Macabre. Creepy. Dark. Strange. Gloomy. Peculiar. Vaguely British. OK, that last one sticks to Edward Gorey. As an illustrator, his world seemed Victorian/Edwardian and confined to dank moors, gray lowering skies and poorly lit corridors, peeling wallpaper, neglected topiary, doomed flappers and darkly mustachioed ne’er-do-wells in raccoon coats. In other words, old-school British, the kind of British you see on PBS.
But, as it turns out, Gorey never visited Britain, in fact, never traveled much beyond a day’s drive from his Cape Cod house. He was more likely to be tuned in to "Cheers" or "Petticoat Junction" than the BBC. As for macabre, creepy and such, friend and business partner Andreas Brown says such labels are entirely undeserved pigeonholing.
This comes up because the University of Hawaii Library, which has a large Edward Gorey collection — thanks to the largesse of collector and Gorey buff John A. Carollo — has put together "Musings of Mystery and Alphabets of Agony: The Work of Edward Gorey," an exhibit running through Dec. 10 at the UH Art Gallery. Brown jetted in from New York to deliver the keynote talk opening the exhibit last Sunday.
"MUSINGS OF MYSTERY AND ALPHABETS OF AGONY: THE WORK OF EDWARD GOREY"
» On exhibit: Through Dec. 10, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
» Where: University of Hawaii Art Gallery, 2535 McCarthy Mall
» Info: www.hawaii.edu/artgallery, 956-6888
"Macabre? It’s a misconception," declared Brown in a phone interview. No, he is not Charles Addams. Edward Gorey said only that it was his goal in life to make everyone "slightly uneasy."
"I discovered his books by accident," recalled Brown. "Even though I was born and raised on the beaches of Southern California, I used to buy books by mail from Gotham Book Mart in New York. And so, when I went to Europe for the first time as a young man, I made it a point to stop by the Gotham Book Mart on the way. What a wonderful store it was. While depositing my selections on the counter, I spied a strange little book. It was so interesting, I put one of each by the author in my box to be shipped home."
After Europe, Brown returned and opened his book box and fell headlong into Edward Gorey’s world, a place of mysteriously reticulated illustration and words so carefully chosen they were near poetry. Above all, Gorey’s works demanded skull-work on the part of the reader.
"You could read them quickly, but then they worked on you, and you’d go back and back again," said Brown. "I became completely preoccupied."
In 1967, Brown bought the Gotham Book Mart from owner and legend Fanny Steloff. "On one condition: that we turn the second-floor apartment into a gallery. We started having shows there in 1968," he said. Among the first artists, naturally, was Gorey. He and Brown became friends, and Brown made it the bookstore’s mission to promote the reclusive artist, who died in 2000 at the age of 75.
"Like many artists, he needed business help. We published some of his works under our own imprint, some under his. He needed money, so I talked to him about licensing. His attitude was, ‘If it’s tasteful, I’ll sign off on it; don’t bother me about money.’ He didn’t think anyone would want Gorey ‘merchandise.’
"After a couple weeks of talking, he finally said ‘OK, as long as we call it Doomed Enterprises …’" — Brown laughed delightedly — "… and that was an example of Edward Gorey’s humor, except that he wasn’t kidding. He really wasn’t into self-promoting. He was shy and reluctant, and a Taoist. He thought things should just happen instead of being pursued. You deconstruct Gorey and you discover only that there is more than meets the eye."
The same for his art and writing, said Brown. "’What you see is what you get, so don’t bother me for explanations,’ he felt. People are looking but not seeing. He wasn’t a surrealist. He wanted readers to engage. He was a great admirer of Lewis Carroll, and he referenced often to silent films and to Japanese literature. It frustrated everybody. By being oblique, he asked for — demanded — active participation from readers. Like going into a dream state. He pushed readers. His work began picking up serious readers by the 1960s — critic Edmund Wilson was a real champion — precisely because it was not whimsy and fantasy. It was real art. Myself, I’m still trying to find the key."
One of Gorey’s other big successes was his design for a 1977 stage production of "Dracula," starring Frank Langella. Gorey won a Tony Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Scenic Design.
Typically, Brown had to cajole him to do it. Gorey made enough from the production to pay for his house.
But perhaps Gorey’s most-seen work is the credit sequence for PBS’ "Mystery" series. "It was only supposed to run for a couple of years, and Derek Lamb did a superb job of animating Gorey’s drawings," said Brown. "But it’s still running today, what, 30 years later?"
"Mystery" mostly relies on TV product from Britain. Which brings us around to the British thing again. Gorey may never have visited Britain, but he loved the English language and, like the works of Lewis Carroll or James Joyce, Gorey’s words ring beautifully — depending, of course, on the discomfiture of the reader.
EDWARD GOREY EVENTS
» "Musings Over Manga: Exploring Edward Gorey’s Techniques Through Comics," with Brady Evans, UH Art Gallery. Sketch along with the artist and expand your manga drawing skills. For ages 10 and up; 6:30-7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Kaimuki Public Library.
EDWARD GOREY FILM FESTIVAL
UH-Manoa Art Auditorium; screenings at 3:30 p.m., unless noted
» Today: "Les Vampires" (1915, silent), by Louis Feuillade, unrated