You are now listening to a
major, big-time, ferocious Edward Gorey fan. His art (a poster
with all the dead kids from The Gashlycrumb Tinies; a
reading-promo poster he did for McDonald's; a 1999 Gorey calendar;
a signed poster from one of his theater pieces) adorns my walls.
His books (all the Amphigoreys, plus a few others I've
picked up along the way, including the hilarious The Curious
Sofa) sit on my shelves. I've attended several of his bizarre
theater pieces (Chinese Gossip, Inverted Commas,
Heads Will Roll), which combine puppetry and avant-garde
live-actor performance art; and I've seen a tiny production of
Hamlet whose sets and costumes were designed by Gorey.
And I wear my Chinese Gossip shirt with pride. Whatever
this man does, I'm up for.
That's why I came away from
his new book, The Haunted Tea-Cosy, with such mixed feelings.
A Goreyesque riff on A Christmas Carol, the book first
appeared in published form in the New York Times Magazine
last year (12/21/97), and I think it looked better there. For
one thing, it was in color; for another, the drawings were smaller
and clearer. I don't know whom to blame for the shockingly substandard
Gorey artwork in Tea-Cosy -- whether it's Gorey himself,
whose hand might be shakier now that he's 73, or a reproduction
botch. I'm gonna take a stand and guess it's the latter. Harcourt
Brace, the book's publisher, seems to have given Gorey's art
a blotchy, sketchy treatment that makes it look rushed and slapdash.
I compare Gorey's cover art, which is less detailed than usual
but still crisp and clear, to the artwork inside, which is almost
painful to look at, and I have to conclude that the printer dropped
If you were a newcomer to Gorey
and you flipped through this book in the store, you'd probably
put it back on the shelf, unimpressed, wondering why people like
me rave about him so loudly. And it's a shame, because the story
of The Haunted Tea-Cosy is vintage Gorey -- not particularly
macabre this time around, but full of his usual eccentric wit.
Someone said that one of Tim Burton's big influences must have
been Gorey; one reading of Burton's 1997 book The Melancholy
Death of Oyster Boy confirms that. Gorey stories seethe and
crawl with insect gods, loathsome couples, hapless children,
beastly babies, stoic Edwardian-era figures -- all thrown together
in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way. In this book, for instance,
a man sits down to a small meal of tea and fruitcake, and a giant
bug leaps out from beneath the tea-cosy; the man seems to take
this in stride, as if large insects jumped out of tea-cosies
"I am the Bahhum Bug,"
it says; "I am here to diffuse the interests of didacticism"
-- the bug speaks fluent Goreyese. What follows is a more-or-less
parody of Dickens, with three spirits visiting to show us a variety
of seemingly unconnected scenes. Gradually you pick up threads
of a narrative or rhyming bits of business: wallpaper burglary,
arguments over the time, random accidents, women pining for absent
men. It all ends with a wild Christmas party.
Gorey stories, despite their
succinct length (Tea-Cosy weighs in at about 70 pages),
aren't meant to be skimmed or rushed through. The standard Gorey
design (text on the left page, illustration on the right) encourages
you to stop and study each scenario. Gorey is a master of less-is-more;
he understands that the less expressive his figures are, the
more meaning we project onto them. He'll just present you with
a picture of a child and a dog sitting quietly beside a tombstone,
and your mind fills in a backstory. At his best, his work is
sparse yet evocative; his perverse masterpiece, The Curious
Sofa, is the filthiest thing you'll ever read -- or, rather,
it's as filthy as your imagination is.
As a story, The Haunted
Tea-Cosy (subtitled A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion
for Christmas) is as elegant as anything Gorey has done.
As an example of Gorey's illustration, it's a disappointment.
I recommend digging up a copy of that New York Times Magazine
issue -- or, better yet, starting with any of the Amphigorey
volumes, which collect his best books from The Beastly Baby
to The Loathsome Couple. They're perfect Halloween gifts
for yourself or the macabre, goth, off-center misfits in your
life, Goddess love 'em.