Sunday, May 03, 2009

Goreyana and Childhood Books


After months of reading heavy-duty academic tomes on Jewish-Christian relations, the development of language, and the history of the Reformation, I decided to go for something lighter this weekend. This is the first free weekend I've had in awhile, and it's raining, so I can't do the gardening and yard work. It's the perfect time to sit down with a book and a pint of Guinness.

For whatever reason, I've had a hankering to re-read some of the early works of John Bellairs. John Bellairs did write novels and prose pieces for adults, but he was primarily known as a children's writer. Bellairs was recommended reading for us in the 4th and 5th grades. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Bellairs was probably as popular of an author as Madeline L'Engle, Judy Blume, or C.S. Lewis (the Narnia series specifically). His most famous trilogy involved the Lewis Barnavelt character, beginning with A House With a Clock in its Walls. The stories take place in the late 1940s in New Zebedee, Michigan, and they do a great deal to evoke the time and the place. They are also probably the first example of the magical realism genre for me--Lewis's uncle and next-door neighbor are both practicing magicians, and yet are both very ordinary folk in all respects. Bellairs did have series involving other characters, but none of them equalled this first trilogy, in my opinion. After Bellairs's death, Brad Strickland tried to finish a number of Bellairs's unfinished works, all published as Bellairs/Strickland. As one might expect, these latter works all fall flat. I don't know of any author who has done well trying to write "in the style of" a particular author, except perhaps the Robert Bloch and August Dereleth stylings of H.P. Lovecraft.

The Bellairs books were also my first introduction to my favorite illustrator, Edward Gorey. Gorey was hugely popular in his lifetime, and even more so after his death. He is best known for the animated introduction to the "Mystery!" series that aired on PBS years ago, but that barely scratches the surface of his work. In 1996, a huge bibliography of his works entitled "Goreography" was published, and it's staggering to see just how much work Gorey did in his lifetime. I am a committed Gorey collector, but I have been limited to buying only 1 or 2 first editions, lithographs, or signed copies a year. Everything has just become way too expensive.

Gorey illustrated many children's books, particularly for Dial Press, but his own cartoon books were definitely not for children. About 12 years ago I did cataloging work for Baker and Taylor Books. One of the catalogers there told me about a children's book she encountered in the cataloging queue that absolutely horrified her. It was about a bunch of colorful bugs, all of whom are happy until a big black bug comes along. They all conspire to lead him to a cliff, then they push him off and drop a rock on him.

"Who would write such a horrible story for children?" she asked me.

"No one," I replied. "That's Edward Gorey's 'Bug Book'. And it's not for children."

Of course, the Library of Congress has subject-tagged all of Gorey's cartoon books as juvenile literature, and this is highly misleading, to say the least. Gorey writes about serial killers, children who are sold into slavery and then commit suicide, and a host of ghastly "alphabets" featuring gruesome murders. Works that don't cover these topics are usually heavy on puns, or mocking poor English translations of literary works. All of it is actually very funny, if you take it for the macabre humor it is supposed to be. One of my favorite lines ever is from Gorey's "The Loathsome Couple", about a man and woman who go about the business of murdering and dismembering small children. Gorey writes, "They met at a Self-Help Institute lecture on the evils of the decimal system, and immediately recognized their affinity." The whole thing is so weird, and yet so deadpan, gruesome humor with a totally straight face.

At my last place of employment, my supervisor and her husband used to go to the Gotham Book Mart in Midtown regularly when Edward Gorey came to read from his works. Each time they went, they got him to sign editions of his works that they had purchased. One year at Christmas, my supervisor left a huge shopping bag under my desk. I opened it, and it was full of the Gorey signed first editions, pop-up books, and even dolls made of his characters. She told me, "I've had them for so many years, and I have to get rid of stuff. I decided you would be the one to give them a good home." I was flabbergasted. That was one hell of a gift. I still have all of those items to this day. I acquire more each year by poking around antiquarian book fairs, checking bookseller lists, and browsing the Strand's rare book room.

The picture above is of just a few of my Gorey items.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Self help evils of the decimal system are nothing compared to the evils of drug addiction