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Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery.

During the brief period when I lived in a university dorm, I had a postcard stuck on my door that served as a kind of nameplate. “K is for Kate who was struck with an axe,” the caption read, underneath an illustration of a small girl gruesomely impaled and abandoned in a snowy clearing with a trail of bloody footprints leading away from her little body.

Fans of the illustrator and author Edward Gorey will recognize the reference: The bloodied Kate is K in The Gashlycrumb Tinies, one of Gorey’s several alphabets and probably the best-known work in his oddball oeuvre of small picture books. The alphabet begins with “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/B is for Basil assaulted by bears,” and continues through the children’s many improbable deaths.

I had only pinned up the postcard because I found it funny and, aside from recognizing that I prefer my comedy black, have never thought much about why Gorey’s work so delights me. Or not until this summer when I read a recent biography of the man – only the latest in the string of Gorey books, cards and coffee mugs that friends and family have bestowed over the years. Mark Dery’s Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey is a biography stuffed with literary and visual analysis of his remarkable art. (Details on his early life, on the other hand, remain sparse.)

Judging by his painstakingly cross-hatched illustrations of Edwardian orphans, you might have assumed Gorey was prewar and British. In fact, he was an American who was born in 1925 and came of artistic age in the 1950s. He grew up in Chicago, studied French at Harvard after a brief stint in the military and lived most of his creative life in New York before wider success – he created the animated title sequence on PBS’s Mystery! – allowed him to buy a retreat on Cape Cod in the 1980s. His work is so idiosyncratic he might not seem to fit any pantheon or zeitgeist, but Dery convincingly inserts him into the cultural context of the late 20th century.

He points out that Gorey’s work belonged to the blossoming of American children’s book illustration in the 1950s. That movement produced Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak and, recognizing children’s wild natures and fantastical imaginations, marked a distinct departure from Dick and Jane, let alone the moralizing Victorians. But no publisher – and Gorey had many – was ever willing to position the macabre books as children’s literature. They would have remained the object of a small adult cult if the Gotham Book Mart had not begun producing Gorey merchandise in 1977. I was not the first Gorey fan introduced to his work by a postcard.

To those who wondered if he grew up in a garret, Gorey was fond of replying he had a banal Midwestern childhood – but it doesn’t sound a happy one. He was the only child of a single mother who doted on his evident genius while his father, a Chicago newspaper man who decamped when Gorey was 11 or 12, was uncomprehending of an increasingly eccentric young man. Before his parents’ divorce, the family moved continually within Chicago for reasons unclear, and then afterward between that city and his mother’s wealthier family in Florida. Gorey’s grandmother had been committed to an asylum before his birth – perhaps because she was mentally ill or perhaps because Grandpa wanted to be rid of her. It was a fractious family, relatives report, and from there, Dery spies a source for the dark glances, heavy sighs and retreats to asylums that populate such Gorey treasures as The Unstrung Harp, The Object-Lesson and The Fatal Lozenge.

Dery places those off-kilter tales with their dreamlike settings and fanciful non-sequiturs – “It was already Thursday but his lordship’s artificial limb could not be found,” – in the tradition of 20th-century surrealism. I had never thought of Gorey as heir to Marcel Duchamp or Luis Bunuel, but he shares the surrealist’s quest for the unconscious and the ineffable. One favourite expression was “O, the of it all!” with the subject simply missing.

His biographer also judiciously applies some queer theory to position Gorey’s prancing characters and miniature books (and obsessive dedication to the choreography of Georges Balanchine) as a rejection of macho modernism. His delicate art made him the very antithesis of a Norman Mailer or a Jackson Pollock.

Gorey’s work is camp and so was his persona. By his 20s in New York, he had a well-established style: Heavily bearded, he spoke in melodramatic tones and wore full-length fur coats paired with sneakers as well as rings on every finger. This was the figure who left his newsman father scratching his head. Today, we would instantly identify Gorey as gay and his largely unrequited crushes were always on other men, but when pressed, he said he was asexual. He had numerous friends but few intimates: The extravagant persona was a guise and many of Dery’s sources note he kept everyone at arm’s length. “Gorey was a man full of locked rooms whose art is about what isn’t said and isn’t shown,” he writes. No wonder some observers found it deeply erotic.

Both here, and on the subject of Gorey’s childhood, Dery is admirably restrained when it comes to psychological speculation: I wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation to draw stronger links between his itinerant childhood, solitary adulthood and unusual art. It occurs to me now that The Gashlycrumb Tinies, featuring youngsters just around the so-called age of reason, is not really about the death of children but about the death of childhood. And might that not be ascribed to the nostalgia of a precocious and peripatetic boy who didn’t really have one?

Gorey’s settings are period, but the effect is timeless: As a student, I was unaware that the amusing alphabet (published in 1963) was already about as old as I was. Emerging as a reaction against the monolithic art and morality of the 1950s, Gorey’s satire felt increasingly contemporary as postmodernism’s ironic positions went mainstream in the 1980s. Today, irony is an even more powerful cultural force and, 19 years after his death, Gorey’s work remains as provocative as ever. Born to be posthumous indeed.

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