Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

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Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)

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The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.

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Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

Continue reading “Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey”

Saki: The Improper Stories of HH Munro

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I thought I’d written about this some time ago but it appears not so the present post can serve as a way to honour the talents of the late Fenella Fielding. The obituaries this week have inevitably emphasised her roles in the Carry On films, a series of alleged comedies that I’ve never liked, and which weren’t much liked by several of the actors who appeared in them. Fenella Fielding did much more than this, of course, especially in the theatre, on radio and in television, including appearances such as the one here from a collection of adaptations of the peerless short stories of Hector Hugh Munro, better known as Saki. Granada TV made a whole series of these in 1962, broadcasting this anthology in 1985 following the death of producer Philip Mackie. Fenella appears in the second story, A Holiday Task, as the forgetful Mary Drakmanton, and she fits so well with into Saki’s world that I really wish I’d suggested to my colleagues at Savoy Books a reading or two by Fenella from Saki. She enjoyed reading Colette for Savoy, and chose the selections herself, one of which concerned Colette’s homosexual friends. Given this, I can imagine Fenella teasing out some of the sly gay humour that runs like a scarlet thread through Saki’s Clovis stories.

The other pieces in this Granada collection are The Stampeding of Lady Bastable, The Way to the Dairy, Sredni Vashtar and A Defensive Diamond. The story editor was Gerald Savory who later did such an excellent job adapting Dracula for the BBC.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Fenella Fielding reads Colette

Weekend links 335

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The Expectation (1936) by Richard Oelze.

Richard Oelze, 1900–1980 is an exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Michael Werner Gallery, London, which runs until January 2017. More Surrealist works by Oelze may be seen at But Does It Float and Ubu Gallery.

Will McMorran on the problems of translating the Marquis de Sade’s most obscene work. Related: Jay Sina on Sexistential Horror: HP Lovecraft and the Marquis de Sade as perverse peers.

• Mixes of the week: More Halloween horror at No Condition Is Permanent, Secret Thirteen Mix 200 by JK Flesh, and a mix for The Wire by Botany.

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), a story collection by Saki (HH Munro) who died 100 years ago this week.

• “Jack is 24, sometimes he’s a drag queen named Sabrina.” The Queen (1968).

• The Mindset of the Macabre: An interview with Abigail Larson.

• “The world is full of bloviators,” says MAD cartoonist Al Jaffee.

Ginette Vincendeau on how the French birthed film noir.

• How to throw a dinner party like Salvador Dalí.

Sastanàqqàm, another new song by Tinariwen.

• At A Year In The Country: more Quatermass.

• Photographs by Klaartje Lambrechts.

Paul Bailey on Pasolini’s lost boys.

Adam Shatz on Leonard Cohen.

Subterranean London

Joan Of Arc (1986) by Jennifer Warnes with Leonard Cohen | Who By Fire (1986) by Coil | The Future (1992) by Leonard Cohen

Weekend links 322

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• Cover art by the Quays for Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013, a Blu-ray collection which will be released by the BFI next month. Being something of an obsessive where the Quays are concerned I have a lot of this material already (some of the films in multiple copies), but I’ve been hankering for a BR collection for some time. The new set will include everything that’s on the BFI’s DVD collection plus more recent films, some of which have been the subject of previous { feuilleton } posts.

• Aubrey Beardsley: “The subjects were quite mad and a little indecent. Strange hermaphroditic creatures wandering about in Pierrot costumes or modern dress; quite a new world of my own creation.” Alan Hollinghurst reviews the catalogue raisonné of Beardsley’s work.

• How to find the spirit of HP Lovecraft in Providence. Related: there’s now a funding page for the statue of Lovecraft by Gage Prentiss being proposed for downtown Providence. Read about it here.

• At The Quietus: Robert Barry on KPM and the history of library music, and James De Carteret on Mike Hodges’ underrated The Terminal Man (1974).

Michael Newton reviews Erica Wagner’s First Light, “a festschrift of essays, reminiscences, poems and stories dedicated to Alan Garner and his work”.

Cosey Fanni Tutti‘s forthcoming memoir Art Sex Music should prove more interesting than some of the recent music business autobiographies.

• Mixes of the week: A New Age mix by Matthewdavid, FACT mix 563 by Deerhoof, and Secret Thirteen Mix 193 by Nite Fields.

Underground music, echoes of war: using the vast Inchindown storage chamber for its resonant properties.

Totally Lost: a photographic and video exploration of abandoned European totalitarian architecture.

• More animation: Nonsense, Cartoons, and My Post-Soviet Adolescence by Naré Navasardyan.

Annie Rose on the allure of the predatory lesbian vampire in film.

• “Let’s write an encyclopedia of things blue,” says Bernd Brunner.

• Ferrets can be gods: Katherine Rundell on the inimitable Saki.

• The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch by Ingrid D. Rowland.

iO-808: A TR-808 drum machine for browsers.

A Good Book

Terminal Hotel (1981) by Synergy | Sataan Is Real (1992) by Terminal Cheesecake | Terminal (1999) by Monolake

Kwaidan

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Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), a book by Lafcadio Hearn retelling Japanese ghost stories. Later an incredible film by Masaki Kobayashi and a drawing by Vania Zouravliov.

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Kwaidan (aka Kaidan; 1964).

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Kwaidan by Vania Zouravliov (no date).

Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn with an introduction by Oscar Lewis (1932).

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Bertha Lum, 1869–1954
The Boy Who Drew Cats
The art of Takato Yamamoto