Oftentimes, autumn puts me in a melancholy mood and only the most wonderful morbid art makes me feel better. Someting pretty, something scary, and something Gorey.
It has to do with how autumn affects me. The nights get very cold. The days wilt and dim under the flat, gray light. In Texas, because we don’t have real autumn, the leaves wither to a dull brown instead of the fiery colors other states enjoy. As such, the sickly brown emphasizes the emaciated, skeletal tree branches. And as the sky begins to darken earlier and earlier, all I find myself wanting to do is be home. There is a small voice urging me to go home, to get inside where it’s warm and safe.
I experience a curious mixture of forlornness and calm during these cold months. There is beauty in the cold. It possesses a certain elegance as it sweeps in with its frosty nights and frigid winds. Despite my apprehension of the cold (I am from Texas, y’all), when it washes over me in a sudden gust, I accept it.
And it always makes me think of the dark. Of the end.
It has always been this way for me. Every year.
I don’t share this to be overly morbid. There are some wonderful bright points in autumn and winter—tons of holidays, good food, time spent with family and friends, and no work! I only mean to acknowledge the connection.
I’ve always thought it had something to do with the fact that, around Halloween and into November, my grade school’s library would put out all the really good scary books. Overnight, beautifully illustrated copies of the children’s version of Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein would appear. There were numerous volumes of ghost stories, urban legends, and campfire tales. One of the best and creepiest of these books was the Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark series, of which I’ve already written about here and here. Those books were deliciously scary, so good that most kids felt compelled to read them, no matter how much those pictures frightened them.
Another one of my favorites was the wickedly artful The Gashlycrumb Tinies, written and illustrated by Edward Gorey. I always remembered those dark tales, despite having long forgotten the name of the author. I remembered the sinister rhyme, offered to help small children remember the alphabet. I remembered the demented but clever drawings.
And it was a particularly grey day that inspired me to dig through my books to revisit this part of my childhood.
In case you haven’t had the guilty pleasure of encountering Gorey’s work, let me briefly introduce him. There’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, of course.
There is The Doubtful Guest.
There is The Hapless Child.
Gorey illustrated Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was written by T.S. Eliot, naturally.
And lots of other works. The man was prolific.
Time and time again he created a lush, sophisticated, morbid world, cast with tiny children dressed in white, frail women draped in delicate dresses, and tall men cloaked in long fur coats. He set these characters in sumptuous, dimly lit settings: foggy moors, dreary cemeteries, Edwardian parlors, and dank cellars. His art is somber yet whimsical, grim but somehow lighthearted. At times, the art is so dark that it becomes kind of funny. It’s too ridiculous. One could say it was all heavily stylized, but that’s an understatement—Gorey created a world for his audience, a world that traded in elegance and opulence in the face of slowly unraveling horror.
“In a way, I hope it’s mildly unsettling,” Gorey once replied to an inquiry about the disturbing nature of his work, particularly as it involved children. Children were often times the protagonists, and more often still the victims of violent, imaginative acts. Even still, Gorey rejected attempts to describe his work as macabre. I find this very weird, since everything about his work is macabre. Gruesome subject matter, albeit presented with notable refinement and restraint? And involving children? That’s pretty damn macabre.
To be fair, Gorey didn’t revel in bloody details. Quite the contrary, part of what makes his art so fixating is how talented he was at hiding the moment of horror. He traded on the apprehension of a terrible event, on terror. Each picture is strung together with words that tell you the whole story, but much like Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark, the pictures are what count. The pictures are what the audience experiences. And Gorey was very good at bringing his readers to the brink, but rarely ever did he force them to look over the edge, to see something truly horrifying. His drawings rarely ever depict gore, and he almost always cleverly obfuscates the ghastly bits.
Except when he does decide to show them.
Mostly, his art is about portraying tension. It’s one thing to tell you a disturbing story and it’s quite another to show you. His words matter-of-factly present the events, with a calculated detachment. But his drawings show the scenes right before the terrible moment, mostly sparing bloody details, and almost always avoiding the grotesque act itself. Ingeniously, Gorey structures his stories in a way that forces the reader to imagine what happened, to draw inside her own head what Gorey refused to draw.
The human brain is too good at solving puzzles and anticipating events. Gorey knew that and merely suggests something awful. The reader alone truly sees the horror. It’s a special kind of art that confronts the reader with a frightful combination of words and images that, separately, lack real significance. The reader is somewhat complicit now, having been manipulated into experiencing little Kate’s death, however vicariously.
In many ways, Gorey’s artwork reminds me of The Shrike, painted by Miyamoto Musashi. This scene seems like your average boring nature scene, if a little minimalist, until you realize that the painting is only focusing on the quiet but inherent tension between the worm and the bird who seems ready to pounce. Circle of life. Death is a part of life, even in this tranquil and beautiful scene.
Which leads me to poor Xerxes.
Why did I love such grim drawings and haunting stories as a child? Where did this affinity come from? And why do I return to it, like clockwork? Certainly, a large part of it has to do with how good Gorey’s work was. Instead of trying to outsmart his reader by shooting for the biggest, messiest scare, Gorey led the reader to the most obvious place. And because the reader does most of the work imagining horrible things, Gorey can accomplish a very disquieting effect. It’s fairly easy to dismiss a bloody movie scene by commenting on how fake it looks or how over the top it is. It’s not so easy to dismiss morbid images you yourself imagined.
But really, I think I loved this book because it appealed to a very dark truth all children know. I understood, even at that young age, that Gorey wasn’t really trying to scare me—he was trying to help me acknowledge that children are vulnerable, that death comes for us all. Every child is aware of how small and weak she is, at the same time she learns how scary the world is with each passing day. There are innumerable dangers lurking around every corner, and in every peach.
Some of the dangers are truly scary while others are ridiculous, almost laughably silly. As I’ve written earlier, sometimes humor and horror go hand in hand, bringing out the nuance in the other.
I think such a message is important to children because it is a safe way of acknowledging and eventually accepting the unavoidable danger of living. It’s also important for adults to remember this rule of life. The message is short and clear, the pictures well-executed and evocative. The book is always there. It can be closed on any gorgeous summer day. It can be reopened on any gloomy winter day.