biographer rise to the occasion, and bringing out the best in him – the thought of their Brundlefly book-fusion resonating down through future years and eras is one that clearly tickles him pink.

I must admit, I am not hugely familiar with Edward Gorey’s work, beyond the general view of his dark oeuvre that made me want to read this book in the first place. This rendered reading some of the biography quite abstract to me, but it certainly made me want to read his works aye essay pee. The reason is quite simple: the big-brained man was, quite simply, brilliant with words. I mean, how can you beat strangely-gurgled words/names like ‘stranglegurgle’ or ‘Gashlycrumb’ or ‘Clavius Frederick Earbrass’ or ‘thumbfumble’ (great wankword!) or ‘Glassglue’ or ‘Mortshire’ or ‘Throbblefoot Spectre’ or ‘Boggleslosh’ or ‘Ombledroom’ or ‘Lord Wherewithal’ or ‘Figbash’ or ‘Duke of Daguerrodargue’? That is all just absolutely gorgeous stuff. Anybody who loves words will see the ethereal, humourous beauty in those oddball deranged portmanteaus. They’re like a wacky bastard fusion of contemporary American and archaic English, with the two conjoined words scissor-sistering together to create a poetic and hilarious and lovely new third word with an ultimately nonsensical meaning. Words like the ones listed above make me want to lick them off the page, as I want to do when I read A Clockwork Orange (if you ever take a copy out of Falkirk Library, you’ll know why the pages are soggy!) Just that feel of a top-pun absurdist wordslinger on top of their intellectual and comedic game is a real buzz. You can sense Gorey running a word forewords and afterwords in his mind, chipping and chopping it down to tense density, deceptively small but of immense size, ready to explode in the eye and mind of the reader with chuckleacious firecracker intensity. I wonder if there’s a list of Gorey names and words online. I hope there is, and will check after I finish writing this.

There was a black humour to Gorey’s ultimate death from a heart attack that the man himself would surely have appreciated. His friend Rick Jones brought over a battery for Gorey’s cordless phone. He told the artist the battery’s price of twenty-two dollars. “Gorey, who was sitting on the couch, flung his head back with a groan, making Jones think he was feigning melodramatic horror at the scandalousness of the price. He wasn’t.” Nope. Laughing here. There’s a certain poetic justice to the man having a bleakly comedic termination like that. Born To Be Posthumous is definitely worth reading for both the hardened Gorey fan and the casual, curious browser, like me. At the end of the book, in having examined Gorey, Dery muses on how his subject disavowed his homosexuality, didn’t want to be defined by it, wanted to be seen as just a person. This is surely something that William S Burroughs, another gay, experimental writer mentioned here and there in the text, would have appreciated. “I’ve never been gay a day in my life,” sneered El Hombre Invisible. To me, that’s the way things should be, with everybody regarded as people first and foremost. But as the biographer muses, all of Gorey’s work has to be seen through the cloudy, obscuring prism of his sexuality and lack of acting thereon. So I think we can let that lie. Just so long as he didn’t act on the horrible child-murdering obsession, we can safely move on without too any real sexuality-based controversy. You know it makes good nonsense. Just like Edward St. John Gorey did.
E

About Graham Rae

Graham Rae has been writing about weird and wonderfueled cinematic oddities for nearly 30 years. He started off writing for the legendary Deep Red, and since then has been bounced around like a human pinball around such venues as Film Threat, American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique, and Realitystudio.org.. A selection of his genre writings are available at www.facebook.com/raewrites, and he runs a Mad Foxes page on Facebook too. You have been warned.

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