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'Born To Be Posthumous' Brings Edward Gorey's Name To His Work

Even if you don't know his name, you're probably familiar with the work of Edward Gorey.

His art formed the basis of the animated introduction to the PBS show Mystery!, and he was the twisted mind behind The Gashlycrumb Tinies, the dark alphabet book that gleefully listed the names of doomed children and how they met their ends ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears"). Gorey, with his gloomy sensibility and defiantly retro art style, was the man who launched a thousand goths.

Gorey is undeniably one of the most influential American writers and illustrators of the last century, but until now very few people knew much about him (and he liked it that way). Enter Mark Dery, the writer and cultural critic, whose fascinating new biography of Gorey, Born to Be Posthumous, paints a near-exhaustive portrait of an author who "was inscrutable because he didn't want to be scruted."

Gorey's reclusiveness and reticence to talk about his personal life led to many misconceptions of the artist. "During his lifetime, most people assumed he was British, Victorian, and dead," Dery writes, relating a joke his fans circulated after his death in 2000. "Finally, at least one of the above was true." His style was unambiguously English, and he used British spellings; his fans were sometimes shocked to hear him speak in his flat Midwestern accent.

Dery's book traces Gorey's life starting with his childhood, which he spent mostly in Chicago. Gorey didn't much like discussing his youth, but Dery does an excellent job piecing the author's early days through yearbooks and interviews with family and friends.

He uses the same approach detailing Gorey's college years at Harvard, where the writer "struck an effete pose. He affected a world-weariness and tossed off deadpan pronouncements with a knowing tone, an irony he underscored with broad, be-still-my-heart gestures." (This is one of several passages where Dery seeks to suss out Gorey's sexual orientation.)

Dery ably chronicles Gorey's career, which started with the artist designing covers for Anchor Books, and continued with books of his own — "deadpan accounts of murder, disaster, and discreet depravity with suitably disquieting titles." He writes about Gorey's later years with a mixture of humor and poignancy, tracing Gorey's footsteps around Cape Cod, where he took his meals at the same diner and watched a heroic amount of television (The Golden Girls and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer were favorites). Gorey died in 2000, only having been to England — and then, only to Heathrow Airport — once, which might come as a shock to the man's legion Anglophile fans.

Gorey was hard to get to know, which is why it's such an accomplishment that Dery is able to paint such a complete and nuanced portrait of the author. "Gorey was a man full of locked rooms whose art is about what isn't said and isn't shown," in Dery's estimation, as well as an "irrepressible gloompot." Dery also does an excellent job describing the influence Gorey had not just as an author, but something like a fashion icon: "Though he'd shudder to hear it, Gorey was the original hipster, a truism underscored by the uncannily Goreyesque bohemians swanning around Brooklyn today in their Edwardian beards and close-cropped hairstyles — the very look Gorey sported in the '50s."

But where Dery truly shines is in his analysis of Gorey's many books and other works of art. He takes deep dives into even the most minor and forgotten of Gorey's literature, which Dery describes as "Victorian in its repression, British in its restraint, surrealist in its dream logic, gay in its arch wit, Asian in its attention to social undercurrents and its understanding of the eloquence of the unsaid." Dery leaves no literary stone unturned; he dedicates as much text to Gorey's ephemeral works as he does to hits like The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

The best biographies are the result of a perfect match between author and subject, and it's relatively rare when the two align perfectly. But that's the case with Born to Be Posthumous -- Dery shares Gorey's arch sense of humor, and shows real sympathy for his sui generis outlook and aesthetics. Dery's book is smart, exhaustive and an absolute joy to read.

"The man was a walking paradox," Dery writes of Gorey. He was also a treasure of American literature, and Dery has given him the biography he has long deserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.