Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Edward Gorey / At home

Edward Gorey

AT HOME WITH: Edward Gorey 

A Little Blood Goes a Long Way

Published: April 21, 1994

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 television.
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 "zippy."
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 He has written 90 books, and has illustrated 60 books by other authors, and he said he also has a stash of 75 unpublished works.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 last word.
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 Narrow Vein.
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 Gorey world.

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