Edward Gorey:Portrait of the Artist In Chilling Color

He's been called a classic American eccentric, a genius, a visionary. He might just call himself a cat lover.

The sky is postcard blue. Yellow leaves are falling onto the antique shops and clapboard houses of this pleasant seaside town.

Yet somehow, I feel uneasy.

I am driving to meet Edward Gorey, the artist whose dark pen-and-ink cartoons match his nefarious name. Many of the characters in Mr. Gorey's spare black-and-white world seem to meet their demise in frighteningly funny ways and I shudder to think what designs he might have for this callow reporter.

We arranged to meet at his home and quickly drive off to a nearby diner for lunch.

I am pleasantly surprised to discover that Gorey's house is not the dark turreted Victorian mansion I had imagined - with creaking doors, cobweb-draped chandeliers, and the occasional coffin. Instead, it is a quaint small wood-shingled Cape set on the edge of the village green.

As I drive up, Gorey sits on the steps of his sunny porch, doodling in a notebook. He's a tall, bald man with a neatly trimmed white beard. He is dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt, and wears an ornate Ethiopian crucifix around his neck. We shake hands, and I marvel that such a large hand, as thick as a bricklayer's, covered with heavy brass rings, is capable of such delicate, subtle art.

"My first drawings came at the age of 1 1/2," he says as we drive to his favorite lunch spot, Jack's Out Back, "and I hasten to add that they showed no talent whatever."

Gorey recalls staring out the window of his grandfather's house in the suburbs of Chicago and drawing pictures of the passing trains. "They looked like irregular sausages," he says with typical candor, adding, "Looking back, it's all a mystery.... I just drifted into this."

But there's no mystery to the popularity of Gorey's work, from his dark diabolical Tony-Award-winning set design for the 1977 Broadway hit "Dracula" to his whimsical illustration of T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Since the 1950s, Gorey has honed a sweetly sinister artistic style that would make even the proper Queen Victoria giggle into her napkin.

Gorey's creepy humor makes a weekly appearance in the animated opening segment for the PBS television series, "Mystery!" At one point in the segment, a maiden in distress whimpers a plaintive "help" from atop a stone wall, while her erstwhile rescuers in three-piece suits search the grass below with flashlights. By using these starchy Victorian characters, Gorey seems to be saying that the funniest people are usually those who can't - or shouldn't - laugh.

"Edward is a classic American eccentric and genius," says Clifford Ross, a friend and co-author of a recent book, "The World of Edward Gorey," (Harry N. Abrams., $29.95). "He likes tapping into what is by nature uncomfortable. Sometimes it's hilarious, sometimes it's disturbing. It's a wild walk in the woods."

Like the famed film director Alfred Hitchcock, Gorey creates tension by suggesting violence, rather than showing it. Inanimate legs jut out from underneath shrubs or out of doorways, and the only hint that something awful has happened comes in a wry footnote.

Even in his grisly classic "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," a poem in which an alphabetic list of plump, forlorn children is dispensed with in wickedly humorous ways, Gorey knows when to leave things unsaid. He wishes modern film directors and novelists had the same subtle touch.

"I can sit through an endless amount of violence, but I think [today's movies] have gone too far," he says, munching a lunch of tuna salad and sliced tomatoes. "But then, I'm the sort of person who thinks that movies went downhill after World War I. Basically, when sound came in."

His favorite movie is the silent picture "Vampyr," by the late Danish director Carl Dreyer. "You don't see a thing and yet it's the most chilling movie I have ever seen," he says. "I think your own imagination does a better job."

This same taste for spooky subtlety permeates Gorey's set design for "Dracula." Everything and everybody on stage is cloaked in silver, gray, black,or white - with the exception of a single, threatening touch of red. A rose, perhaps, or the crimson satin lining of the vampire's cape. Critics hailed Gorey's work as visionary.

Such rave reviews make Gorey shake his head in disbelief. "I can't design a set worth beans, but nobody ever asked," he says with a smile. "It's apparently an indestructible play."

If Gorey manages to keep his art from becoming too, well, gory, it may be because of his inability to take himself too seriously. The artist isn't interested in the big issues like the battle between good and evil. He prefers to look at the conflict between the cozy and the sinister. When his urbane subjects are victimized by vampires or squished by falling pillars, they are merely having a bad day.

In his private life, Gorey is a complex jumble of contradictions. He reads murder mysteries and watches action pictures, but avoids movies where animals come to harm. He delivers punch lines and sardonic commentary with ease, but rarely laughs.

"I don't set out to be funny," he says. "Obviously, if I find myself giggling about something, I'll keep it in." Referring to "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," he quips, "I must say I did think at the time that 'N is for Neville who died of ennui' was rather fetching."

Gorey says he probably absorbed his Victorian drawing style from the books he read as a child, including Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" and Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." He nurtured this style as a staff artist for a slew of publishers in New York, and then gradually began writing books on his own. He has had little formal art training.

New ideas come all the time from friends, novels, and even television.

One current project in Gorey's notebook is a puppet show that turns Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly" on its head. In the original, a Japanese woman character is smitten with an American diplomat. In Gorey's version, she is an American girl from the Midwest who falls in love with a traveling Japanese businessman. All the puppets will be rendered in the signature Gorey style.

After a leisurely lunch, we drive back to Gorey's house and continue our conversation in the only room that seems to have a place to sit down: the kitchen.

"You'd think I just moved here, but I've been here 10 years," he says as he guides us through the gantlet of boxes and objets d'art. Gorey has what he calls a "yard-sale mentality," and the books that don't fit into the shelves of his living room remain stacked in boxes on his couch, his desk, and any other available surface. It is here that his six cats - Charles, George, Weedums, Alice, Thomas, and Jane - are on perpetual prowl.

A calico jumps into my lap ("Hello, Jane") and a ginger cat jumps into his ("Hello, Charles"), and I ask the life-long bachelor whom he is closest to.

"My cats," he says, hugging Charles. "There are a few people I see all the time. But when I'm really working I'd rather not see people that much, and when I'm not working, I'd like to have that time to myself. I have to make an effort to be social."

To be sure, Yarmouth Port makes a perfect town for a recluse, but Gorey seems determined to bring a bit of Gotham to the Cape.

Working with a half-dozen local amateurs, he writes puppet shows and musical revues with titles like "Crazed Teacups" and "Blithering Christmas" and shows them in various seaside communities. This may seem like charity work for someone of Gorey's stature, but he reminds me that his adaptation of "Dracula" also got its start as community theater.

As Gorey and I speak, Jane gets up and trades places with Charles, who sneezes onto my notebook. Charles stretches out, and seems to imply that my note taking is far less important than giving him a good vigorous scratch behind the ears. It occurs to me that the cats are much like Gorey, who calls himself "easily distracted."

By now, my questions have dwindled and Gorey leads me to the door. I ask him if he misses New York and he answers with a story.

"I remember sitting in one of those Greek diners," he says. "I thought, 'There are more people passing this window than Jane Austen saw in her entire life. What good is this doing me?' "

As I drive off, I laugh at my initial concerns about this interview. No tumbling pillars, no fangs; just a gently macabre man with a notebook full of humorous doom.

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