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.

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Ed Wood’s Sleaze Paperbacks

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Yes, it’s that Ed Wood, Mr Plan 9 from Outer Space, who apparently supplemented his erratic film career by penning dubious porn novels and exposés of the erotic underworld. Most of what I know about him is culled from Tim Burton’s biopic so this was news to me. Ed Wood’s Sleaze Paperbacks is an exhibition at Boo-Hooray, New York, curated by Michael Daley and Johan Kugelberg:

The paperbacks are truly rare, even in an age of mass-searchable used book engines, and google ferocity. Ed Wood’s sleaze fiction is also as strange, idiosyncratic and out of step with his times and mores as his infamous movies. Wood would write porn inter-spliced with lengthy philosophical, sociological and psychological discourse, he’d write first person narratives of life as a transvestite in the buttoned up America of the 1950’s. He’d riff on psychosexual themes, and unleash his id, his ego and his superego in turn, sometimes in the same chapter. He’d write about sex and the human condition without veneer or filters, offering up the damaged and anguished voice of a desperately soul-searching drunk with a sense of self-worth that would stand in dichotomy to his self-pity.

Interesting to see Gay Black among the selected titles, a book I’d seen before in a Flickr collection of queer pulps. At the time I thought the credit must be coincidence, or some pseudonymous writer with a double-entendre name. The exhibition opens on November 2nd and runs to December 1st, 2011.

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The book covers archive

Alice in Acidland

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No idea how this piece of exploitation from 1968 evaded my attention for so long but going by the IMDB reviews it’s probably safe to say that any obscurity is well-deserved:

this movie is very accurate, as every girl i have met that smokes weed instantly becomes a bisexual nymphomaniac. scientific studies have actual proved this many times over. the accuracy is phenomenal and i think i speak for every man out there when i say i leave my boxers on while having sex. the parties look like any other raging party in the 60’s where people sit together in a well lit room smoking weed and immediate have sex with everyone as soon as they walk in.

The director and writer were evidently embarrassed enough to use pseudonyms (Gertrude Steen…yeah, right) so the poster and title card (below) are probably as good as it gets unless tepid soft porn is something that really turns you on (baby).

Another fabulous Chateau Thombeau tip.

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Alice has been in the news again this week with a new trailer turning up for Tim Burton’s forthcoming film and also this lengthy article in New Scientist which looks at the Alice books through an interpretative lens of algebra and geometry. While it’s nice to play with a fresh interpretation of the stories, essays like this are invariably subject to considerable strain as they attempt to wring hidden meanings from every quirk of the text.

The trouble with the Alice books is that their origin is almost as famous as the stories themselves, and it’s well-known that Dodgson wrote down Alice’s Adventures Under Ground as a present for Alice Liddell with no intention of seeing it published. Aside from the addition of extra scenes, the published book doesn’t radically differ from the handwritten original so you have to stretch your credulity to accept that Dodgson managed to improvise an entertaining story for a child whilst simultaneously authoring a critique of developments in contemporary mathematics. As usual in cases such as these it helps to refer to an earlier logician, William of Ockham, whose famous declaration that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” is given on this mathematician’s page as “when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.”

Previously on { feuilleton }
Return to Wonderland
Dalí in Wonderland
Virtual Alice
Psychedelic Wonderland: the 2010 calendar
Charles Robinson’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Humpty Dumpty variations
Alice in Wonderland by Jonathan Miller
The Illustrators of Alice

Return to Wonderland

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As the festive season shambles into view I’ve reworked my psychedelic interpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from calendar to poster format for those who might prefer the latter. There are two poster sizes, the standard CafePress large and small, and the calendar is still on sale, of course. By coincidence, the dreadfully-named Syfy channel is currently running its own TV adaptation of the Lewis Carroll books. I haven’t seen Alice but the reviews I’ve read have been mixed. From the description I can’t imagine I’d enjoy it (Tim Burton’s film is the one I’m waiting for) but it shows once again how endlessly mutable the Alice stories have become.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dalí in Wonderland
Virtual Alice
Psychedelic Wonderland: the 2010 calendar
Charles Robinson’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Humpty Dumpty variations
Alice in Wonderland by Jonathan Miller
The Illustrators of Alice

Alice in Wonderland by Jonathan Miller

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I said, “Girl, you drank a lot of Drink Me,
But you ain’t in a Wonderland
You know I might-a be there to greet you, child,
When your trippin’ ship touches sand.”

Donovan, The Trip (1966).

Most of the key texts of the psychedelic period tend to be either non-fiction—Huxley’s Doors of Perception, Leary’s Psychedelic Experience—or spiritual works such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead , the volume upon which Leary’s book is based and which subsequently provided John Lennon with lines for Tomorrow Never Knows. The key fictional work of the era has to be Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a fact that would no doubt have surprised the book’s legions of enthusiastic Victorian readers, never mind its author. Grace Slick created the definitive Alice song with White Rabbit in 1965, written while she was with the Great Society but only recorded properly in 1967 after she’d joined Jefferson Airplane. But Alice’s adventures run a rich seam of Victorian whimsy through the music of 1966 to ’69, especially among the British bands whose lyrics tend to be far more childish and frivolous than their American counterparts. Donovan probably got there first among the Brits with The Trip on his Sunshine Superman album. Among the profusion of later references can be found one-off singles such as Alice in Wonderland (1967) by the Dave Heenan Set (who recorded songs for the Barbarella soundtrack as The Glitterhouse) and Jabberwock/Which Dreamed It? (1968) by Boeing Duveen & The Beautiful Soup, a band whose songwriter is better known today as Hank Wangford.

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