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The Haunted Tea-Cosy

Some credentials:

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 the ball.

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 every Christmas.

"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.