INSIDE the sprawling Cape Cod house, vines
creep through cracks in the wall around a picture window. Casually, Edward
Gorey identifies the invasive plant as . . . poison ivy.
How apt for the creator of "The
Beastly Baby" and "The Loathesome Couple," the artist behind the
macabre animated opening credits for the "Mystery" series on public
It is early spring and Mr. Gorey, who is
69, has exchanged his floor-length raccoon coat for an otter jacket (though he
has become, he confessed, sheepish about wearing fur). With his long white
beard and frothy hair, an earring in each ear and African rings on most of his
fingers, he looks piratical. But he is as genial as ever, punctuating his
sentences with effusive expressions like "jeepers" and
Could this 200-year-old house be haunted?
There has to be an explanation for the strange disappearance of all the finials
from Mr. Gorey's lamps, as well as of his collection of tiny teddy bears. He
remembers the time he and four or five of his six cats were on a couch and
suddenly "everyone turned," eyes opening wide, as if something unseen
had entered the sanctum.
On the other hand, there are (apparently)
no bats in his listing attic and certainly no vampires beneath the cellar
floor. The labyrinthine rooms are in cheerful disarray, stacked to the ceiling
with books (the collected works of everyone from "Dr. Who" to Jane
Austen). Esoterica abound: a toilet with a table top on it stands next to a
fireplace, over which is displayed a group of "sandpaper pictures"
drawn by Victorian ladies. This is, Mr. Gorey admitted with pride, "the
debris in which I live." Nowhere is there any evidence of his own art.
In his more than 40 years as artist and
author, he has created a large body of small work. He has written 90 books, and
has illustrated 60 books by other authors, and he said he also has a stash of
75 unpublished works. His latest effort is the Off Broadway musical
"Amphigorey," for which he wrote the text and designed the sets.
In some eyes, there is a confusion between
his work and that of Charles Addams. One difference is that Mr. Gorey's tales
are cautionary, offering moral instruction and tearful laughter. Though the
author prefers horrific to happy endings, innocence can be its own reward. As
for himself, Mr. Gorey said, "I always like a good moral read" --
like "The Channings" by Mrs. Henry Ward.
He moved permanently to Cape Cod
"five or six years ago" (he is foggy on dates), shifting from a
family house in Barnstable to a larger one in Yarmouth Port. He rarely returns
to New York or to Boston, instead commuting between nearby malls. Airport
Cinemas, Blockbuster Video and Barnes & Noble are cornerstones of his
current cultural landscape.
That landscape once extended from the
Museum of Modern Art to the New York State Theater, where for many years he saw
every performance of the New York City Ballet. After George Balanchine's death
in 1983, he began thinking seriously about leaving New York. Now, he is a
confirmed country squire.
Although friends and relatives often
visit, most of his socializing takes place in Jack's Outback, a cafeteria-style
coffee shop that is to Yarmouth what the "Cheers" bar was to Boston.
Every day, Mr. Gorey holds court at breakfast and lunch. Though he looks as out
of place as the Doubtful Guest (a birdlike Gorey creature that is a permanent
unwelcome lodger), he has become one of the natives. He takes his mug from a
rack reserved for regulars, and joins in the local gossip.
Mr. Gorey seemed in a salubrious mood,
especially in the light of a recent medical report. He had been told he has
prostate cancer, with treatment yet to be determined, and diabetes. "I
thought, Oh gee, why haven't I burst into total screaming hysterics?" His
answer: "I'm the opposite of hypochondriacal." He said, "I'm not
entirely enamored of the idea of living forever."
He has been drawing since he was a child
in Chicago. After service in the Army, Mr. Gorey went to Harvard University,
where he roomed with the poet Frank O'Hara. Both were active in the Poets'
Theater; Mr. Gorey wrote plays, all of which have surreptitiously vanished.
In New York in the early 1950's, he worked
in the art department at Doubleday, staying in the office at night to create
his own books. "I didn't envision a career in anything," he said,
unless it was to own a bookstore, one would imagine, very like the Gotham Book
Mart, the cozy, chaotic establishment that is the prime purveyor of his work.
