YARMOUTH PORT —
One wonders what he was thinking. Readers have often wondered the same thing upon discovering his mysterious, fanciful, ingeniously comedic books. At the Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, which opened in 2002, visitors can explore his life and his career, although answers to what inspired his work are not so easily revealed.
“Whenever people would speculate at the meaning in his books, he would just smile and sort of go, ‘Hmmm,’ ” tour guide Gregory Hischak says. “He would never say if they were right or wrong. Whatever they felt it meant was fine with him.”
As Gorey (1925-2000) once said about his work, “Very little is pinned down. I feel I’m doing a minimum of damage to other possibilities that might arise in the reader’s mind.”
Gorey began his career illustrating paperback covers for Doubleday and went on to contribute to The New Yorker, Esquire, and National Lampoon. He received national acclaim in the 1970s when he won a Tony award for costume design for the New York production of “Dracula.” He also animated the opening and closing segments for the long-running PBS series “Mystery,” introducing his quirky illustrations to millions of televisions viewers.
His life, in all its macabre and ironic eccentricity, is on display at the 200-year-old sea captain’s home that sits just off Old King’s Highway. The collected works depict murder and mayhem, yet in the whimsical manner that is Gorey’s signature.
In “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” one of his most enduring tales, 26 children are named alphabetically in rhymes, each one meeting an untimely demise, as in “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears; C is for Clara who wasted away . . .”
In “The Deranged Cousins,” set on Cape Cod, Gorey and his three cousins set out on a seaside walk. One cousin is bludgeoned to death, the second is poisoned, the third is washed out to sea. Gorey once quipped in an interview that the book was based on a true story, except none of it happened.
“All of the dark things he drew were infused with humor, which takes the horror out of them. There’s nothing grim about it. That’s why people leave here laughing,” tour guide Charles Coombs says. “He’s somewhere in the middle between whimsy and macabre.”
Rick Jones, curator and director of the museum, was a friend of Gorey. He said people often misunderstand his work.
“They really were cautionary tales,” he says. “ ‘The Gashlycrumb Tinies’ is the perfect example. Everything in there is sort of ‘Don’t run down the stairs or you’ll hurt yourself.’ ”
Gorey purchased the house on the Cape in 1986 and spent the last 14 years of his life working in a cozy second-floor studio with a view of a stately Southern magnolia tree, using pen and ink to meticulously draw images that required both patience and a certain amount of obsession. His quest for perfection can be seen in “The Disrespectful Summons,” where he drew a wall with hundreds of bricks, and redrew it throughout the book, altering only slightly the movement of the characters.
“Last year we blew up one of his works about 20 times, and we could look at the intricacy of the lines that are probably [a fraction of an inch],” Jones says. “Each line is identical to the one next to it. It’s remarkable.”
By the time of his death at 74, more than 25,000 books were scattered around the house, sharing space with the handful of cats usually in residence, along with assorted collections of beach stones, glasswork, art, jewelry, and Tibetan rings and amulets. Many of the artifacts and other personal effects are on display at the museum. Visitors can even tour his kitchen, which is just as he left it.
The centerpiece for the museum’s 2014 season is the exhibit “F is for Fantods: The 28 Books of Edward Gorey’s Fantod Press.” The books were self-published from 1962 to 1997 under the Fantod Press — fantod being an archaic 19th-century word meaning “a state of irritability, anxiety, or fidgets.”
The publishing house was strictly a one-man show, with Gorey writing, illustrating, and preparing a camera-ready copy of each publication for the printer. Among the authors published under its umbrella were Ogdred Weary, Edward Pig, Regera Dowdy, and someone named Om. Their common denominator was they were pseudonyms for Gorey.
The books reflect his distinctive style, ranging from a delightful children’s story to a musing on mortality to the saga of a lost sock. Among the titles are “The Beastly Baby,” “The Stupid Joke,” “The Pious Infant” and “Donald Has a Difficulty.” One’s eye is drawn to “The Pointless Book,” a 2-by-2-inch pamphlet that consists of pages of meaningless scribbles, yet another nod to his offbeat sense of humor.
Although his work was unpredictable, Gorey himself was a creature of habit. He ordered the same breakfast and lunch virtually every day at nearby Jack’s Outback Restaurant (as a framed month of receipts proves), and he attended every performance of the New York City Ballet for 27 seasons, saving each ticket stub. Although eccentric, he was not the recluse that many people believe.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Jones says. “When he was in New York, he went out almost every night, whether it was the ballet, the theater, or a movie. But he tended to compartmentalize his friends. There were his theater friends and literature friends and Cape Cod friends. The local people didn’t know the literary ones, the literary ones didn’t know the theater ones.”
Still, Gorey rarely traveled great distances. An interviewer once asked him to name his favorite journey. “Looking out the window,” he said.
Rob Duca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.