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
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|
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
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?|