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


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.


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.)


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.


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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Gilded volumes


The cover of an 1894 edition of Jane Austen’s novel designed by Hugh Thomson (1860–1920). The so-called “Peacock Edition” is illustrated throughout and a copy can be yours for £845 should you be so inclined. Or you can go to the Internet Archive and download the same edition for free. Thomson’s lavish cover design is absolutely right for the 1890s and as such would have suited Oscar Wilde far more than Jane Austen. AbeBooks drew my attention to this with a feature on rare books with gilded covers where, needless to say, all the titles are very expensive. A lot more reasonable but just as lavish is I Wonder by Marian Bantjes, the perfect gift for anyone who enjoys the art of book design.

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DIY aesthetics


“According to consumer research conducted on what factors matter to people when they decide whether or not to pick up a book in a bookshop, the cover design comes out as most important. So this might be the stupidest thing we’ve ever done.

“…The covers are art-quality paper, and from internal Penguin efforts we know that they hold ink, paint, pencil and glue…. Each one comes shrink-wrapped so the paper doesn’t get dirty, and I hope people might give them as gifts.”

Helen Conford, Senior Commissioning Editor at The Penguin Press.

The latest ploy by Penguin to shift that tricky back catalogue of classics that everyone has heard of but few people read, resorts to what might be called audience interactivity, in other words print a book with a blank cover and the suggestion that the reader draw their own. They’re calling the scheme “My Penguin” which is unfortunate, this has the same treat-me-like-a-child quality as Microsoft’s dreadful “My Computer” and “My Documents”. The new line will be unveiled next week with the following titles: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Emma by Jane Austen, Magic Tales by the Brothers Grimm, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

This is a rather more interesting idea than Headline’s repackaging of Jane Austen as Georgian chick-lit earlier this year, a move guaranteed to disappoint anyone expecting Helen Fielding in period costume. Penguin is asking readers to send in their designs which they’ll then feature in an online gallery. In a way this goes against the traditional function of the paperback which serves as a cheap(ish), easily portable object that’s often treated with considerable disrespect while being used. Anyone who spends a couple of hours crafting their own cover design will quickly find they have a bespoke art object in their home that they want to preserve, not bend out of shape during the morning commute then discard when finished. It’ll be interesting seeing how this project develops. Will many of these unique designs turn up later on the Oxfam shelves along with all the other secondhand volumes, or will people want to keep them? Will we start seeing dedicated collectors of these titles and their artworks? (Some will no doubt be worth a great deal of money in the future if the cover is drawn by a famous owner.) And some are easier to illustrate than others; everyone knows the story of Dorian Gray but what would be suitable for Marcus Aurelius, for instance?

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The Picture of Dorian Gray – I