Often, autumn puts me in a melancholy mood, and only the most beautifully macabre art makes me feel better — something pretty, something scary, 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 back, 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 fantastic 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 outstanding 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 on a particularly gray 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 funny. It’s too ridiculous. One could say it is too heavily stylized, but that’s incorrect—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, especially as it involved children. Children were many times his chief protagonists, and more often still the victims of violent, freak accidents. 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, presented with notable refinement and grim 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 terror, the apprehension of a terrible event. 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. It’s quite another to show you. His words matter-of-factly present the events with calculated detachment. But his drawings show the scenes right before or after the terrible moment, mostly sparing bloody details, and almost always avoiding the grotesque act itself. Ingeniously, Gorey structured his stories in a way that forces the viewer to imagine what happened, to draw inside her head what Gorey refused to illustrate.
The human brain is too good at solving puzzles and anticipating events. Gorey knew that and merely suggested something awful. The reader alone 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, albeit a little minimalist. But then you realize that the painting is only focusing on the inherent, quiet tension between the worm and the bird, who seems ready to pounce. Death is a part of life, lingering just moments into the future, 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? 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 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 imagined.
But really, I think I love this book because it appeals to a very dark truth all children know. I understood, even at that young age, that Gorey wasn’t trying to scare me—he was trying to help me acknowledge that children are vulnerable, that death comes for us all. Some of the dangers are truly scary while others are ridiculous, laughably silly. Yet, every child is aware of how small and weak she is. Every child learns how scary the world is with each passing day, becoming more and more aware that innumerable dangers lurk in the boring details of our everyday lives.
I think such a message is essential for children. It is a safe but honest way of acknowledging and eventually accepting the danger of living. It’s also vital for adults to remember this rule. The message is short and clear. The pictures are well-executed and evocative. All in all, Edward Gorey’s art is strangely life-affirming.
As an adult and now a mother, I think about The Gashlycrumb Tinies a lot.
The book is always there. I can keep it closed on a gorgeous summer day. I can revisit it on any gloomy winter day.