The Art and Alternative Realities of Edward Gorey

            “Edward Gorey was born one hundred years too late and thirty years too early,” began Gregory Hischak, playwright, poet, and curator of the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port.

            Hischak, who lives in Gorey’s house that is now a museum at 8 Strawberry Lane in Yarmouth Port, visited the Mattapoisett Public Library on November 17. Hischak gave a sometimes dark, sometimes funny background check on one of the country’s most imaginative, prolific, and, yes, strange creative forces – the one and only Edward Gorey. Hischak gave Gorey fans and novices alike an inside look into the creative genius of a man whose works are still both familiar and unknown.

            Best known for his art that graces the introduction of the “Masterpiece Mystery!” series, Gorey spent a lifetime observing the world around him and then producing art and literature that was not quite “normal.”

            Gorey grew up an only child to parents who divorced when he was young. Before the breakup, his family moved an astounding 13 times in two years. For a child that wanted and probably needed routine, this was problematic for the young Gorey. At an astoundingly early age, less than two, he was drawing and creating, albeit crudely, to be sure. His earliest works, all saved by his mother who “threw nothing away,” Hischak said, shows a mind fixed on repetition and patterns.

            In Gorey’s early years there were trips to Cuba and Canada, schooling at an institute that specialized in the arts, and mother who was apparently tolerant of her son’s lackadaisical academic performance. Gorey was given all the tools necessary to excel at whatever he chose to pursue. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in French literature, but it was art first and foremost that framed his life and gave it meaning.

            Hischak said that Gorey’s fascination with Asian and French artistic styles, along with a deep appreciation for the work of Lewis Carroll and the writings of Victor Hugo, which influenced his artistic output.

            “His style made people think he was born in the nineteenth century,” said Hischak. But Gorey was born in Chicago in 1925, not England in the 1800’s in spite of his many ink drawings depicting Edwardian and Victorian imagery.

            The precision of Gorey’s illustrations is magnificent. There are people in fur coats, elaborate evening attire, and most in elegant settings. But all are dealing with some sort of unknown threat as if at any moment death will come calling and it will be horrific – or humorous.

            Hischak pointed out that we, the viewer, oftentimes will read one of Gorey’s many graphic novels and laugh at the situations his characters find themselves dealing with, like children being eaten alive, thrown downstairs, drowned, or otherwise dispatched.

            “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs…” Hischak read. But the gore, if you will, is not really illustrated in detail, rather it is suggested. The reader does the rest of the work, Hischak said.

            Gorey was a veteran of WWII and spent most of his wartime at a nerve gas depot. But he was also sent by the Army to learn about Japanese culture as the war expanded in the Pacific. After the war, Gorey settled in New York City where he worked as an illustrator and was heavily influenced by the ballet. Hischak said that Gorey attended some 7,348 performances under the direction of choreographer George Balanchine who he idolized. When Balanchine was no longer associated with the ballet, Gorey stopped going.

            In the 1980s, Gorey purchased the house that is now his museum, located on sweetly-named Strawberry Lane. After repairs and improvements were completed, he filled the home with books – over 20,000 volumes, Hischak said – and, with cats.

            As for the financial success that granted him the latitude to do as he wished, “He was comfortable,” said Hischak. He explained that while there was the occasional windfall, Gorey earned enough to fund his eclectic lifestyle and the animal charities to which he made generous donations.

            Gorey’s sudden death could have been a page out of one of his own novels. A friend returned to the home with a battery Gorey needed, and upon learning the cost, Gorey clasped his chest and fell backward onto the sofa. The friend thought he was being dramatic over the cost of the battery, but Gorey was, in fact, having a fatal heart attack. His ashes were scattered around the grounds of his former home – along with the ashes of his beloved cats – and also scattered in Barnstable Harbor, a place where he spent idyllic summers with his beloved cousins.

            Gorey’s books and drawings are filled to overflowing with breathtaking patterns and strange animals, prune-headed human forms, gray skies, and many iterations of the alphabet where once again children get the wrong end of the stick – or maybe it’s the right end; it’s up to the viewer to decide.

            The Edward Gorey Museum is open for guided tours from April through the end of December, Fridays through Sundays. The Edward Gorey Trust, funded in part by museum revenue, supports animal welfare groups around the globe.

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