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The MYSTERY! of Edward Gorey

Derek Lamb spent many afternoons with the amazing Edward Gorey. Here he discusses the contradictions of an intensely talented man.

(left to right) At his home, Edward Gorey with Derek Lamb. All photos courtesy of Derek Lamb.

"About the Zote what can be said?There was just one, and now it's dead."

Once upon a time, 1925, there was a child born in Chicago named Edward St. John Gorey. What destiny lay in store for an EDWARD GOREY? One might only speculate. And even then... if the name doesn't tip you off nothing I say is likely to.

Many years later...

I'm driving along a Cape Cod road, a freshly baked lemon cake on the seat beside me, peering up and down the street looking for Edward's address. I find it. Park. Walk through the overgrown garden and ring the doorbell of a two hundred year-old stone home. The door is flung open, after all... I am expected.

Ted (as Edward liked to be called in the 1980s) has dark, moody eyes and a full, white beard. He greets me with his familiar sideways glances and leads me into the kitchen, brushing aside numerous cats from chairs and counter-tops. I proffer him the cake, already imagining a generous slice with a cup of tea. To my astonishment he holds the cake at arms length, panic in his eyes as if he'd been handed a ticking bomb, and with a lightning-move, his six-foot-plus frame reaches up to a high kitchen cabinet and flings the cake inside, slamming the door shut. And with that handled, we sit and talk per-our-usual for several hours -- or more accurately, Ted talks, avoiding any mention of our impending animation deadlines. And I listen..., and listen..., who wouldn't? Monologues on TV soaps, as always, insightful, engaging, funny, bizarre. And his favorite puppet show Alf (how he adored Alf!). And the time flies by with no sign of tea, and not another word about the cake. That was Ted.

"...They sat down to a meal of corn flakes and treacle, turnip sandwiches, and artificial grape soda..."

Original title sequence art.

It all started in 1980 when my friend Joan Wilson, creator of PBS's Masterpiece Theater had a brainstorm. Her idea was I might animate the opening titles for her new series, MYSTERY! based on Edward Gorey's style. It was a brilliant idea.

"I think it was the day after Tuesday and the day before Wednesday."

Gorey and I met in Joan's office at WGBH, Boston. I was morbidly curious (I'd heard a rumor he had two left hands). As a way of introduction I screened my Oscar winning film Every Child; a bittersweet story produced for UNICEF to celebrate the "Year of The Child." When it ended, Gorey remained silent and still. What did he think of it? With his back to me, still in his viewing posture, he said in a chilling voice, "I L I K E I T. IT'S S O S I N I S T E R."

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"To catch and keep the public's gazeOne must have lots of little ways."

Gorey had arrived at the meeting with a fully scripted idea for the title sequence, an intriguing concept using a Victorian children's puppet theater. Unfortunately the script timed-out at twenty minutes in length. Joan needed a mere 40 seconds. An impasse already.

"They spent the better part of the morning murderingthe child in various ways."

I recall there were some arguments, some serious pouting and a lot of staring out the window. Would the project go any further?

"Morose, inflexible, aloof, the Thing hovered just above the roof."

Joan was patient and diplomatic, suggesting that Edward let me go through his books, ponder his genius and come back with an alternative approach. And thus agreed we parted.

"The light was fading from the day, the rest was darkness and dismay."

In Montreal, with my small animation team, I poured over fifty or more Gorey classics, The Doubtful Guest, The Curious-sofa, Sopping Thursday, The Glorious Nosebleed.... He drew so well, so precisely, an exquisite pen line. His writing and drawing skills rivaled that of his heroes Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Aubrey Beardsley. The elegant staging of his images had the influence of his spiritual Master, dance choreographer George Balanchine; Gorey admitted to seeing every New York performance Balanchine staged for thirty years.

But what was the real fascination of Gorey's work? Take The Loathsome Couple, in which a man and women meet, fail at their efforts of copulation, but discover their mutual interest as serial killers of young children.

"Over the next two years they killed three more childrenbut it was never as exhilarating as the first one had been."

His work seemed inspired by the worst of human nature and of the highest forms of art. This was the contradiction I believe Gorey presented in his work, and he did it over and over. As readers we become enticed with the sheer brilliance of his art....then to find he's delivering us a reminder of the darkest sides of ourselves; or in the words of Edmund Wilson, "It is poetry and poison." We are fascinated and repelled.

"He dazzles us, but can we trust,these pictures drawn upon the dust?"

Scenes and characters for our animated titles developed faithful to Gorey. I created a series of innocent moments, which would allow the viewer's mind to imagine many sinister details. The first episode of MYSTERY! went on the air in the fall of 1980 and various title versions have continued since. Whatever Edward thought of it all he typically never got around to telling me; but without a doubt the exposure of the Gorey name on PBS for twenty years brought a much wider public to his work.

"Be loath to drink Indian Ink."

I was very sad to hear of Edward's death, to read the obituaries and remembrances that came from all over the world; on NPR, Terry Gross re-played an interview and there was his voice again, alternately enthused and bored; all the contradictions; at one moment talking about his beloved TV soaps and the next confessing he%

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