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When I was about 11 years old my Father and Stepmother moved into an enormous Edwardian house in Surrey, owned by an eminent Buddhist scientist and a Thai Princess. The House had extensive grounds, being situated in a large wood complete with an old cottage that was now a private residence but would have been the servants lodgings a hundred odd years ago. My Father’s family rented one half – again, probably the servant’s half – of the main house, while the owners, complete with jet-setting, Lamborghini designing children, took the really posh bit. There always was, and is, something strange about moving through the main downstairs corridor that connects both family’s ‘homes’ – from the shabby, sepia tinted wallpaper that represented the world I lived in when I stayed there, and out into the clear, white, airy space inhabited by the other residents. There was a feeling of intruding, of being out of one’s depth. But as I got older and eventually got to know the entire place, I started to feel differently. In the end, the overriding feeling was simply that the way the other half tried to present itself was inherently dishonest. Not intentionally so, but nevertheless there was something anachronistic about the kind of aristocratic world that they, and the house, represented. Like a good deal of Edwardian stuff, it felt as though the house and its inhabitants somehow embodied the last, glorious, sad throws of a world that had only recently been devoured by social mobility, daytime telly and cultural relativism. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but there was something deeply melancholy about it – as though by peeling back the thick, red, draped curtains that weighed heavily on the bedroom windows, you could reach out, through, and touch that other world of bright sunny days, tennis on the lawn, and all that E M Forster crap. The place, even in the high rent bit, always felt faded, and like all proper mansions was cobwebby, the black wrought iron window-catches didn’t work properly, the grass in the orchard was often unkempt, and it was COLD. Wherever you went in the house, my abiding memory was that it was often bloody freezing. And it hasn’t changed much in that regard.

When I initially had the idea for this post, I thought I’d try something in the vein of Zom’s one panel dissection of V, but I couldn’t find an individual panel/illustration that summed up the Gorey experience in its entirety. Gorey’s hard to reduce to a single image, because the fundamental tone of his work is so consistent, so constant, so samey in fact, that really one may as well take a broad overview of a whole book – in this case The Object Lesson – and that way you get everything: the morose countryside, the parapets, the moth eaten drawing rooms. It’s all worth a mention. So, anyway, I’m not pretending my Dad’s place was anywhere near as grand as the stately homes that brood away in the Goreyverse, but sometimes I think the adjectives used to describe his environments – creepy, spooky, gothic and the rest – just fail to sum up another key emotional component of his work, something I touched on above – the sadness, the loneliness, the warped ground of desolation and peeling wallpaper and musty sofas – that leaves the door open for…. But more on that later.

The sense that things are decrepit and starting to creak is key to Gorey’s books: the deep thicket of twig-like, scratchy line-work through which we peer into his worlds is reminiscent of archaic artforms such as woodcutting; the lunatic protagonists and long suffering children remind us of Victorian literature; the nonsense poetry, the absurdity, is alive with the shade of Lewis Carroll. Everything is almost aggressively out of time. But more than that – because this is all obvious, surface stuff – there’s the stark, pallid whites or cloud flooded greys of his skies that speak of a sunless afternoon, when all the life and vitality has been leached from the grand families that inhabit those greying mansions – the forgotten tennis rackets broken and frayed in the flower bed. There’s the wide spaces of his wood-panelled dining rooms and entrance halls, big enough for the shadows to grow long and drape themselves across everything at the end or beginning of the day, and prone and open to dry-rot, dust and the character’s failing reserves of money to sustain their upkeep. There’s the strange follies littered about the grounds and weed-strewn gardens….

And have you ever really checked out the protagonists themselves?

There’s something marbled and statuesque about them, with their vampire pale skin and their Henry Moore-like frames. You could just as easily imagine them exhibiting at Kew as you could being moved around like an uncertain chess piece through one of Gorey’s weird tales. They’re not quite organic, not fleshy, but grand follies in their own right. Strange idols commemorating a forgotten, wilder, Peakeian England. You can imagine them covered in bird-droppings, the cracked plinth below their feet, as they gesture out across the surface of some black, forlorn lake.

There’s certainly no denying the man’s work has a bleakness to it.

And it takes many forms.

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*Brrrrr* Quickly moving on………….

The action of the Object Lesson centres around a demented aristocratic family, trailing selected members’ trajectories across another curious Thursday in Goreyland. Like much of Gorey’s output, The Object Lesson is a picture book, but one in which, at least on the surface of it, nothing much happens and what does makes very little sense. Whole pages are spent detailing bizarre activities of either absolute or no import (take your pick!) and there’s sweet fuck all there to connect events, one bouncing haphazardly off another. To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s how the book opens:

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EXCUSE ME?

