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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Elephant House or, The Home of Edward Gorey. Photographs and text by Kevin McDermott with illustrations by Edward Gorey and foreward by John Updike. San Franciso: Pomegranite, 2003. ISBN: 0764924958.

This book won't be of much interest to anyone who is not already a fan of Edward Gorey, consisting, as it does, of artistic photographs of his house, both interior and exterior, taken a mere week after his death in April, 2000. The pictures document his vast collection of found objects, both natural and manmade. In addition to the revealing photographs, there is explanatory text by Kevin McDermott, the photographer, and a long-time friend of the subject, Edward Gorey. Plus selected excerpts from Gorey's own writings and illustrations.

How can one describe the work of Edward Gorey? It would undoubtedly help if on the day you began "It was the day after Tuesday and the day before Wednesday," (from The Epiplectic Bicycle, 1969) and you'd probably need to finish up on that same elusive day. Gorey wrote in many forms, including the limerick, more than one of which is quoted in the book:

Each night father fills me with dread
When he sits on the foot of my bead:
     I'd not mind that he speaks
     In gibbers and squeaks,
But for seventeen years he's been dead.

More apropos to the book at hand, probably, is this example, aptly quoted near the beginning of the book:

A young man grew increasingly peaky
In a house where the hinges were squeaky.
     The ferns curled up brown,
     The ceilings flaked down,
And all of the faucets were leaky.

More typical of the morbid, gruesome (gory!) themes he loved to elucidate is this example not quoted in the book, which I'll quote from memory (please excuse any slight lapses therof):

At Number Nine, Penwiper Mews
There is truly abominable news:
     They've discovered a head
     In the box for the bread
But nobody seems to know whose!

That example pulls together several typical Gorey themes, including a fascination with old-fashioned images from the previous century, once you realize that "Number Nine, Penwiper Mews" is an address, of all things. Gorey always illustrated his own works with his delightfully droll line drawings, cast in an appropriately Edwardian or Victorian mold.

The most famous example of Gorey's work, or at least, the one that is probably the most widely distributed, is the wonderfully animated credits for the PBS series, Mystery. The gurgling sound as a pair of feet and legs slide into the water, the haplessly wretched damsel who breathily screams out her horror prostrate upon the roof, the cornice which falls, crushing a just-stroked croquet ball, the mysterious figure being pushed about in an old-fashioned wheel chair, while the hapless detectives mince delicately about, shining their torches upon the tombstones, urns or obelisks upon which the credits appear. All this is classic Gorey at its best. I love to see a Mystery episode come on, just to watch these credits.

One of my favorite Gorey books is The Gashleycrumb Tinies, and believe it or not, you will find a copy of that charmingly morbid (or should that be morbidly charming) book, online. It is an example of another of Gorey's favored genres, the abecedarium. My favorite letter is "N is for Neville, who died of . . . " (rhymes with "swept out to sea").

But to get back to the book at hand, suffice it to say that if, like me, you're a Gorey fan, you'll find this book to be a fascinating peek into the life of this eccentric artist.


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