Meet Your New Favorite Eerie Illustrator

Melissa Boles

A little dark and a little mysterious, Edward Gorey once told Vanity Fair that his favorite journey was “looking out the window". While he might have enjoyed staying in his home, Gorey’s pen-and-ink illustrations took readers on journeys through numerous Victorian and Edwardian settings and provided the eerie backdrops for many children’s books. As an artist he is considered humorous, provocative, and complex, and is known to be a prominent figure in American literature and theatre, writing over 100 books. 

Gorey began illustrating for Doubleday Anchor in 1953, where he designed over 50 covers and became a significant figure in the art department of the imprint, where he illustrated book covers for works like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. In 1953, Gorey also wrote and illustrated his first publication, The Unstrung Harp, which was about a struggling novelist and is often considered an early precursor to graphic novels.

One of Gorey's illustrated novels, The Doubtful Guest, published in 1957.

As Gorey continued to write books, both under his own name and under one of several pen names that were often puns on his own name, he also became a well-known set designer. After several years of working with off-Broadway productions in New York City and small theaters on Cape Cod, Gorey designed the set and costumes for a 1973 production of Dracula on Nantucket Island. 

After critical acclaim, the show was brought to Broadway, where it gained commercial success and won Tony Awards for Best Revival and Best Costumes. The set design was so popular that the show became known as “Edward Gorey’s Dracula,” and resulted in a 1979 book entitled Dracula: A Toy Theatre and a box set complete with a 3-D replica.

The backdrop from Gorey’s Dracula

Though he was often assumed to be British, Gorey grew up near Chicago, and spent much of his adult life in Massachusetts, living mostly on Cape Cod. On the island, Gorey assisted in the development and staging of several shows, including those featuring “Le Theatricule Stoique,” Gorey’s papier-mache puppets. 

The final of these shows was The White Canoe: an Opera Seria for Hand Puppets, which was based on Thomas Moore’s The Lake of the Dismal Swamp and was staged after Gorey’s death in 2000 (though he wrote the book and lyrics) by his friends Carol Verburg, Herbert Senn, and Helen Pond. Gorey wrote up until he died. 

His final book, The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium, was published in 1999, though his executor found a bounty of unpublished work, both complete and incomplete, in his home. Though he was successful prior to his death, his cult following has only increased since his demise.

The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium

Authors such as Daniel Handler (“Lemony Snicket”), Caitlin R. Kiernan, and Neil Gaiman, as well as directors like Mark Romanek and Tim Burton, composer Michael Mantler, and artists like The Tiger Lillies, the Kronos Quartet, and fashion designer Anna Sui have cited Gorey as inspiration for their work. 

Since his death, Gorey has garnered a large fanbase in goth subculture, and communities in both Los Angeles and San Francisco put on annual Edwardian period costume balls inspired by his work. In 2018, the Order of the Good Death held their annual Death Salon, which included a tribute to Edward Gorey and his illustrations.

Around the same time, Mark Dery published Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, a biography Dery spent seven years cultivating in order to convey Gorey’s true essence. Gorey considered himself “a man to whom nothing happened,” but Dery’s biography and Gorey’s lifetime of work says otherwise.

Edward Gorey

If you’re looking for something a little gothic to curl up with this Halloween, spend some time getting to know Gorey’s work and see how it inspires your own work. You might just find yourself enjoying the dark and macabre settings brought to life by this enigmatic illustrator.

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