The Unstrung Illustrator; or, Mr. Gorey Writes a Novel

by maxmosher

Before vampires became the default emotional porno for teen girls, Emily the Strange rubbed shoulders with Hello Kitty at the mall, and the fantastic cartoon of Beetlejuice introduced kids to the dark side each Saturday morning, Goth subculture must have started somewhere. It’s so established as a scene, so codified as a look, that it’s hard to imagine its beginnings. Who was the first cool girl (or guy) who combed vintage stores for clothes that could look Victorian, who gave themselves kohl-eyes and pale skin when everyone else was tanned and blushed, who found a wholly new way of freaking out old people? How did it start?

The origins can be traced back at least to 1950’s and 1960’s America when, as one interview subject in a documentary about Jim Henson (who had a dark side himself) put it, a “sick humour” came into fashion. That’s when the cartoons of Charles Addams depicting an unnamed family (the mother looked like a glamorous witch, the father Peter Lorre) who lived in a derelict mansion and mildly threatened their neighbours, were popular enough to inspire a TV show. For all their eccentricities, the Addams Family was really about making fun of average people, a funhouse mirror for mid-century suburbia. “It’s the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive,” Gomez says, looking out on a torrential rain storm, making one consider why sunshine should inspire this sentiment rather than a hurricane. And Morticia on the telephone channels June Cleaver: “Oh, we can’t do anything on Friday. It’s the 13th, you know!” The classic 1990’s movies continued this aspect, as the viewer relates to the eccentric Addamses and laughs at conservative, blonde, Republican families.  

In 1953, Finnish actress Maila Nurmi, who was a hatcheck girl on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, drew inspiration from Morticia  Addams’ slinky gown for a costume she wore to a masquerade ball. Spotted by a TV producer, he hired her to host a late night horror movie show, and thus she became Vampira. Maybe her Gothy persona allowed her to be more overtly sexy than was normally allowed on TV. Her acting is enshrined for us in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, often considered the worst movie ever filmed.

Also in 1953, the first book by an artist who would inspire Goths, while always staying separate from them, was published in a limited run by Duell, Sloan and Pearce. Edward Gorey, who had majored in French at Harvard, had no formal art training, but for the rest of the 20th century, averaging one book a year, he would create one of the most atmospheric and beguiling (as one critic put it, wholly improbable but utterly convincing) worlds ever put on the page.

The Unstrung Harp; or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel is both a fitting introduction to Gorey’s world and an unusual one. What little plot there is concerns Clavius Frederick Earbrass, who is “of course, the well-known novelist” writing a book also titled The Unstrung Harp. Mr. Earbrass, like all the men in TUH (uncharacteristically for Gorey, no women appear, neither vamps nor veiled mourners) has an elongated head somewhat resembling a foot. Other than a flurry of illustrations featuring similar-headed personages from the early 1950’s, published recently as postcards, Gorey would never draw people like that again.

Foot-headed men aside, the remarkable thing about the illustrations for TUH is how early Gorey had mastered his cross-hatched pen and ink style. He already had the tendency of including the smallest of details (a mislaid tea-cup, an air balloon in the distance), but still leaving the viewer feeling there is more to discover. While Gorey’s drawing style would change (he increasingly used a bold, blotty ink style which, by the end of the 1990’s, suggested unschooled ‘naive’ folk art), it’s incredible is how little Gorey’s fabricated universe changed in the years after TUH.

Here it is, already fully-formed in 1953, the mysterious, eerie and vaguely melancholy (but drily funny) Edwardian world of country houses, dinner parties, abandoned croquet games, imposing urns, cobble-stoned streets, book-lined studies, early evening drives past ruined fireworks factories, and, despite being given details such as Mr. Earbrass’ athletic sweater always being worn “hind-side-to”, the inescapable feeling that something is being left unsaid.

The aspect that most obviously separates TUH from the books which came later (which had little more than one sentence per drawing, and often had no words at all), is the sheer amount of writing. Each page has a short paragraph of description and Gorey’s sardonic voice was never better displayed:

“On November 18th of alternate years Mr. Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel’. Weeks ago he chose its title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book. It being tea-time of the 17th, he is alarmed not to have thought of a plot to which The Unstrung Harp might apply, but his mind will keep reverting to the last biscuit on the plate.”

 A critic once described Gorey’s books as being like tableaux or stills from a silent movie, with accompanying captures which are at once obvious and vexing, for his tendency to not describe any events not pictured. But TUH does this very thing, when we’re told that Mr.Earbrass leaned out his window into a strong wind for several minutes (an arresting image, one would think), but instead we’re  shown the novelist afterwards in his kitchen, “restoring himself” with a sandwich and glass of milk as he reads what he’s written so far.