From the first, he specialized in
variations on Victoriana, dire deeds in places like Nether Postlude and
Sludgemouth. His filigreed crosshatching made everything seem more ominous, as
his characters disappeared in fens or were brained by falling masonry. As early
as "The West Wing" (1963), he expressed his predilection for
Surrealism. Influenced by Ionesco and Buster Keaton, among others, he is
captivated by nonsense and non sequiturs.
Increasingly the inexplicable has
dominated his work. One recent book, "The Betrayed Confidence"
(1992), is a series of subtly portentous postcards, which could be mail from
Magritte. On the final pages is a haunting sequence of wordless pictures: a
dangling rope, an empty frying pan, an unmarked tombstone.
What inspires him? "Practically
anything visual or verbal -- or even real life," he said. "I'm always
trying to keep myself open to inspiration, tra-la." A stroll on the beach
engendered "The Deranged Cousins," and the infamous moors murder case
led to "The Loathesome Couple." One friend regularly supplies him
with dreams; Mr. Gorey said he never uses his own. They are "grandiose
architectural dreams" or, on occasion, "horror movies," which he
enjoys and almost immediately forgets.
While Mr. Gorey goes through his daily
routine, postponing work for more pressing matters (like lunch or keeping up
with the plot of "General Hospital"), in New York there is
"Amphigorey," a musical collage of Gorey sketches and snippets. The
author saw many performances of earlier versions, beginning nine years ago at
New York University under the title "Tinned Lettuce." But he has not
yet seen the current revue.
In recent years, he has been involved in
eight (or was it nine?) revues of his work on Cape Cod (shows with titles like
"Lost Shoelaces," "Stuffed Elephants" and "Useful
Urns"). He designed them all, directed several and momentarily appeared in
one. He gave three performances but acted with such ebullience that he threw
his back out and had to retire to the sidelines. At the moment, he is up to his
elbows in puppets: bugs, dragons and household objects from "The Inanimate
Tragedy." He has also written a puppet play about Emily Dickinson.
As usual, he is behind on several
projects, including a book of Christmas drawings for Disney. He never did
finish a promised book about "Dracula," which to his astonishment was
a great Gorey success on Broadway in 1977.
Whatever idea suddenly captures his
attention takes precedence. Thinking about a character he created several years
ago for "The Raging Tide," an impish inkblot named Figbash, he
decided to do a Figbash alphabet book, with the creature miming all the
letters. "That'll be my next little project," he said, singing the
While his books have become collectors'
items, he remains less than possessive. He thinks he has copies of all his work
in a closet. On occasion, he will consult the cache. "Sometimes I get a
zippy idea," he said. "Then it will occur to me that I've done this
zippy idea once before. My motto is, Don't do it again."
Although there are annual exhibitions of
his work at the Gotham, there has not been a major retrospective in many years,
and he is wary of the possibility. The work would be "ghastly," he
said, if taken in bulk. "I'm hardly what you would call a serious
museum-type artist," he said. From his point of view, his work is in A
The slogan on a Gorey T-shirt reads,
"So many books; so little time." In his own case, it should read,
"So many books, soap operas, sitcoms, horror movies; so little time."
Mr. Gorey is an insatiable reader and viewer, with an equal appetite for high
and low culture.
Eclectic in the extreme -- and a speed
reader -- he engorges himself on great works of literature and has also seen
every chapter of "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm
Street." A convert to Court TV, he was glued to the Menendez trial. He
refuses to allow his work to interfere with his role as couch potato.
Although he is a mystery-story addict, he
does not often watch the "Mystery" television series because he is
tired of "overly psychologized detectives and their problems." He
prefers to reread Agatha Christie. "I've read all of her books about five
times," he said. "Admittedly I can never remember who did it."
Up the creaky stairs in his house is his
"entertainment center in all its squalor," with his VCR at the ready
for quick taping. Down a corridor is a tiny cubicle that serves as his studio.
A drawing table faces the window, with the view obscured by the large leaves of
a magnolia tree. Pinned above the table are postcard reproductions of paintings
by Goya and Matisse (his absolute favorite artist) and of an Indian sculpture
of a tiger devouring a missionary.
Except for pens and a bottle of India ink,
and sketches of Figbash in its abecedarian mode, there are few indications of
his life in art. But it is in this cloistered clutter that his imagination
soars, carried aloft by thoughts of threatening topiary, throbblefooted
specters and all the swooning maidens and hapless orphans that populate the