In Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, Mark Dery attempts to respond to the challenge of how to write a biography about someone who, in their own words, lived a “featureless” life. A known recluse and creature of habit, Edward Gorey wasn’t the sort of person who indulged in grand love affairs or travelled the world. In fact, he seemed to be against that sort of thing entirely. When pressed about his sexuality he would scoff or dodge the question, and when asked to leave his little world of Cape Cod, Massachusetts for a touring production of his play, he would just stay home. In fact, Dery makes Gorey out to be a frustrating character: just when you think you have something pinned down about his identity or feelings on a particular subject, they change entirely. Perhaps the best way of describing Edward Gorey, Dery suggests, is either very indirectly or not at all.
That said, I think Dery does an excellent job at describing the indescribable Gorey by focusing on his particular influences, such as Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, the novels of Ronald Firbank, silent films, and Japanese literature. In short, we understand Gorey through his passions, which is perhaps how he best understood himself. In contrast to a biography peppered with a smattering of life and world-historical events, we peel back the curtain to catch a glimpse of the interior world of one of the 20th century’s most well-known illustrators.
For those uninitiated in the world of Gorey, he wrote and illustrated several little books that have become iconic in their cross-hatched, minimal style and deadpan, often morose humour. The setting is almost-always sometime between the Victorian era and the Jazz Age, somewhere vaguely in England. Popular examples include The Doubtful Guest, in which a bird-like creature in a Harvard scarf and sneakers overstays its welcome in a proper Victorian household, and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an abecedarium in which various gloomy children meet spectacular demises. Gorey would go on to inspire the likes of Tim Burton and Lemony Snicket even as he withdrew and became more eccentric in his old age, staging puppet shows in Cape Cod.
What I enjoyed about reading Dery’s book is just how UN-Goreylike Gorey sometimes appears, which pairs well with his refusal to be categorised. Gorey was this incredibly tall, bearded man in a raccoon coat and piles of jewellery who zipped around town in a Yellow Volkswagen Beetle and videotaped episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on VHS, not the image I had in mind for a writer and illustrator who wrote Gothic picture books. But at the same time, Gorey appears to be exactly the sort of person who illustrated the opening sequence for Masterpiece Mystery! in that he used to keep a mummified head in a paper bag in the closet of his New York apartment. This constant contradiction is what keeps a book that is otherwise about the idiosyncrasies of a recluse writer and artist fresh and interesting.
I think it also speaks to the annoying problem of constantly having to identify oneself as an artist in an industry that frequently tries to pigeonhole creatives. I was pretty sympathetic to how Gorey handled invasive questions about his personal life and how it related to his work, especially concerning his sexuality, in the various interviews he gave over the years. Even though identity politics are important (for good reason) in terms of securing rights and acceptance in the public sphere, it is still rude to ask someone about their sexual preferences, especially when the interview is supposed to be about their career. Dery is fairly respectful in terms of Gorey’s privacy or unwillingness to delve into matters of a sexual nature.
It is tempting to try and speculate what might have been through subtext, which has sort of been the theme of Gorey’s books all along: letting what is unsaid speak more than what is overtly stated. But for a man whose life and work is a contradiction in terms, I was delighted to find that Dery’s biography was straightforward in its approach towards Gorey’s life and understanding of the world, even if we lose some of the mystery in the process.
Kellye McBride is a freelance writer and editor who has very complex ideas about the things that go bump in the night. When she’s not seeking out the dark forces and joining their hellish crusade, you can find her on Twitter at @kellyemmcbride or on her website, kellyemcbrideediting.com.