Last fall, under the guise of research, I took a trip to the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. Gorey lived on Cape Cod for about twenty years, and his work was the first thing I thought of when David Ulin asked me to contribute a story to Cape Cod Noir, an anthology of original crime fiction published this week by Akashic Books.
Gorey’s house is now a museum. A rotating selection of original drawings and sketches are on display here, along with some of the curious objects Gorey collected over the course of his life. Oddities abound, including guest checks showing what he ate every day for a month at a local diner, a herd of hand-stitched stuffed elephants, a sofa shredded nearly to death by his many cats, and an impressive set of glass telephone pole insulators.
Part of what I admire about Gorey’s work is the care with which it’s structured—consider the abecedarians of creatures and accidental deaths, or the recurring imagery (umbrellas, dogs, wrought-iron fences) in a book like The Sopping Thursday. But even while Gorey shapes these intricate melancholies, he explodes the very notion of structure and narrative. Ominous threats loom, their exact nature never revealed. Characters’ motives are hidden and stay that way. Important events occur offstage. People wander, swoon, murder, flee, weep, cajole, and often die in circumstances they—and we—don’t entirely understand.
I think of Gorey as a reverent iconoclast. His book The Awdrey-Gore Legacy stands as one of my favorite mystery stories. In it, the elements of a murder case, including suspects, weapons, and the detective’s disguises, are illustrated each in turn, laid out as though from some musty file. It’s a loving homage to the cosy mystery genre, as well as an unraveling of the form. There’s a story here, but we can only infer what happened. The result is a labyrinth without a solution.
My story in Cape Cod Noir, “Twenty-Eight Scenes for Neglected Guests,” is an attempt to evoke something of Gorey’s style and preoccupations. The piece was a pleasure to research, because it meant revisiting his work while also reading up on Gorey himself (a Gorey-like figure appears throughout the tale).
When I began, I knew little about him beyond a handful of peculiar facts: that he was reclusive, that he loved the ballet, that he tended to wear fur coats and tennis shoes. (He eventually abandoned the fur, which he couldn’t square with his love for animals.)
As described by those who knew him, Gorey is a study in contradiction. Though his illustrations and writings seem informed by a Victorian or Edwardian sensibility, he never went abroad, except for a brief trip to Scotland. He believed that filmmaking had been “going downhill steadily since 1918,” but he loved soap operas and television reruns. He was reclusive to the point of sometimes not answering the door when friends knocked, yet he was listed in the Cape Cod phone book. And, almost every summer for about fifteen years, he personally wrote and directed a play to be performed in one of several small theaters on the Cape.
For those interested in reading more about him, I recommend Alexander Theroux’s The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. Theroux knew Gorey personally, and his book offers great insight into the life of an enigmatic artist. It’s just been released in an expanded edition by Fantagraphics Books. Theroux was recently interviewed by NPR about the book.
The Strange Case draws from interviews collected in Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey, edited by Karen Wilkin. That title, by the way, comes from one of Gorey’s descriptions of his own process: “I just kind of conjured them up out of my subconscious and put them in order of ascending peculiarity.”
And while I do recommend a visit to the Edward Gorey House, there’s an excellent book of photographs of the place by Kevin McDermott, Elephant House, or, The Home of Edward Gorey. McDermott went into the house shortly after Gorey’s death, before any of his belongings were moved. It’s a haunting portrait of a man via his pursuits, his habits, and his absence.
And those curious about my own story, “Twenty-Eight Scenes for Neglected Guests,” will find it in Cape Cod Noir, alongside new work by Ben Greenman, Dana Cameron, Paul Tremblay, Kaylie Jones, and others.