Gorey, Edward: Amphigorey (omnibus)

It seems appropriate to log Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey on Halloween; I’ve been meaning to do it for a while but never got around to it, plus I dipped into The Unstrung Harp a night or two ago. This is a collection of fifteen books, including the only two Goreys I’d heard of before, The Gashlycrumb Tinies and The Curious Sofa.

I really enjoyed The Unstrung Harp, or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel. I love the way all the characters have these flat hammer-heads protruding forward from their necks and no eyelids; they look so comically, tragically anxious. (Amazon has some illustrations; try the covers and page 5.) And the writing is wonderful:

Mr Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters, which he has not looked at for months, and now sees TUH for what it is. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel. Mad. Why didn’t he become a spy? How does one become one? He will burn the MS. Why is there no fire? Why aren’t there the makings of one? How did he get in the unused room on the third floor?

As far as the rest of the works: I think there’s just something about graphical depictions that I’m really susceptible to. Prose stories, no problem—with the exception of The Shining, no book I’ve ever read has really frightened me. But I don’t watch movies that are even very tense (for instance, at some point most of the way through Unbreakable, I realized I was just Not Enjoying Myself, and so I shut my eyes for the rest), and I was really rather creeped out by much of Amphigorey. And not just because, according to The Gashlycrumb Tinies, “K is for Kate who was struck with an axe.” There really does seem to be something about having the images that goes straight to my backbrain.

Of course, a whole lot of these are objectively dark. Besides The Gashlycrumb Tinies, there’s The Hapless Child, which is about just that; The Insect God, in which we meet, very briefly, another hapless child; The Listing Attic, a series of limericks which includes “There was a young curate whose brain / Was deranged from the use of cocaine; / He lured a small child / To a copse dark and wild, / Where he beat it to death with his cane.” (The illustration for that one is particularly chilling.) Some of the limericks are in French, so I can’t understand them, but I bet they aren’t any cheerier.

Even The Curious Sofa, “a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary,” was disturbing, all the more so because everything is presented by implication. This is mostly amusing, as when we are told that Alice, “Looking out the window[,] saw Herbert, Albert, and Harold, the gardener, an exceptionally well-made youth, disporting themselves on the lawn. They were soon joined by Donald, Herbert’s singularly well-favoured sheepdog, and many were the giggles and barks that came from the shrubbery.” (All of the men are well-set-up, or well-shaped, or whatnot. When I mentioned this to Chad, he said, “Gorey was gay, you know.” Well, I didn’t.) Almost all of the prose, taken alone, is quite innocuous, and visually, there isn’t a naughty bit (as my former First Amendment professor, regrettably, would say) to be seen. So one’s imagination is free to roam. Unfortunately, I’m not creative enough to imagine what the “Lithuanian Typewriter” might be, so I’m instead left to contemplate the sentence “Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan,” and the truly vicious smile on Gerald’s face as he lunges out of the frame. And, of course, the sofa of the title.

This is all a long way of saying that I don’t like creepy stories with someone else’s visuals attached. If you aren’t as susceptible to that as I am, I do recommend this. (Chad also liked it, and commented about it on his book log.) As I said, The Unstrung Harp is great, and even the books I didn’t much care for have a very distinctive wit (I confess to being somewhat fond of “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea / N is for Neville who died of ennui”).

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  1. I think Gorey’s sexual orientation is probably not relevant to the recurring “well-endowed” and “well-set-up” phrases in The Curious Sofa. I read that as simply a parody of the diction of naughty period (e.g. Edwardian) prose. The equivalent today would be to write a parody of a romance novel, in which you are careful to say explicitly of every male character that he had a dark, brooding look and smoldering black eyes.

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