"Don't even ask me about my favorite movies!" Edward Gorey exclaims near the end of our conversation about The Haunted Tea-Cosy, his first major book in nearly 25 years. It's an irresistible invitation. So Edward Gorey rattles off an impressive list that begins with early Alfred Hitchcock ("His later films got so bloated, don't you think?") and ends with Jackie Chan's newest, Rush Hour, which Gorey has seen the night before my call ("Hilarious!" he says, laughing).
Where, I wonder, is the supposedly eccentric recluse of Cape Cod I had been led to expect? True, the writer and illustrator of almost 100 brilliant, darkly funny tales for adults and children has greeted me by announcing, "I have nothing to say." But he quickly launches into an amusingly exaggerated version of how The Haunted Tea-Cosy came to be.
"If the truth were told, and I'm not sure that I want it to be, the New York Times magazine called me up about this time a year ago and said they were going to do a modern version of Dickens's Christmas Carol. They wanted me to be one of five people to illustrate it. I said, 'Okay, send me the manuscript.' A week or so passed, and they called me again and said, 'Everyone here is so thrilled that you want to work on it that they want you to do the whole thing.' I should have realized that everybody else had turned them down, but I said, 'Okay, send me the manuscript.' A few more weeks went by, and they sent me a paperback copy of the Christmas Carol. There was no manuscript. I thought, 'Oh tish tosh.' So I sat down and wrote this dizzy little book. It was published in the magazine. After Christmas, Harcourt Brace called me and said, 'Oh, can we do the book?' and I said 'Okay.' I re-colored the book in a manner which nobody else would know the difference but me, and there you are."
The new book, subtitled "A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas," is not quite the offhanded production Gorey would have us believe it to be. His many fans will find here the same indescribable mix of humor and terror, learned and obscure references, verbal play, and artistry that has enchanted and perplexed us for years.
"I used to spend a lot of time anguishing over these things," Gorey says. "As the years have gone by, I've found I prefer not to suffer when I'm working. Somebody once said that it doesn't much matter whether you're conquering an empire or playing dominoes, it's just another way of passing time. Now I think first ideas are just as good as endless revisions. Of course, most of my drawing is considerably more meticulous."
His drawings, Gorey says, have been heavily influenced by 19th-century illustrations, his sensibility by Jane Austen and 19th-century English novels, among others a partial explanation for why his books seem to carry the aura of distant era. But Gorey is also unreasonably interested in surrealism and Dada. At Harvard in the 1950s, after a stint in the Army on the fringes of World War II in the Utah desert, he roomed with the poet Frank O'Hara and was friends with the poet John Ashbery. "We were all very interested in being avant garde. John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara were especially good at discovering people nobody else would hear about for years."
Gorey now thinks nothing new has happened since 1914. "You could probably push that back to 1885." Still, his unreasonable interest continues to lead him into strange places. "At the moment, I'm reading an absolutely incomprehensible book about visual poetry from 1914 to 1928. I saw it for two dollars in a catalog, and I thought, oh well, I'll give it whirl. Apollinaire and a bunch of Catalonian poets I have never heard of (and I can understand why) were doing these kinds of visual poems. The author, who is from a university in Illinois, has written an endless book analyzing these vaguely visual poems. You know, page after page after page. And I think, oh, surely not!"
So why read it? Gorey says he may soon produce some visual poems of his own. "I've also fiddled around with collages lately. I'd always been afraid to attempt them because I was so stunned by Mr. Ernst's collages. My attempts are all very minor, but they're different from anyone else's. It's something I can count on: no matter what I start out copying, it ends up looking completely different, so that nobody will have the faintest idea where it came from."
For the last 15 years, since giving up his apartment in New York and moving to Cape Cod, he has been also been seriously involved in the theater. "I'm sort of pushy about my theater stuff," he says. "I just did a puppet show this summer. Half of it was a parody of Hamlet; the other half was the plot of Madame Butterfly. I got carried away and had a great time absolutely mangling everything!"
Gorey seems to have read everything. He's in and out of the local bookstores once or twice a day and never leaves empty-handed. (He notes that the carpet in the local chain bookstore seems mainly designed so that it won't show vomit—an observation that will surprise no one familiar with the elaborately patterned backgrounds of his drawings.) His music CDs number in the thousands, replacing thousands of cassettes, which replaced thousands of LPs, he says. If there's one thing he misses about New York ("I always found New York terribly provincial"), it's the live performances. But Gorey's pleasures and enthusiasms recounted with humor and irony seem to sustain him now that he lives far from New York. Moreover, they insinuate themselves into his work in fascinating ways.
So what is the source of the more disquieting aspects of his work? "I don't really like to talk shop," Gorey says. He is self-deprecating about his drawing ability, claiming in fact that he can't draw very well at all. "I don't think I ever knew that I was an artist," he says. "I'm not even sure that I know that I am one now." Suddenly one senses a vast reserve within the man, a private place entirely his own, off limits to others. Maybe this is what people mean when they hint that he is eccentric and difficult.
As it happens, our conversation begins less than 15 minutes after the humiliating broadcast of President Clinton's grand jury videotapes concludes. "About a month ago, I decided I would give up the news the way I gave up smoking," Gorey says. "I have not looked at a newspaper, and I have not watched one second of television news. The whole world could be coming to a complete and utter stop, and I wouldn't have the faintest notion of it."
For some reason, I tell Edward Gorey that there are dozens of Web sites devoted to him and his work on the Internet. "I'm the perfect little cult figure," he says somewhat disconsolately. "I really do feel we're getting so far from reality. I'm getting to the point where I'm hoping we'll go back to something primitive as soon as possible. I find myself wondering at what point a cult becomes a major religion? "
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California.