Edward Gorey – Amphigorey (1972/1980)
Way back at the beginning of the Read a Damn Book project, I reviewed Gorey’s “The Gashleycrumb Tinies,” which is an ABC-style book of the various ways that children can be dispatched and released from this mortal coil. The art is absolutely chilling, consisting of remarkably detailed, black and white images of sad little faces either just about to meet their ends or having just left us. (It’s not a work for the faint of heart...) The only truly unfortunate thing about the book, thought, is how quickly one comes to the end of it. Luckily for us, Gorey wrote and illustrated a GREAT MANY little books, although as it says in the introduction to Amphigorey, the earliest of those works “are now difficult and often expensive to come by” (n.p.), which is why poor people (like me) need reprint collections.
Amphigorey includes fifteen humorous, horrifying, and beautiful works, most of which are comprised of black and white illustrations with obsessively detailed backgrounds full of freakish, repeating wallpaper patterns or looming shadows created by tight-knit, extreme cross-hatching. The tone of most of Gorey’s works is pseudo-Victorian or Dickensian, with weird, vaguely British sounding place names (like Chutney Falls, West Elbow, and Hobbies Odd), bizarre characters (Miss Skrim-Pshaw and Dick Hammerclaw), and a costume department that stopped buying new clothes in about 1929.
A couple of the books are in the ABC-style mentioned above, and some are comprised of odd little limericks with accompanying macabre illustrations, and some of the best works in the collection are freakish, unsettling short-stories, usually involving at least one untimely death. One extremely creepy “story,” called “The West Wing,” has no words at all, but is instead a series of strange set pieces inside of an old house. One illustration is a just a room with peeling wall paper, in another a body is lying on a floor, in another what looks like a sheet or blanket is floating a few feet off the ground in the air, and in yet another is a darkened doorway with just a hint of some legs visible. It’s very eerie and enjoyable (if you’re into that sort of thing.)
All of the works in this collection are entertaining in their own ways, but there are three that stand out as truly exceptional for me. The most brilliant of these pieces is “The Object Lesson,” which is an exercise in stream-of-consciousness absurdity that, despite being disjointed to the point of nonsense, somehow creates a delightfully haunting mood. It’s not a traditional narrative by any stretch just a series of tangentially related scenes that when taken together produce an uncanny effect. Here is one particularly lurid section, which takes place over the course of five separate pages/images:
“Meanwhile, on the tower, / Madame O___ in conversation with an erstwhile cousin / saw that his moustache was not his own, / on which she flung herself over the parapet / and surreptitiously vanished” (n.p.).
Why they were on the tower is never explain, nor is the reason that the cousin had someone else’s moustache, or why this would cause Madame O___ to throw herself off the tower. It’s strange and uncanny and wonderfully well illustrated. To me, this tale, which strings together one nonsense event after another but still manages to be completely unsettling and creepy, is the height of artistic perfection. (This may say more about me than it does the work, but I don’t think so.)
Another great story in this collection is “The Willowdale Handcar” in which a trio of young-adults hops on a handcar they find at the train station and proceeds to ride the rails for months and months, watching a series of bizarre things happen, like buildings burning down, figures creeping through fields in thunderstorms, and various glimpses of different people’s lives falling to ruin. Again, nothing is explicitly stated, just hinted at and suggested, but the overall tone is somehow both humorous and haunting, especially considering what happens at the end!
The third rather unforgettable story here is “The Curious Sofa,” which is subtitled “A Pornographic Work,” although not a single naked body or explicit act is actually depicted in the tale. It’s a masterpiece of suggestion and innuendo, with exceedingly pregnant lines, like the following:
“Colonel Gilbert and his wife, Louise, came in after dinner; both of them had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks. / The evening was a huge success, in spite of someone fainting from time to time” (n.p.).
For most of this tale the tone is rambunctious and humorous, populated with flapper women sporting pixie cuts and pearl necklaces and men with handlebar moustaches, all apparently enjoying themselves. However, towards the end of the story it takes a dark turn, and ends with a surprise, horrifying twist. It’s sick, but in the most inexplicit and inexplicable manner possible.
Gorey was a genius, a truly talented master of both expressive line art and of crafting a tale that could entertain or cut to the bone. His works are unlike anything else I’ve read, landing somewhere between adult fairytales and penny dreadful grotesqueries. Amphigorey itself is a remarkable collection, which will endlessly entertain anyone with a taste for the uncanny---but I should warn potential readers that the gruesomeness and heartbreaking tragedy of many of the tales may be a bit much for some sensibilities. If you consider yourself a fan of horror or of extremely dark humor, then Edward Gorey is the creator for you, and if you haven’t read anything by him yet, then this collection is the perfect place to start!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)