I have a little stash of Edward Gorey books that I love for their dark ripples. The first book I ever read of his was The Unstrung Harp, or Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, which was particularly appealing to me because its main character is an author, at turns amazed by his own brilliance and convinced all he has written is “dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel.” But go on he does, reeling between excitement and disgust right to the day his publishers Scuffle and Dustcough release the book. One day, running errands, he spots it in a bookstore window and stands “carefully reading the title of every other book there in a state of extreme and pointless embarrassment.”
Even years ago, when I was a yet-to-be-published writer, this slim little book held special meaning for me, and it seemed that the words–elegant, spare, funny, touchingly old-fashioned but completely relevant–matched the illustrations perfectly.
Being on that precarious brink of releasing a book myself, I had The Unstrung Harp out the other day and was paging through, chuckling, when N happened along and commented on the illustrations. “Wow,” she said. “He’s a really good drawer.” So I pulled out Amphigorey, a collection of fifteen Gorey books that my husband gave me when N was first born, and I settled in to read her some.
I find Gorey hard to categorize, and so I don’t. But apparently he once said of himself that he was a writer of literary nonsense, like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. In a New Yorker interview, he’s quoted as saying, “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.”
I don’t think of Gorey as a children’s writer, but many of his books have great appeal for kids. They’re short and funny, and deliciously macabre, and loaded with pictures of odd-looking people and beings, such as The Doubtful Guest, a curious sort of penguiny creature wearing a scarf and tennis shoes, who shows up at the mansion of a wealthy family and refuses to go away. N loves this little guy, who sleepwalks, chews on plates at breakfast, tears out chapters from books, and protects objects he’s fond of by dropping them into a pond.
But I was curious–was Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies too macabre for a child? It’s an alphabet book, yes, but of a very different order than the ones N saw in her early childhood. The book features clever little rhymes worthy of Dr. Seuss, and gruesome, hilarious drawings that chronicle the deaths of 26 children, from Amy to Zillah.
I’ll admit she looked a little shocked when we first read it. But then she asked for it again and again. And then she read it aloud herself, and soon enough, she had memorized it.
“S is for Susan who perished of fits
T is for Titus who flew into bits
U is for Una who slipped down a drain
V is for Victor squashed under a train.”
Her favourite (and mine) is Neville, “who died of ennui.” The illustration shows a wall and a large window, and in its bottom corner, Neville’s tiny head from eyes up, peering through the glass into a gloomy day. She was full of questions about the creepy man with black umbrella, which I answered to the best of my ability. And she whispered “ouch” when Kate was struck with an axe. So I asked, “Do you find it scary? Or creepy? Or do you feel sorry for them?”
And she cocked an eyebrow and answered in a very wry tone: “Uh–Mom. They’re just drawings.”