November 26, 2008


The Eclectic Abecedarium. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $9.95.

The Sopping Thursday. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Hapless Child. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

     The 100 or so books by Edward Gorey (1925-2000) are not for everybody, and in particular are not for the faint of heart or tender of soul. Gorey was a master of intricate pen work and of the macabre, a combination that led him to create works ranging from the whimsical (such as his animated opening for Masterpiece Theater) to the decidedly downbeat (such as any number of his books; this was his default setting). Anyone who feels overcome by the often-artificial cheer of the current holiday season will find Gorey a welcome antidote, although it does help to take him with a grain of salt or two (sometimes three).

     The Eclectic Abecedarium is somewhat atypical Gorey, being a miniature book (his first, originally published in 1983) and a comparatively benign one. It is, after all, merely the umpteenth march through the alphabet that most readers will have encountered, with tiny illustrations (originally five-eighths of an inch by one inch, here printed slightly larger) and two-line poems written by Gorey himself. This is a fairly mild introduction to Gorey for those unfamiliar with him, and it is quite enjoyable in its own right. “Pick up loose Crumbs/Upon your thumbs,” for example, shows a child standing on a chair doing just that – while the table sports a teapot nearly as big as the child himself. “There is an Eye/Up in the sky” gets closer to typical Gorey oddity, and the Eye is not shown – the picture is of someone gazing upward through the clouds. “In sorting Kelp/Be quick to help” also has an odd and typical Gorey flavor to it, as does “Be sure a Mouse/Lurks in the house.” Then there is “On any road/May sit a Toad,” the amphibian being nearly half the size of the person encountering it; and “Beware the Vine/Which can entwine,” whose illustration makes it seem that the plant is about to reach out and ensnare an unwitting victim. There’s more than a touch of Gorey’s gorier side there.

     The Sopping Thursday takes a step farther into Gorey’s world. First published in 1970, and now available with illustrations in the original size, it is a book about an oddly skewed rainy day, consisting of merely 30 images and 30 lines of text – with all the outdoor pictures being marvelously detailed in-the-rain views. An umbrella is missing; a loyal dog goes to find it; and while the dog searches, various people comment on the rain while carrying umbrellas; a mysterious all-black figure “stole Mrs. Gumbash’s umbrella”; a man tries to purchase an umbrella, eventually giving up in frustration after concluding that “none of these umbrellas will do”; and after some time the dog, Bruno, finds his master’s umbrella with a child in it, about to go down the sewer – and rescues both child and umbrella. A happy ending? Well, yes, for the umbrella; but this is a Gorey book, and at the end the child is sitting unsheltered in the pouring rain, being scolded by an adult whose head is invisible behind an umbrella, because “that was very naughty of you.” The Sopping Thursday is an odd little book, the world it portrays skewed just enough toward the strange and surreal so it is hard to decide how to react to the story.

     For the full Gorey treatment, though, aficionados – and only aficionados – will want The Hapless Child, Gorey’s long-out-of-print 1961 Dickensian story of the terrible misfortunes of a little girl. This is dark, dark material, showing Gorey at his best – or worst, depending on your point of view. The new edition presents the beautifully detailed illustrations in their original size, making it easy for readers to follow Charlotte Sophia’s tragic story, from the disappearance and presumed death of her caring and well-to-do father, to the decline and death of her harried mother, to her placement in a boarding school whose students tear apart her only doll, Hortense…after which things only get worse. Charlotte ends up enslaved to a drunken brute, pitifully making paper flowers while losing her eyesight, until eventually she gets away and meets a pathetic end when hit by a car driven by….her father, who is not dead after all but no longer recognizes the much-changed child. It is all too sad for words, but not too sad for words plus Gorey’s illustrations, which render this pseudo-Victorian tale of pathos and tragedy with grace and a sort of peculiar beauty, as well as with genuine strangeness: is that some sort of small demon climbing the wall at the end, then flying away? This really is vintage Gorey, but it is a vintage that many people will not care to sample. Those who find Gorey’s work salutary, however, will find The Hapless Child very bracing indeed – in the gloomiest possible way, of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment