Last Monday, we shared a collection of Edward Gorey books for our Oddballs and Misfits, the Surreal and the Peculiar bimonthly theme. Today, I am not just sharing one or two books but fifteen books all packed into this one zany volume called Amphigorey [Amphigouri/ Amphigory] which according to Gorey means “a nonsense verse or composition.”
This volume consists of books by Gorey first published between 1953 and 1965. However, as his Author’s Note at the beginning of the book indicated, these are now quite difficult and expensive to come by, hence the publication of this compilation. I will not be mentioning all fifteen books in this review but would only touch on those which amused and disturbed me.
I have read this book two years back and like before, reading through the strange short stories made me chuckle. The book begins with The Unstrung Harp or Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel. I have always enjoyed this tale as it highlights the surreal conversations that go on in an author’s head while deeply in the throes of writing a novel: the inevitable anxieties, the hair-pulling agony of not finding the right words, the unerring procrastination, not to mention the absolute certainty that one’s novel is the next best thing to sliced bread only to tear it up into tiny little pieces the following day.
Mr. Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters, which he has not looked at for months, and now sees TUH (The Unstrung Harp) for what it is. Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel. Mad. Why didn’t he become a spy? How does one become one? He will burn the MS. Why is there no fire? Why aren’t there the makings of one? How did he get in the unused room on the third floor?
Strangely enough, I find Mr. Earbrass quite endearing in his fumbling attempts to pen down his thoughts into passably-eloquent words that may or may not mean anything.
The Listing Attic on the other hand does not have a clearly-unifying thread that weaves together tragic vignettes written in verse and accompanied by equally harrowing illustrations. I think what draws me into Gorey’s world is the mere fact that there is no book artist quite like him that I know of. There seems to be a remarkable indifference as to how a supposed-audience would find the strangely-irreverent little tales. The only thing that seems to matter is how Gorey is able to effectively capture the subtlety of an emotion he wants a character to express, the nuance of an expression that seems even more devastating with its palpable vacuity and borderline-grotesque understatedness. Here are examples from the Listing Attic:
To say that they are creepy would be doing it a disservice. There is madness, murder, mayhem – all staggeringly outlandish, improbable and equal-parts absurd in proportion. All the elements that make for a riveting and captivating picture book. Or not. Then again Gorey is an acquired taste.
The Doubtful Guest is a strange little tale about this unknown creature wearing a scarf who chanced upon a Victorian household on a wild winter night. He has affixed himself in this family’s home with nary a sigh, a request, perchance a pleading eye.
What can one do with such a house guest who does not say a word? It sleepwalks, steals towels from the bath during fits of unspeakable rage, and drops off objects with sentimental value into the pond to protect them. He ended up staying with this family for seventeen years and shows no signs of wanting to leave, ever.
The Object Lesson is one of Gorey’s stories that defy quick and easy comprehension. I am not even sure if it is meant to be understood in the traditional sense.
All I know is that I find it poetic: the distraught Throbblefoot Spectre, the elegant Madame who threw herself over the parapet in such a fearless and decisive manner, the discarded iced cakes and tea, and a note card that says Farewell.
The Hapless Child is the story of a little girl named Charlotte Sophia whose life story pretty much resembles Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. There is a privileged child whose father, a colonel in the army, died during a native uprising in Africa. The mother fell ill and died as well. And so this hapless child was sent to a boarding school by the family lawyer (who did not look trustworthy in the least) where she is left in the hands of cruel teachers and schoolmates who have a penchant for tearing out her dolls’ limbs.
Charlotte Sophia ran away only to find herself in even more dire circumstances as she was captured by drunken thugs who feed her nothing but scraps and tap water. It turns out that her father was alive, after all. How the story of the Hapless Child ends, I shall leave for you to discover.
Edward Gorey also has this partiality for the alphabet, as he creates peculiar tales in verse tangetially connected to the letters of the alphabet – except that he turns them inside out and back again into unnaturally macabre twists. In The Fatal Lozenge, he begins with the following:
An Apparition of her lover
She recognizes with dismay;
And later on she will discover
That he himself had died today.
The Baby, lying meek and quiet
Upon the customary rig,
Has dreams about rampage and riot,
And will grow up to be a thug.
The same propensity is evident in his famous Gashlycrumb Tinies, one of my favorites from this collection. Each letter of the alphabet stands for a name of a child who died in the most harrowing and peculiar way possible.
There is Amy who fell down the stairs, Basil who was assaulted by bears, Clara who wasted away and Desmond who got thrown out of a sleigh. I think you get the picture.
Gorey does not balk at the gruesome, the violent, the creepy. Yet, one would see that the narratives are strangely understated – nothing of the tacky B-rated novelettes that celebrate the abhorrent and the ugly. He manages to provide a strange aesthetic to the weird and the odd – providing it with a subtle sense of the uncanny and the profound, and a kind of deliberately beautiful strangeness and celebrated ambiguity. What can I say? I’m a fan.
Read a Latte Reading Challenge Update: 90 of 150