Oh, of course, it’s Thursday! So it’s only natural his Lordship should need his artificial leg! And the tongs! Of course, the tongs! It’s easy to see why they’d be necessary down at the lake…. The Object Lesson is the pictoral equivalent of nonsense verse, but of a far less flowery kind than, say, Lewis Carroll’s. There’s an emptiness to the images, a sparseness – you can feel the draught in those rooms, and the snap of cold behind the evening breeze. Far from the hot, lurid jungle-poetry of Snark Island, Gorey’s wet, clipped and greying fields convey a creaking sadness, infusing the gaps between the narrative non-sequiters that comprise the work with a brooding tension. A sense of looming.

Something is about to happen.

Take this sequence, for example:

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So, yeah, taken out of context this is funny – I mean, jumping off a parapet as a result of confusion over ownership of a moustache seems like a bit of an overreaction – but the absurdity of the situation has to be understood through the lens of that eye strainingly bleached out sky, the bloated, cross-hatched clouds and the general feelings of gloom and vague dread that envelop the piece. There is a more worrying context here. We’re not in the candy-coloured cartoon world of superheroes now – the Surf Board isn’t an amusing riff on Californian beach culture. And the moustache? Who’s wearing it? Who is that man looming over Madame O? Shades of Lapham’s Pinkertons…. Gorey seems to insist on the gloomiest, most disturbing interpretations. The meanings we apply to The Object Lesson’s opaque surfaces are rarely happy ones – the rain is always about to fall. We feel that, like their home, the grand family that inhabits the work are progressing towards dissolution and madness – that their bizarre activities and wanderings, though apparently imbued with intent and purpose, are in fact a mockery of same. It’s almost as if they’re going through the motions of living and acting, but they’ve forgotten how to do it. They’ve forgotten how to perform. But there is a doubling here, because the piece’s impenetrable eccentricity could be interpreted in another way: the last high-pitched gurgle before meaning and significance rush down the plug-hole upon moon-rise. Whatever. The shadows are growing and the hour is getting late…..

As the players approach decrepitude – almost objecthood – we see in them the fossilisation of an entire age, an entire lifestyle. In fact Gorey almost seems to recognize and attempt underline to this notion.

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Or maybe the false cousin provides a better example.

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The book leaves him here, out in the water, soaking up the dead landscape. His ultimate perspective, perhaps, is of story’s end. An isolated object in a tattered, rearranged world, out of place and out of time, as the sofa slowly rots and gathers moss there by the lake edge and he sinks into the mud. Many of the characters are abandoned in this manner, stopping to regain some slow, last minute perspective that threatens to blink out of sight with the sun at the end of the day. We are visiting the book’s players moments before the final page is turned and its denizens petrify like headstones in the graveyard of their sweeping estate, and the stark backgrounds, if you look carefully, often feature some aimless character or object, as though they’ve been scattered there like dead and fallen leaves: the remains of the day. Gorey’s work is at its heart romantic, not simply because it adopts the form of a child’s picture book, but because Summer’s end is always a sad and nostalgic subject matter. And his *story*, like Autumn, is a confused affair: the lingering melancholy of the long, receding afternoon is rapidly encroached upon by a wintry insanity, intuiting the blazing blacks, greens and reds of our newly face-lifted pagan bacchanals – Halloween, bonfire night and a certain weird celebration involving a kid with the sun shining out of his head – and of course the dewy return of October’s strangest fruit, the psilocybin mushroom.

I think perhaps Gorey understands the real magic of the season we find ourselves in better than most. There’s a lot of talk about the golden melancholia, etc. of Autumn (alright, I don’t know if anyone ever said that, but it encourages that kind of talk), however very little is said about its eeriness. Sure, we have Halloween, only it’s sanitized to the point that I think we forget exactly why we’re celebrating it – why we’re playing footsie with the monsters. Gorey knows that behind the cosy romance of autumnal sadness lies distortion and death. There is menace there in the skeletons of trees. There is menace in the senility of Gorey’s outmoded aristocrats and the missing legs. There is menace in the strange woman dressed in a funeral gown haunting the edges of the story. There is menace in Madame O and the false cousins secret rendezvous, the vastness of the mansion with its shadowy doorways, the vacant, abandoned mise-en-scene and who killed the vicar?

