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Jewish World Review May 2, 2000 /27 Nissan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Exit smiling: Homage to Gorey -- "GOREY, MORBID ARTIST, author, dead at 75,'' said the headline over his obituary.

Morbid? Gently, delightfully macabre, maybe. But morbid? Edward Gorey's work was in the mock-Gothic style pioneered by Charles Addams, with maybe a hint of Lewis Carroll. It brought to mind Tom Lehrer's take-off on an Irish ballad, only more subtle. There was also something S.J. Perelmanish about Gorey -- maybe the dowdy place names he uses in his prose. But morbid, no. Edward St. John Gorey was just crazy enough to be wholly sane.

The text of the AP story did modify the adjective; it spoke of the artist's "elegantly morbid sense of humor.'' Or as Mr. Gorey himself put it, "To take my work seriously would be the height of folly.'' His drawings, and their equally cryptic texts, were meant, he said, for "reasonably small children.'' But it would be an unmentionably dark and loathsome crime to keep them from reasonably large adults.

Indeed, the best way to apprehend Gorey's artistry is to share it with a small child beside one on a couch, in bed or on a platter. His books are meant to be read aloud to children in a perfectly serious but noncommittal voice capable of completely disguising your amusement. Which is not an easy trick. Above all, do not smile.

Nothing is more ominous, or funnier, than a sober neutrality when reading some works -- "Alice in Wonderland,'' for example, or Maurice Sendak in the Night Kitchen or wherever his wild things are. Whenever sharing Gorey, the great rule of preserving the mystery and innocence of childhood applies: Never let on.

The best way to get rid of those monsters under the bed isn't to turn on the lights and stage another fruitless search that always comes up empty, drat it. For the danged things return as soon as the lights are out and the big people are downstairs. Better to drag out the phantods bodily from the closet, behind the headboard, under the bureau, and tickle their ribs.

An early introduction to Edward Gorey, perhaps one of his alphabets, may be the most useful corrective to the truly awful stuff that clutters the kiddie market: those pretested, mentally hygienic color books full of the sort of cuddly teddy bears, perfect little houses and friendly, talky animals that would make any halfway intelligent kid throw up.

Gorey's alphabets raise questions rather than supply then pat little answers that no one was ever young enough to believe, or even work up an interest in. There is a surreal realism to his black-and-white-drawings and black-and-white prose. The combination of the utterly clear pictures and enigmatic prose make his little books a black-and-white peek into the world as it often is: plainly inexplicable. And not just to small children.

Gorey's characters, usually dressed for a funeral, seem to have wandered into his books from an unread Edwardian novel:

A was an Author who went for a walk, B was a Bore who engaged him in talk, C was a Canvas encrusted with dirt, D was a Dog who appeared to be hurt, E was an Egyptian with things from a tomb, F was a Fire in a top-storey room, G was the Glove that he dropped without thinking, H was a House whose foundations were sinking, I was an Infant who clung to his sleeve, J was the Jam that gave it to leave, K was a Keepsake picked up from the gutter, L was a Lady who peered through a shutter, M was a Muffin he bought from a tray, N was a Notice that caused him dismay, O was an Opening let in a wall, P was a Place he knew not at all, Q was the Question he asked of a stranger, R the Reply that his life was in danger, S was the Sun which went under a cloud, T was a Thunderclap horribly loud, U was the Urn it dislodged from the sky, V was its Victim who cried out `But why?', W was the Wagon in which his life ended, X was the Exequies sparsely attended, Y was the Yew beneath which he was laid, Z was the Zither he left to the maid.

Each letter is a story and mystery of its own, the whole a whimsical antidote to empty fears, and after running through it, no child is likely to forget the meaning of words like Keepsake, Urn, Dislodged, Exequies, Yew or Zither. They will be imprinted visually, indelibly. Gorey's strange cast sure beats Dick and Jane and that insipid Spot all to heck.

There are few better antidotes than Edward Gorey to today's award-winning, highly recommended, dumbed-down, gender-neutered educational books that aren't. There's nothing like a little gore, or rather the demure hint of it in Gorey, to hook a child's curiosity.

What better preparation than Edward Gorey against the inevitable vagaries of life -- the androgenous artiste, the baleful bore, the contemptuous cad, the dim debutante, the effete eel, the frantic frump and gigantic grump and hibernating hiccough and illiterate ingrate ... all the way down to the unbearable urchin, vain vamp, wight-wing wabbit, exacerbated xylophone and zany Zulu.

Just the titles of Edward Gorey's hauntingly illustrated little tales make good reading: "The Unstrung Harp,'' "The Gashlycrumb Tinies,'' "The Inanimate Tragedy,'' "The Deranged Cousins,'' (The Untitled Book), "The Sopping Thursday,'' "The Glorious Nosebleed,'' "The Prune People.'' ... and of course "The Listing Attic,'' which should have been dedicated to Ross Perot. As for Gorey's "The Utter Zoo,'' it's full of types any hapless child (or adult) is bound to come across, especially on talk shows. (`The Epitwee's inclined to fits / Until at last it falls to bits.'')

In "The Unstring Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel,'' the author painted, or rather drew, the highs and lows and utter mediums of the lit'ry life, including an unutterably tedious dinner with fellow authors at Le Trottoir Imbecile, where he is confronted by "an obscure essayist named Frowst.'' But there are compensations -- like this halycon moment:

"It was one of Mr. Earbrass's better days; he wrote for so long and with such intensity that when he stopped he felt quite sick. Having leaned out a window into a strong wind for several minutes, he is now restoring himself in the kitchen and rereading "TUH'' as far he has gotten. He cannot help but feel that Lirp's return and his immediate impalement on the bottle-tree was one of his better ideas. The jelly in his sandwich is about to get all over his fingers.'' Ah, yes, what great author has not known the feel of jelly between his fingers? The film version is to star John Cleese, surely.

Edward Gorey must have produced at least 90 books, illustrated 60 others, and his stage designs for "Dracula'' outshone the actors, the lines, and maybe the legend. He traveled widely, but only on the Scottish moors, and wrote any number of novels, all unfinished. He lived in a 200-year-old house on Cape Cod furnished with multiple cats and ivy creeping in through the walls. Poison ivy. At the coffee shop in Yarmouth Port, he had his own mug and was known as Ted.

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