A Gorey Tale

Hold tight. We’re going to take a quick left turn into the land of the surreal.

Edward Gorey was, in the far too inadequate words of Wikipedia, a “writer and artist noted for his illustrated books … [which] often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes”.

Gorey is arguably best known to the general public as the creator (or inspiration – there seems to be some disagreement among sources) for the opening credits of PBS’ “Mystery!” TV show. Although most think of him as an artist or illustrator, he considered himself an executor of literary nonsense in the tradition of Lewis Carroll. Gorey’s nonsense, however, comes from a much more explicitly dark place than Carroll’s.

His best-known printed work is “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”, an alphabet book in which the letters are represented by rhymed couplets describing the unusually macabre deaths of children. The poems are accompanied by lovingly-rendered drawings of each demise. From “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”, which shows a fall reminiscent of flying as Amy sails down a grand staircase with her arms outstretched, through “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin” depicting a very tea party-like session in which Zillah shares her bottle with a skull-headed doll, the illustrations serve less to elucidate the verses than to raise more questions. How did Basil come to meet the bears? What sort of butterfly led Quentin into the mire?

“The Gashlycrumb Tinies” was the first of three pieces in Gorey’s 1963 book “The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction”. The second piece, “The Insect God”, drops the humor of “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”, focusing on the macabre side in its telling of the story of Millicent Frastley, who is kidnapped and sacrificed by strange, insect-like beings. “The West Wing”, the final tale in the volume, has no text. Through drawings alone, it creates a sense of foreboding and impending doom.

“The Gashlycrumb Tinies” has achieved great popular acclaim; it has been reprinted many times, and the pages have been reproduced in whole or part on posters, calendars, mugs, lunchboxes, and even watches. The other two works have not done as well – as a rough gauge, Google shows more than 50 times as many hits for “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” as the other two combined. And yet, something about “The Insect God” seems to call out to the artistic spirit. It has been the subject of at least two different musical settings, by Jazz/Rock composer Michael Mantler and Camper Van Beethoven spinoff band The Monks of Doom. Multiple stage productions (examples here and here) have been made as well.

What is behind the artistic fascination with “The Insect God”? Why do people say it remains with them over the years?

Part of it must be the immediate resonance of the story: child abductions have been a staple of the press since at least the Pool kidnapping of 1819. The year after “The Vinegar Works” was released, the Highway Safety Foundation released the infamous “The Child Molester” safety film. Today’s newspapers are full of stories about a spate of kidnappings in Seattle and New South Wales.

But that can’t be the whole story. Nobody, as far as I can tell, has written a stage play about Jaycee Dugard or a ballad about Amanda Berry.

I’d argue that the difference is that Gorey goes, in the immortal words of Prince Buster, “One Step Beyond” by making his kidnappers giant insects. That moves “The Insect God” into the realm of the “unreal” – the same space inhabited by horror movies. Glenn D. Walters hypothesizes that horror movies’ popularity can be traced to their ability to give concrete form to people’s fears, but remain at sufficient distance from reality to allow the viewer to establish mental control.

I note that at the same time Gorey was writing “The Insect God”, another well-known horror work was being created. It took Alfred Hitchcock $3,300,000 and two hours of screen time in “The Birds” to reach the same place that Gorey arrived at using 15 pages of pen and ink drawings.

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