Friday, October 9, 2020

Friday Fright Night 2--Gorey Night: Edward Gorey's Lost Dust Jacket Design for Margaret Erskine's Dead by Now (1954)

Well, dear readers, I see you have survived to week two of our Friday Night Frights!  (Or perhaps at this rate we should call them Saturday Shudders?)  Here are this week's spooky links.  Click them for ghastly literary insights, if you dare! 

Cross Examining Crime
Clothes in Books
Sweet Freedom
My Reader's Block
A Reading Life
Pretty Sinister (this is John Norris' piece from last week)


Although he has been dead for two decades now, author and book illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) lives on!

rejected jacket design for Margaret Erskine's
mystery Dead by Now by Edward Gorey

Dubbed high camp macabre, Gorey's work is well-known within the Gothic fiction genre and surely was a major influence on such younger artistic figures as author Lemony Snicket and filmmaker Tim Burton.  Indeed, before his death at century's end Gorey had become a minor celebrity with a devoted cult following. 

Less well-known, however, are Gorey's illustrations for mystery fiction.  In the next few days I am going to look at additional examples of Gorey's works within the mystery genre, but for now I want to focus on his design for the cover of Margaret Erskine's detective novel Dead by Now (1954)--some of his best cover work in my opinion, though ironically it was never published.  It sold in a 2016 auction for over $9000.

Despite his affiliation with horror (or camp horror), Edward Gorey grew up reading not masters of shudders  like HP Lovecraft but mystery mavens like Agatha Christie.  On a 1943 scholarship application he admitted that mysteries were "my favorite form of reading" and listed specific titles he had perused by John Buchan, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Dorothy L. Sayers, GK Chesterton and the indubitable Agatha.  Four decades later he avowed that "Agatha Christie is still my favorite author in all the world."  A few years before his death he estimated that he had read each of her books "about five times."  (See Mark Dery's excellent 2018 Gorey biography, Born to be Posthumous.)  

This revelation didn't surprise me so much, because I came to know Gorey on American television through PBS' Mystery! series, which debuted in the United States in 1980.  I used to watch this series, which was then hosted by Vincent Price (later the late Diana Rigg), with my parents in the early eighties, with the big television set on the corner of the brick fireplace and our drowsy Spitz dog Sheba curled up in a ball underneath it.  Gorey did the series' drolly spooky title sequences, which included a distressed, moaning woman in white on top of a high brick wall (see above).  Sheba, no lover of mysteries, would always prick up her ears at that part!

Doubleday's bland cover
In 1953 Gorey, then twenty-eight, moved to New York, where he had secured a job with the art department of publisher Doubleday, Doran.  That same year he submitted a design for the jacket to Margaret Erskine's detective novel Dead by Now, which was published by Doubleday, Doran's Crime Club reprint. 

It's a superb piece of work (see top pic, above left), immediately recognizable as Gorey with its black and white images of Victorian/Edwardian macabre.  Gorey in fact was ideally suited for Erskine, whose novels typically involve wealthy English families living in creepy old piles of decayed mansions.  Although Erskine published mysteries until 1977, her books often have an anachronistic feel to me, like they would be easily at home in pre-WW2 days. 

Additionally there often is, as is emphatically the case with Dead by Now, more than a touch of pitch, usually in the form of frightening spectral hauntings, or rumors of such.  Erskine herself grew up in a great haunted mansion in Devon.

Dead by Now concerns mysterious events around a private family theater, the Luxuria, constructed in neoclassical style back in the Victorian era for a retired stage actress, Rosette, by her doting husband, "a very rich gentleman by the name of Julius Cadell,"  in order to showcase Rosette's thespian talent.  Tragically, however, she expired from a fall down a theater staircase (or was she pushed?!), after which the desolated Julius hanged himself. 

Edward Gorey and friend: an illustration of the illustrator

Now, in the present day after the Second World War, the Luxuria Theatre seems to be haunted by Julius' ghostly presence, bowler-hatted with a bent neck.  Gorey's jacket beautifully captures this aspect of the story, but evidently it was too much for his employer, who opted instead for a flatter, much more utilitarian design by a Sam Fischer.  You can still see the ghost, but barely, and, honestly, from the picture you wouldn't even know that it's supposed to be a ghost (see pic above right). 

Pretty tepid, really.  Perhaps Doubleday was afraid that people might think the novel was a horror story rather than a mystery.  Apparently Gorey's jacket design was too atmospheric for its own good.

jacket design for English edition
of Dead by Now
No such doubt assailed Erskine's English publisher, Hammond, who published Dead by Now with a memorably macabre cover (see pic to left).  However, I believe that Gorey's fine handiwork survives in the content and design of the lettering of Doubleday's description of the book's plot (see pic below).  What do you think?

As for the novel, it's good Erskine.  The spectral stuff is nice if you like that kind of thing in a mystery (I do), but what I actually enjoyed most of all was the banter between Erskine's series detective, Inspector Septimus Finch, and the policemen of Grovely Wood Division, where Finch is temporarily in charge.  Finch is considered distinctly odd by the locals (the story gets round that he's a drunk who has fallen madly in love with the dead actress), and this is entertainingly portrayed by the author. 

