Gorey Tales: The Art and Stories of Edward Gorey

November 13, 2020 | Myrna

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Edward Gorey (1925–2000) was an artist, writer, designer and eccentric. Dubbed the "the granddaddy of Goth," Gorey’s work continues to influence and inspire readers.


Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at Lillian H. Smith Branch has an extensive collection of Edward Gorey materials. Books, toys, theatre sets and more tell the story of Gorey’s unique career. 


Who was Edward Gorey?

Born in 1925, Gorey claimed he had a "typical sort of middle-western childhood" in Chicago. From an early age Gorey was interested in all things British, Gothic and strange. After graduating from Harvard in 1950, Gorey began working as an illustrator and releasing original stories. He soon established a distinctive style. Gorey became known for his black and white colour palette, and Victorian or Edwardian inspired imagery. 

Cover of Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey by Lori Mortensen
Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey (2020) by Lori Mortensen. A picture book biography of Edward Gorey.


Gorey was prolific. During his long career, Gorey produced over 100 books and illustrated more than 60 by other authors. His work reflected his diverse interests, ranging from ballet and opera to murder mysteries and cats. He lived in New York City for many years, before moving to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Edward Gorey House is now a museum dedicated to Gorey's weird and wonderful career. 


Covering the classics

Gorey once said in an interview, "I moved to New York at the beginning of 1953 and embarked on what is laughingly called my career." This career began in the art department of the newly-formed Doubleday imprint Doubleday Anchor. Gorey was hired by Jason Epstein (the husband of a friend of Gorey’s from Harvard). Gorey's later illustrations were largely black and white, but the book covers he designed for Doubleday boast a variety of colours. Gorey-esque cross-hatching and attention to detail remain, along with outsiders looking in and a sense of menace and isolation.

Covers of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, Amerika by Franz Kafka and St. Peter’s Day and Other Tales designed by Edward Gorey.
The Secret Agent (1953) by Joseph Conrad, Amerika (1956) by Franz Kafka, and St. Peter’s Day and Other Tales (1959) by Anton Chekhov covers designed by Edward Gorey.


During his career at Doubleday, Gorey designed the covers for over 50 books. He lent his artistry to literature classics in an affordable paperback format. Gorey would follow Jason Epstein when he began The Looking Glass Library in 1960. Gorey served as art director with little oversight from a busy Epstein. However, Gorey was not content only creating art for the stories of others and spent his spare time experimenting with his own writing. These experiments led to the publication of his first original book, The Unstrung Harp.


Founding of Fantod Press

In the 1950s, Gorey began to publish books he wrote and illustrated with mainstream publishers. His first book The Unstrung Harp was published by Little, Brown and Company in 1953. But, it was a twisted tale about a terrible infant that caused Gorey to start his own publishing house.

Cover of The Beastly Baby by Ogdred Weary
The Beastly Baby (1962) by Ogdred Weary (one of Gorey's many pen names).


The Beastly Baby was originally written as a baby gift for Gorey’s friend Alison Lurie in 1953. The story follows the horrifying adventures of a "particularly atrocious" baby. Lurie and her children were delighted by the grisly gift. Gorey pitched the book to established publishers for several years, but editors found the story too dark and gruesome. So, in 1962 Gorey decided to publish it himself. He created Fantod Press and released The Beastly Baby under the pen name Ogdred Weary (anagram for Edward Gorey).


Gorey continued to use Fantod Press to release books that publishers turned down. Books like The Disrespectful Summons, where the respectable Miss Squill dances with the Devil, or The Chinese Obelisks, an alphabet book with a Gorey look-a-like protagonist. Fantod Press books were either too weird or too short (usually both) for traditional publishers. Many Fantod Press books were later released in Gorey’s popular Amphigorey collections. These collections allowed the stories to reach a larger audience.


Dracula designs

Gorey first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula in elementary school. He was a lifelong fan of Dracula and similar spooky tales. In the 1970s, Gorey was asked to design the sets and costumes for a stage production of Dracula. Starring Frank Langella, the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula was a massive success. The Dracula production with Gorey’s sets toured extensively, including a run at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Program for the Toronto run of Dracula with designs by Edward Gorey
Program for the Toronto run of Dracula with Edward Gorey's designs (circa 1978).


For the Dracula sets, Gorey created scaled-up versions of his famous crosshatched black-and-white drawings. Critics loved Gorey’s designs, declaring the sets "magnificent and macabre." Gorey was compensated generously for his design work. He received ten percent of Dracula’s profits, an unusually high percentage for a set designer.

Dracula toy theatre designed by Edward Gorey
Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1978) designed by Edward Gorey.


Beyond the theatre walls, Gorey’s Dracula designs sparked a successful merchandise line. A 1977 newspaper article announced, "[y]ou can now paper your bedroom with Dracula wallpaper, featuring tasteful bat-like figures mingling with maidens, and snuggle down between Dracula sheets." Fans could even purchase a toy theatre version of Gorey’s Dracula sets. After Dracula, Gorey remarked, "I began to realize what it would be like to be rich and famous, but I’ve decided unh-unh."


A purr-fect love

Gorey kept a small circle of friends and had no long-term romantic relationships. His cats were his closest companions. When Vanity Fair asked, "What or who is the greatest love of your life?" Gorey responded, "Cats." Cats were Gorey’s companions and his muses. He created books, bean bag toys, paper dolls and postcards starring his beloved animals.

Cover of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot with Drawings by Edward Gorey
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1982) by T. S. Eliot, drawings by Edward Gorey.


In 1982, Gorey was asked to illustrate Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. That same year, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical CATS premiered on Broadway. Inspired by T. S. Eliot's poems, CATS was a smash hit and played for years on Broadway. In Gorey’s later years, royalties Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats were a major source of income.

Gorey’s love for cats and animals continued in the afterlife. He left his entire estate to animal charities. The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust gives money to the Animals League of Boston, Bat Conservation International Foundation and other charities.


Further reading



Post co-written by Myrna and Tessie, staff at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books

Edited November 25, 5 pm: Removed reference to an exhibition space which is closed during Grey-Lockdown.