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Ultimately the culprit is not the point. It is the absence that is important – the gaps between the rickety windowsill and windowpane, through which the chill that rattles our spine can pass. Not so long ago, I stole a line from Harold Pinter to wrap up my essay on the brilliant Jim Woodring and his white gloved Disney abortion, Frank. Pinter described the unsettling happenings in his plays as representing ‘The weasel under the cocktail cabinet’, or the absurd, creepy and grotesque hiding behind the white picket fence of suburbia. And what interests me is the ritual space that allows for this evil shit to manifest. Take a look at anything by Pinter, or Lynch, and it becomes obvious very fast that their work inhabits the blurry edges, where the everyday, taken to its extremes, and, perhaps, peeking around it, becomes monstrous, magnified and soul-warping. In Pinter’s play, The Dumb Waiter, two would-be assassins wait in a tiny basement beneath a restaurant for their target to arrive. Strange instrutions are wheeled down to them by someone upstairs. Nothing makes sense: the mission, the increasingly bizarre messages, the shadowy presence above, the darkness surrounding their tiny, lamp lit hub of cricketing conversations and arguments over the football… There is a brooding menace to the piece, loaded with the suggestion that the world we attempt to force to make sense, sometimes by the barrel of a gun, is really deeply, deeply crinkly and tattered, and fixed meanings are just a clever disguise adopted by the jabberwockies of an altogether slipperier reality. Outwith the cosy cocktail party of the hitmen’s enforced banality and their little room, you almost sense the architecture of the restaurant sloping off into the Lovecraftian geometries of an Escher painting. Pinter demands that we live in an inbetween, liminal universe, every second of our lives a detournement. Anyway, hold on one sec! – there is a point to this little detour – because I think the dreary umbras and deserted landscapes Gorey’s so obsessed with reflect a similar pentagram into which the weasel can be summoned. Gorey gives you the sense, in that his locations are so remote, so lonely, his cross-hatching so wooded and dense, that we’re wandering the forgotten places. That we’re at the world’s end. The threshold where the madness can clamber in.

His books are often characterised by an intrusion into his characters’ lives by an alien presence, but, as I said above, there’s always the suspicion these entities have been invited in, like a vampire. That they are in some way desired- that the atmosphere permeating the fictional space and the beings therein allowed for it. The delicious thing about his fiction is that Gorey was never prepared to properly define it or its purpose. Is it for children? Is it for grownups? He fails to posit a concrete reader, and because of this, whilst his books do possess a comforting quality, there’s also the feeling that everything could go very, ummm, wrong, in the same vein as the original Bros Grimm stories. The children could get eaten, the stately, noble family driven mad by their ghastly midnight guest. In fact these kind of outcomes are invariably the case. The madness generally triumphs, slipping through the open door of Gorey’s queered notions of readership: we may be *adults* on the surface, but Gorey knows our secret fears concerning the beaked monstrosity skulking at the end of our bed at night.

The Object Lesson, however, does not concern itself with home invasions by blank eyed, snouted muppets or puppet-devils fresh from backstage at the haunted Punch and Judy show, rather it is a wallowing in the aforementioned atmosphere permeating Gorey’s diegetic spaces – the dreadful incantation allowing for these horrors to manifest. In this sense, then, it is the truest articulation I can think of of Gorey’s worlds, his work and the energies he attempts to drum up. It’s pretty much all ambience, and of the most deranged kind. The bizarre entity haunting the margins is the story itself and Gorey eschews any attempt at personifying this particular weasel. In could be that he’s revealing the Doubtful Guest‘s real identity: a cold, inhuman non-presence lurking behind the veil of understandings we attempt to impose on a world that is slipping away moment by moment. Like Lynch, Gorey’s work lurches from humour and pathos to icy dread in a heartbeat, often incorporating this disturbingly ambivalent juxtaposition of emotional elements within a single frame. He understands the romance of meanings’ end, but also the horror accompanying its deterioration. The stern Edwardian instruction embedded in the title of The Object Lesson is in fact a joke at instruction’s expense. The lesson is a funeral, where we may mourn and reminisce and be struck by dread and life’s absurdity simultaneously. And beware….

The invader may burst shrieking from the corner at any second.

Tonight, while you’re sleeping, the landing will extend into the vastnesses of Gorey’s cavernous mansions and the blackness of those untouched rooms. The city outside will be smothered by the greying shroud of his fields and hills.

Behind the corner, beneath the cracked paving stones, it lies there waiting.

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6 Responses to “Through the cracked paving stones: an *enjoyment* of Edward Gorey’s ‘Object Lesson’”

  1. sean witzke Says:

    This is maybe my favorite post ever on this site.

  2. Beth Says:

    love your post

  3. amypoodle Says:

    Thanks Beth.

  4. Kat Says:

    this is a brilliant analysis, and quite a pleasure to read I might add.

  5. Memories, so sad | Under the Sign of Sylvia II Says:

    [...] to Gorey, We would read The Object Lesson together, The Unsung Harp was a favorite. He said the central character reminded him of me. I’ll say [...]

  6. Spencer Says:

    Exceptional. Thank you for this insightful piece.

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