You really have to push yourself to imagine Edward Gorey at the beginning of his career, hanging his early works in the iconic Gotham Book Mart in the mid-1950s. But that’s exactly how he got his start, a few years after graduating from Harvard, his pictures adorning the walls of a store whose customers included Saul Bellow and Mary McCarthy. Gorey’s work has become so commercially ubiquitous in the past few decades that it is almost hard to envision him as part of New York’s highbrow set, his illustrations hanging over fresh copies of the Partisan Review, his unique vision on display for a still easily shocked postwar America.
Gorey’s work has never gone out of style, and that probably has a little something to do with the fact that “goth never truly dies,” as Professor Lauren M.E. Goodlad told the New York Times last week. The newspaper’s pre-Halloween exploration of the style only underlined how thankful I am for that fact. Though the subculture first picked up steam in the waning days of late-1970s punk, those of us who weren’t old enough to catch Bauhaus at the Batcave had two early cultural touchstones that pointed us toward the dark side: Winona Ryder’s “strange and unusual” Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, and the PBS series Masterpiece Mystery!, perhaps the darkest show it was possible to encounter if your parents forgot to turn off PBS after Sesame Street.
The Gorey-drawn introduction to PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! fascinated me when I was still too young to understand exactly what it was. I was transfixed by the sparse, mostly black-and-white cartoon. I’m not sure if one is necessarily born with a taste for dark humor, but I was unquestionably drawn to that aspect of the show, and continue to be attracted to literature, art, music, and films that make me think of that Gorey cartoon.
That’s why, as much as I enjoyed reading about the ins and outs of PBS’s Masterpiece in Rebecca Eaton’s memoir Making Masterpiece, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more about the role Gorey played in its mystery spin-off. (Eaton does include a mention of the artist’s dissatisfaction with the show’s tango music.) Perhaps it wasn’t fair to expect much, considering Gorey’s involvement was limited to its opening credits, but as a fan, I held out hope.
Gorey’s introduction was what got me to watch Mystery! as a kid. Even though I couldn’t entirely wrap my young brain around the plot, I eventually grew into a full-fledged fan, and at some point started recognizing Gorey’s artwork while browsing bookstores and school-library shelves. I became obsessed with his macabre illustrations of children meeting their doom in The Gashlycrumb Tinies and the cats he drew for an early-’80s edition of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
That versatility is one of the most interesting things about Gorey. While today we associate him with macabre commonplaces like “B is for Basil assaulted by bears” or remember him as one of the names on the bookshelf of your high school chum who wore black lipstick and introduced you to Joy Division, he was also quite highbrow in both his work and personal tastes, and found critical success throughout his career for more Surrealist-minded works like The Object-Lesson, which was inspired by Samuel Foote’s poem, “The Grand Panjandrum,” and Japanese Haiku.
The mostly self-taught Gorey had a unique imagination, and he exercised it in his works. Looking at some of his darkly comical and sometimes downright homicidal works, it’s clear he shared much with contemporaries like Jim Henson and Shel Silverstein. Their work was often nominally geared toward a younger audience, but appealed to an older crowd. But Gorey was also peerless in many ways, an American eccentric who liked fur coats in a way that Rick Ross would have appreciated, pairing them with Chuck Taylor high tops to wear to the New York City Ballet. Even though, as A.N. Devers points out in her piece on Gorey’s coats for The Paris Review, he eventually started to feel bad for wearing dead raccoons and left his estate to charities that served animals, many of us still think of fur coats when we think of Gorey.
Edmund Wilson called Gorey’s work “equally amusing and sombre, nostalgic at the same time as claustrophobic, at the same time poetic and poisoned” — in short, all the best and most timeless things about the goth aesthetic. Although we don’t hear much about it these days, his personal life was fascinating. Gorey was very discreet about his sexual orientation, adopting the stance that, “I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly. I am fortunate in that I am apparently reasonably undersexed or something. I’ve never said that I was gay and I’ve never said that I wasn’t. What I’m trying to say is that I am a person before I am anything else,” and only left the United States once to visit the Scottish Hebrides. The fact that his eccentric personality is almost entirely eclipsed in our memory by his body of work is the ultimate testament to its value.
There are many layers to Gorey’s mystique, and they all had something to do with the appeal he held for the generation of kids who accidentally caught his introduction for Masterpiece Mystery!: Edward Gorey was subversive. I don’t think he meant to be, but after seeing those strange black-and-white cartoons follow the brightly colored characters of Sesame Street, it’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between the ways in which Henson and Gorey taught us the alphabet: one used Muppets, gleeful and kind, the other used death, winking and sly.