In fact, I can't understand why Finch has been dismissed as a colorless sleuth.  To me he seems clearly to come from the Roderick Alleyn gentleman tec school, quoting poetry and everything, though he's not treated with unstinting adoration by the author.  He's just the sort of sleuth you'd expect to find on a case concerning a crook-necked ghost in a haunted theater.

the hand of Edward Gorey?


  1. Love Edward Gorey! I just finished reading the middle grade book The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost by John Bellairs which has a Gorey cover and frontispiece. And I've always enjoyed the Erskine novels I've been able to track down--unfortunately none of my copies have covers by Gorey.

    1. This would have been a fantastically collectible cover, had Doubleday, Doran actually accepted it! Their mistake, our loss. Yes, I love Gorey too. Such a mischievous sense of the macabre.

  2. The first adult-aimed collection of horror fiction I read was Henry Mazzeo's only book, apparently, the anthology HAUNTINGS, with illustrations by Gorey which, strung together on the book's dust jacket, tell their own quiet story. Doubleday by that point had the wit to accept the Gorey illustrations...and for whatever reason, the Enfield (CT) Central Library included it in the children's collection, which simply made it easier for me to find it in 1973.

  3. I too first found out about Gorey through a Mystery! opening (probably one of the later ones). It was actualy before I'd ever read or watched any sort of mystery, but the opening fascinated me. Later, after I'd developed my obsession with mystery fiction, I realized that the man who's art I kept running into and the man who did the Mystery! introduction were one and the same. I've been a fan ever since.

    I think that the editor at Doubleday must have been mad! Gorey's cover is so atmospheric, and the one they went with is rather forgettable. I think it's interesting how you can see the development of Gorey's style when comparing this cover with what came after. This cover is far more emotional and melodramatic than most of his later work.

    I've never read anything by Margaret Erskine but this sounds like a very fun novel. I've always been a sucker for macabre atmosphere and intimations of the supernatural in the mysteries I read. (Sorry for the overlong ramblingness of this comment. Brevity has never been my strong suit.)

    1. Erskine was actually reprinted in pb as late as the early 80s, by Bantam or Ballantine, but then she died and her books went oop, though they have maintained a following. The problem is they are getting hard to find on the used market! So I am trying to get her reprinted. It think if you like classic English mystery with spooky elements, you would like her.

      Yes, I love those Mystery! credits. I can hear that wailing woman now!

    2. Erskine getting reprinted would be great! When I was looking at her books online, almost all of them were either overpriced, in bad shape, or so nebulously described that I could never be sure just what I was buying. For one of her novels the French translation was cheeper than the English paperback!

    3. There are often problems reprinting books just after the author died: if there are several heirs the problem of finding them all and getting permission to reissue the books can overwhelm publishers, especially if they aren't big sellers.

    4. Yes, you used to see a few pb titles in the used bookstores, but it would be really nice to bring them all back, as even those copies are getting hard to find. Fingers crossed!

  4. Thank you for bringing this cover designer and author to my attention. Erskine rings a vague bell, but she's definitely not a writer I have tried before. Do you think she is an author I would enjoy?
    Also cool to know you had a Spitz dog. My Mum has a medium sized German Spitz called Duster.

    1. Duster, what was the origin of the name I like it. Sheba had a tail like a feather duster. Actually had two spitzes, Schatze was her mother. German for sweetheart though when Dad was in the army in Germany he said it was also slang for prostitute.

      I have been enjoying Erskine, she seems to me definitely in the Sayers-March-Allingham-Heyer school, though she plays up the Gothic elements more. Her books have become hard to find so I have been seeing about getting her reprinted.

    2. Duster was a rescue dog, whose previous owner had died. His name was originally Buster, but he didn't seem to really suit it and my Mum was not keen on it, so she just changed the first letter. As you say their tails are rather duster like.
      Glad to hear you're on the case for getting Erksine reprinted. It means I stand some chance of getting to try her work!
      I am going to be reading Too Many Bones by Ruth Sawtell Wallis next week, which I think you wrote the introduction for (?). Looking forward to trying her work.

    3. Confirmation of the different psychologies of dogs and humans: an old lady I knew took over a Yorkshire terrier - middle-aged in canine terms - whose owner couldn't look after him. She immediately changed his name and had him castrated.
      He adored her.

  5. In high school there were a group of us who were Gorey fanatics. The first Gorey book I bought was The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, his homage to Agatha Christie and written shortly after she died. The name in the title is an anagram of his name like many of the writer characters he created. Slowly I started accumulating his books when I'd find them, then I graduated to collecting books with Gorey artwork on the DJ. Right after Gorey died there was huge demand for his early books. I was forced to sell a lot of them when I was out of work back in the late 90s, theater work was scarce, I couldn't get any office temp jobs and bookselling was my only means of income.

    1. I never bought any of his books, but I did get several of the mysteries where he did the cover illustrations. You can always tell when it's his work, so distinctive!

  6. I have always liked Gorey, and I love the pictures here, and your helpful overview.

    1. I'll be posting more jacket scans before Halloween!

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