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Rare Book Room exhibit displays “Gorey” book art

Helena Guan

Pale figures in dark clothes, bare tree branches and scratched stone walls that seem carved by a werewolf – Edward Gorey’s black and white drawings line the wall outside the library’s Rare Book Room, his book art a map of his macabre imagination.

The 40 Gorey pieces on display since Mar. 16, came from the private collection of Malcolm Whyte, the curator of the San Francisco Cartoon Museum, who gave a presentation on Gorey’s book art on Apr. 26.

Gorey has been a writer, illustrator, publisher, and props and costume designer, and his works range from drawings to a beanbag bat he made by hand.

What Gorey fans come for though, is to explore the man’s trademark style: gothic scenes infused with absurdist humor.

Born in 1925, most of his illustrations appear to take place from the Victorian era into the 1930s. The characters are frequently pale with dark circles under their eyes – think Tim Burton characters.

Suzette Davidson, class of ’94, attended Whyte’s presentation. She pointed out how textured Gorey’s drawings were. “They look like engravings – like carving on wood – but he drew them,” she said.

A male character’s suit may consist of several short scratches so it appears to be made of fastened twigs, and some mountainsides have fingerprint-like swirls incorporated into their design.

Even the characters are stylized. “People are spiky, the trees are spiky, everything’s spiky,” Davidson said.

Common motifs in Gorey’s art includes urns, umbrellas, fur coats, bats and “the creature.”

No one knows for sure what it is, but a smudged black thing Whyte hazarded to call a “lizard-bat” appears in many of Gorey’s works. Sometimes it is flying in the air, and other times it lies limp on the furniture, but the creature never plays a major role in the stories.

Whyte said he didn’t know why the creature hangs in the sidelines, but that “it increases the dreadfulness of the story.”

But Gorey was not just an illustrator. He wrote many of his own stories, most of which were just as morbid as his art. While many authors introduce deus ex machina to ensure their characters triumph at the end, Gorey does so to illustrate fate working in increasingly absurd ways to ensure the characters’ doom.

Whyte brought up one such example: The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which is commonly considered Gorey’s most famous book.

The work resembles ABC tutorials and Victorian cautionary tales, which were designed to teach obedience by having the kids die or get injured as a result of their curiosity.

Philip Glassborow said in his 2003 article on Gorey in The Independent, “It appears to be a cautionary tale, but with no discernible moral whatsoever.”

But he found it to be hilarious “because of the contrast between the decorous little drawings and the casual violence of the verses.”

The story organizes the deaths of 26 children in alphabetical order according to their first names. Each child gets one half of a rhyming couplet, and the accompanying illustration shows that child just moments before their gory end.

For instance, “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea” shows a girl in a white nightgown reaching out against the wind as she balances on a wooden plank in the sea.

The next picture, in which a short little boy stands at the window in a dark room, accompanies “N is for Neville who died of ennui.”

Whyte joked that the stories were suitable for children. “Kids take comfort that all this stuff happens to somebody else,” he said.

Since Gorey published many of his own books before the 1970s, Whyte presented slides of some of the more unconventional book formats Gorey chose.

These included The Eclectic Abecedarian, which was 1″x1 1″ in size, making it roughly the length of a quarter.

The Helpless Doorknob was printed on playing-card like paper so that the reader could shuffle the cards and get a new story each time.

Betsy McCall, class of ’88, said that it is this willingness to flout expectation that draws her to Gorey’s work. “It’s intriguing, so much [so] that I have to look at the books again and again to see what I missed,” she said.

The book art display will be up until May 22 and people interested in more of Gorey’s work can find his book collections, called Amphigorey, in most retail bookstores. You can also find many of Gorey’s book in the Cartoon Art Museum on 655 Mission St. in San Francisco.

Staff Selections
– The Curious Sofa
This small book is advertised as a pornographic work by Edward Gorey, but the sexuality is all innuendo. It follows the story of a woman who goes from house party to house party picking up more partners and getting into risque situations.

– The Dwindling Party
This pop-up book (pictured at the left) tells the story of a family’s journey in and around a mysterious house. As you turn each page, another family member disappears – lost to a strange and sometimes gruesome fate.