By Phillip Caprara • February 16, 2022
Illustrator, author, animator, puppeteer, cartoonist, these are just a few of the titles that can be given to the talented Edward Gorey. Like many illustrators, Gorey has never been a household name. Despite this, however, his works have a devout cult following. You've likely come across them without realizing. If you have ever picked up a modern copy of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds or Bram Stoker's Dracula, you almost certainly have seen Edward Gorey's handiwork. During his long career, he created illustrations for famous classics like C. Day Lewis' translation of The Aeneid and T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats; he also illustrated children's literature like James Donnelly's Three Classic Children's Stories and Ennis Rees' Brer Rabbit and His Tricks. With The Unstrung Harp in 1953, Gorey began to write and illustrate his own books. These often-featured random objects, unsettling revelations, and downright macabre details. In these, he employed a distinctive pen and ink style to create Victorian and Edwardian inspired illustrations. Of all his oeuvre, nowhere is this combination of artistic style and fascination with the darker elements of humanity more evident than in his abecedaria.
Also known an alphabet-book, an abecedarium is a basic book form consisting of an alphabet presenting the letters in order, often with one letter per page and with accompanying pictures and usually intended for children. Gorey published several such works beginning in 1960 with The Fatal Lozenge: An Alphabet. In this text, a cavalcade of degenerates, predators, and a few unfortunate innocents are presented in brief vignettes accompanied by rhyming quatrains. The small sketches depict people wearing Edwardian style clothes while scowling, howling, or generally looking unhappy. While the images do show unhappy people, their true darkness is only revealed when combined with their respective verses. In each quatrain, a hidden truth or future is revealed. The Proctor standing behind the boy is not just tapping him on the shoulder but propositioning his prey; the scowling Magnate is not just waiting in the snow but plotting future child enslavement. Each of these scenes can only be fully understood when the quatrain has been read. Gorey’s The Fatal Lozenge is included in the collection Amphigorey.
A later book, The Utter Zoo, takes a different approach to the abecedarium. Here, Gorey takes as his subject matter, fantastical animals, instead of the dregs of human society. Unlike the sketches in The Fatal Lozenge, full of detail but small, those in The Utter Zoo are larger, and make more use of negative space. There is almost no scenery depicted. The animals and their accoutrements are the focus. Paired with each image is a rhyming couplet giving the name of the animal and describing its lifestyle. Yet even when talking about imaginary animals, Gorey's fascination with the darker elements of life can be glimpsed. While some of Gorey's creations go about their lives happily like the Humglum and the Limplig, others are not so lucky. The Jelbislup, for example, is confined to a jar and likely left to die. Other creatures seem horribly violent like the Quingawaga who munches on ankle bones. Even the last lines of the text dwell on death as the last Zote has died and the illustration shows four legs sticking out of a casket. As in The Fatal Lozenge, the images alone are not enough. The illustrations are amusing but incomprehensible without the couplets. In fact, it is the couplets in almost all every case which reveals the darkness. Yet unlike its predecessor, it relies on shorter verses to create a more succinct and child-like structure.
Of all his abecedaria, and perhaps out of all his works, the most famous is The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Composed of twenty-six vignettes depicting the deaths of twenty-six children, this short work is a triumph of Gorey's style. Each page contains a drawing of a child either in a large room, or outside. In these illustrations, the scenery (curtains, chairs, coffins) is often much larger than the child; this draws attention to the child's small stature and innocence, further emphasizing their pitiable state. Below each illustration is a single dactylic line acting as a caption; the final word of every pair of captions rhymes, creating sets of rhyming couplets across pages. Oftentimes, the child in the image is alive and their cause of death visible, like Ernest and his peach or Fanny and her leech. It is only when the image is combined with its caption that the relationship between the child and the object can be understood. Yet even when describing death these verses still have a touch of levity. The succinct phrasing, use of end rhyme, and regular meter create a nursery-rhyme style rhythm that contrasts sharply with the dark content and ghastly images.
While these are not the only abecedaria Gorey produced, they are likely the most famous. The Fatal Lozenge, his first, showcased the experimentation between image and text that would later be seen in his other abecedaria. There, his unique style of Edwardian-inspired pen and ink drawings combined with beautiful, yet simple, verse describing grim subject matter can be seen in full force. In that text, as in all his abecedaria, he strived to balance the playful nature of the book form with the darker corners of the human soul.