I first encountered the work of artist and storyteller Edward Gorey (1925-2000) when I was in college. A merchant selling posters had set up shop on campus. I flipped through the familiar images of MC Escher and oiled-up bikini models until I came across a morbid-looking poster called "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," which originally appeared in a small volume published in 1963.
Part illustrated nursery rhyme, part gothic fairy tale, "The Gashlycrumb Tinies" tells the story of how 26 children, one for every letter of the alphabet, meet their end. It begins, "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears."
Each letter is accompanied by an illustration of the poor child moments before his or her death. (That is, until we come to Kate, whose corpse is shown after she'd been "struck by an axe.") The images are done in pen and ink with small figures engulfed in vast, intricately layered backgrounds. They resemble late-19th-century woodcuts printed for a particularly macabre penny dreadful and are clearly not intended for children. This, of course, is what makes "The Gashlycrumb Tinies" wonderful.
I purchased the poster and hung it on my wall, creeping out my roommates and the occasional guest.
After college, I learned that Gorey had created an immense body of work of strange tales, odd verse and curious comics, all accompanied by his unmistakable cross-hatchings. Occasionally, I'd stumble upon titles like The Evil Garden or The Doubtful Guest in used bookstores or in friends' bookshelves. But it wasn't until I read his first work, The Unstrung Harp (1953) that I became convinced of Gorey's genius.
The Unstrung Harp has the subtitle "or, Mr Earbrass writes a novel" and begins with "Mr C(lavius) F(rederick) Earbrass" contemplating his next book. "On November 18th of alternate years" he selects a "title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book." Over the course of the next several pages, we get glimpses of the plot-heavy story he's constructing, and while his novels have pseudo-serious-sounding titles like "More Chains than Clank" and "The Meaning of the House," the clues suggest that he's at work on a highbrow, yet slightly off-center, mystery.
Writing, however, doesn't come easily for Mr Earbrass, and the illustrations capture this struggle: Mr Earbrass looking out of the window. Mr Earbrass scribbling notes in his automobile. Mr Earbrass up all night with a bout of insomnia that not even a reading of his first novel can dispel. "It is bleak; it is cold; and the virtue has gone out of everything."
In each illustration, Mr Earbrass is impeccably dressed and has the air of a buttoned-up yet bewildered John Cleese puppet. He carries the look of someone who realizes that only he can solve the problems set before him, yet he has no idea how to proceed.
Finally, Mr Earbrass finishes, but it would be a mistake to call this milestone a "success." His struggle continues as he revises the work, produces a clean copy and delivers it to his publishers. As the publication date approaches, the indignities keep coming. Most dreadful of all is the literary gathering that he's roped into attending, where "[t]he talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, more than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others' declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life."
The Unstrung Harp is hardly an endorsement for a life in letters, yet it remains one of the most honest books about the writing process I've ever read. Its unstinting pessimism about the struggle to create something out of nothing makes the rewards of publishing one's work feel meager, if not vulgar. Only someone completely intoxicated with the notion of living one's life as a writer could find inspiration in Gorey's grotesque portrait of an artist. Yet I did and still do.
While it's tempting to see Mr Earbrass as a forebear to Barton Fink—another writer whose mental state is reflected by his nightmarish surroundings—Mr Earbrass is a much cooler customer. While Mr Fink is "a tourist with a typewriter," Mr Earbrass is perfectly at home at Hobbies Odd, his cave-like manor house on the moors.
Yes, Mr Earbrass' victories are minor and fleeting—composing the last line of his novel, enjoying a contemplative cup of tea—but in the gloom and doom in which Gorey has trapped him, they feel heroic.
Every Feb. 22, Edward Gorey's birthday, I re-read The Unstrung Harp and salute the unlikeliest of literary heroes.