“He cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on the bottle-tree was one of his better ideas. The jelly in his sandwich is about to get all over his fingers.”  

It is appropriate that TUH has more writing then any of his later books, because it is about a writer, the process of writing and the “horrors of the literary life”. One wonders how Gorey, who never wrote a novel, can so knowingly describe the curses that face storytellers.

“Several weeks later, the loofah tricking on his knees, Mr. Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.”

Of course, the plot of the fictional The Unstrung Harp makes no sense, seeming like a parody of Gorey’s work.

“Even more harrowing than the first chapters of a novel are the last, for Mr. Earbrass anyway. The characters have one and all become thoroughly tiresome, as though he had been trapped at the same party with them since the day before; neglected sections of the plot loom on every hand, waiting to be disposed of; his verbs seem to have withered away and his adjectives to be proliferating past control. Furthermore, at this stage he inevitably gets insomnia. Even rereading The Truffle Plantation (his first novel) does not induce sleep. In the blue horror of dawn the vines in the carpet appear likely to begin twining up his ankles.”

The horrors don’t cease when the book is finished; Mr Earbrass must write a clean copy of the manuscript (“not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratching-out, and scribbling, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness”); then, rather than give it to his publishers in London, he considers dropping the book into the river Thames. The cover design makes him apoplectic (“on any book it would be ugly, vulgar, and illegible. On his book it would be these, and also disastrously wrong”) and the reader smiles with recognition that the cover of the fictional The Unstrung Harp is the same as the one in hand. Even his six free copies do not cheer the novelist up as there are “at least three times that number of people who expect to receive one.”

“Buying the requisite number of additional copies does not happen to be the solution, as it would come out almost at once, and everyone would be very angry at his wanton distribution of them to just anyone, and write him little notes of thanks ending with the remark that TUH seems rather down from your usual level of polish but then you were probably in a hurry for the money.”

That little bit of passive-aggressive bitchiness shows a level of light social satire rarely seen in Gorey’s later books, and links him more in tone with his beloved E.F. Benson ‘Lucia’ books, about the gossipy machinations of inter-war English village faux-artistes.

In keeping with a book about words, Gorey closes TUH with a melancholy almost-modernist stream-of-consciousness ode to boredom.

“Mr. Earbrass stands on the terrace at twilight. It is bleak; it is cold; and the virtue has gone out of everything. Words drift through his mind: ANGUISH TURNIPS CONJUNCTIONS ILLNESS DEFEAT STRING PARTIES NO PARTIES URNS DESUETUDE DISAFFECTION CLAWS LOSS TREPIZOND NAPKINS SHAME STONES DISTANCE FEVER ANTIPODES MUSH GLACIERS INCOHERENCE LABELS MIASMA AMPUTATION TIDES DECEIT MORUNING ELSEWARDS…” 

The unsigned intro on the dust jacket of my Harcourt Brace edition, which refers to TUH rightly as a “small masterpiece”, describes the book as a look at literary life, writer’s block, and life in general. “Finally, TUH is about Edward Gorey the writer, about Edward Gorey writing The Unstrung Harp.”  I like this theory, and I love to picture the young Gorey, trudging around New York City in his famous fur coat, writing TUH as an inside joke for his bookish friends Doubleday (who he drew covers for in his early career), and not expecting to create a whole career from his little drawings. Who would have thought there was an audience?

When Gorey inserts himself in his work, recognizable by the fur jacket, the beard and the incongruous tennis sneakers, he’s always referred to as a writer, never an artist or an illustrator. While an appropriate introduction into the world of Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp can also be seen as the road not traveled. If the proportion of words to pictures of TUH had continued through Gorey’s other fifty-or-so books, he may have been as remembered as much a writer as a cultish but talented artist.

Post Script: Part way through writing this, I discovered that Wikipedia has an extensive history of the ‘Goth subculture’ which they didn’t last time I checked. It’s quite interesting, and focuses a lot on punk music, a pioneering aspect which didn’t cross my mind at all, as I am so not a music person. They claim Goths splintered away from punks in the early 1980’s and drew their inspiration for clothing, accessories and concert-decoration from campy horror movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like Gorey’s work, the whole thing was meant tongue in cheek, a bit of a joke, and it’s fascinating to consider how followers take scenes more seriously as they develop through the years.

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