Today is Edward Gorey’s birthday. A man who is probably most famous for his little illustrated book of twenty-six children dying sudden and disturbing deaths.
Of course, Edward Gorey is much more than the author of The Gashleycrumb Tinies. He was also a prolific playwright, renowned artist, cat lover, ballet enthusiast, and delightful eccentric. He did the illustrations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds as well as the intro for the PBS series Mystery! He lived in Cape Cod for many years, and this past fall my friend Bernard and I went to his house-turned-museum and marveled over the intricately decorated envelopes in which he sent letters to friends, as well as his favorite raccoon-fur coat.
I first saw a poster of the Gashleycrumb Tinies on the wall in my English classroom, sophomore year of high school. A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears… I fell in love with it immediately, and to this day I’m still trying to figure out exactly why. Was it the dark, outlandish humor? The fanciful Victorian style? The fact that Gorey had taken something disturbing – the death of children – and made it delightful?
I just got back from Mexico, and the souvenir I’m most excited about is my set of Loteria cards and boards that I bought for eighty pesos. Loteria is a game much like Bingo, except with pictures instead of numbers, and this set features “Los 50 Nombres de Muerte,” or “The 50 of Death.”
I gave my boyfriend two of these cards, along with some weird Mexican candy, as his present. One of the cards featured the sassy La Dama de la Guadana (the Lady of the Scythe): a lovely skeleton wearing a hat and pulling up her skirt to reveal a naughty pair of garters.
“Do you like your death cards?” I asked him, as he examined a piece of Mexican candy that looked like poop. He laughed and said he did. (I’m lucky to have a boyfriend who thinks death and poop are as interesting as I do.)
And so here I am, on Edward Gorey’s birthday, looking at another set of black and white illustrations of death. Certainly, this invites a compare and contrast.
Of course, the most obvious difference is timing. We see almost all of Gorey’s buttoned-up children in the moment before death: James as he reaches for the bottle of lye, Victor standing stupidly on the train tracks. In the 50 Nombres, however, we see death itself: dancing skeletons and crying skeletons and skeletons wearing hats.
Gorey’s children are totally oblivious to their inevitable fate (much like many Americans), and their stories end abruptly. But, it seems, the Mexican culture is never surprised by death. They know it’s coming, and they can imagine what happens next. For them, the story continues.
My 50 Nombres cards are filled with joyful (and strange) versions of death. Death is creepy, they seem to say, but it happens to everyone. It’s a mystery worth celebrating.
And so today, I will celebrate Edward Gorey. And I will think about how, like him, I can take something disturbing and write about it in a new and delightful way.
For writing exercises, click here!