“And then they saw something standing on top of an urn, whose peculiar presence gave them quite a turn.” And so begins the saga of Edward Gorey’s “The Doubtful Guest,” an eerie and hilarious short story about a strange creature that arrives at a Victorian manor house and never leaves. In an attempt to bring Halloween back to its haunting spirit -- no more sexy kitten costumes -- we re-read “The Doubtful Guest” and some of Gorey’s other wonderfully creepy stories.
It’s hard to decide whether Gorey is an illustrator first and a writer second, or if the two go hand in hand. Either way, his work is immediately recognizable: pen and ink drawings, often scraggly, depicting ghostly scenes of British Victorian and Edwardian culture. He’s known for his book illustrations, but without knowing it we were introduced to Gorey years before reading his work through PBS’s Mystery! series. Who could forget the program’s opening scene with the statue whose skeleton is lit up by lightening, aristocrats playing croquet on a moonless night, and the blue handkerchief wretched from a woman’s hand by wind and rain. Talk about setting the mood.
What I love about his depictions of British aristocrats is the contrasts the illustrations create: the ornate luxuries of the upper-class reduced to black and white scratches; macabre images accompanied by rhyming couplets; everyday people interacting with exotic beasts; and of course strange happenings in familiar places (i.e. the home). And it is these contrasts that make his work so unsettling.
Although the sketches are seemingly simple, the little details throughout make them vivid. It might seem trite to say that Gorey invokes Edgar Allen Poe, but the similarities between the two go beyond haunting narratives; the simple, blunt language that suffuses Poe’s work is mimicked on paper by Gorey’s hard pen lines. The two rely on repetition -- Poe of words and Gorey of characters -- to develop scenes that linger with their audiences.
Gorey’s sketches are unsettling but the stories themselves are actually very funny. Perhaps that’s what possessed our mother into giving everyone in our family copies of “The Doubtful Guest” for Christmas. And who wouldn’t find the little creature with his high-topped tennis sneakers and mischievous antics adorable?