Some Boing Boing readers may know Edward Gorey without knowing it. The author and illustrator of a 100 (or so) ironic-gothic, darkly droll little picture books with titles like The Beastly Baby, The Deranged Cousins, and The Loathsome Couple, Gorey was the inspiration for YA novels such as Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events books and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas owe him a creative debt, too. Gorey, who died at the age of 75 in 2000, wrote mock-morality tales and nonsense verse, typically set in Victorian or Edwardian England and dealing, inevitably, with murder, mayhem, and Acts of God, all recounted in a deadpan that never cracks though it manages, even so, to insinuate a kind of camp-macabre subtext into events. More often than not, tots get the axe, as in his most famous work, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an abecedarium that recounts the deaths of 26 little dears in rhyming couplets (“B is for Basil/ assaulted by bears…”) His texts are accompanied by pen-and-ink illustrations so intricately crosshatched and stippled they fool the eye into thinking they’re antique engravings, perhaps by the nineteenth-century printmaker Gustave Doré or John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.
A polymath who taught himself to read at age three and left a personal library of some 20,000 volumes when he died, Gorey was a man of ungovernable intellectual passions, hardly missing a performance, over three decades, by George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and taking in a thousand films in one notable year of wall-to-wall moviegoing. One of his lesser-known interests was the occult, a fascination that crescendoed in the late ’60s, when the cultural atmosphere was thick with Eastern mysticism, New Age philosophy, pop astrology, and bestselling accounts of supernatural phenomena, whether fictional (Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby, about devil worshippers in ’60s New York) or purportedly real (Hans Holzer’s paperback books on paranormal activity).
In the following excerpt from my just-published biography, Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey (Little, Brown) (available on Amazon), we learn of Gorey’s dalliances with divination and his creation of a cryptic, portentous tarot of his own, The Fantod Pack.
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The December 1966 issue of Esquire featured “A Chthonian Christmas,” the sort of holiday feature Gorey was often asked to do—to his undying vexation, no doubt, given his detestation of holidays. This was the golden age of magazines, and Esquire was riding high, its ad-fat issues overstuffed with the innovative New Journalism of zeitgeist dowsers such as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, fiction by heavy hitters such as Norman Mailer and John Cheever, and celebrity profiles. At 360 pages, the December 1966 issue had an editorial budget that could easily afford witty frivolities like the Fantod Pack, the Gorey tarot that was part of “A Chthonian Christmas.” “A Chthonian Christmas”—the Goreyan adjective means “of, or relating to, the underworld”—includes eight Gorey cartoons. In one vignette, a trio of children finds Father sprawled beside the hearth, throttled with a Christmas stocking. In another, a man, confronted by the December days left on his wall calendar, eyes his gas range speculatively. Behind the black humor, we detect a whiff of the loneliness that’s only made bleaker by other people’s holiday cheer.
The centerpiece of “A Chthonian Christmas” is a two-page gallery displaying the Fantod Pack, a set of twenty tarot cards designed and illustrated by Gorey. (The Fantod Pack has been published as an actual pack of cards in various versions. It first appeared in 1969, in pirated form, as a cheaply produced deck released by the Owl Press. In 1995, the Gotham Book Mart published a quality edition. The most recent version is the laminated, crisply printed set produced by Pomegranate in 2007.) As late as 1969, his interest in esoteric matters was still going strong. “In answer to your queries,” he wrote his friend and collaborator the children’s book author Peter Neumeyer, “of course I believe in graphology, also palmistry, the I Ching, the tarot, astrology, and all those other delicious things you can find in places like thesaurusi (can that be the plural? No, it can’t, it must be thesauri), which turn out to mean prognostication by means of snail tracks or something.” Gorey’s “belief,” it should be noted, wasn’t a literal faith in the oracle’s prophetic powers. The Taoist in him thought it might be one of many ways of tapping into the Tao, while his inner surrealist hoped it might prove useful in accessing the unconscious.
Gorey didn’t intend the Fantod Pack to be taken all that seriously, but like most of his jokes it hints at hidden truths. After all, he chose the images that make up his Major Arcana, handpicking them from the visual lexicon of characters, objects, plants and animals, and landscapes that recur in his work. (The Major Arcana are the tarot’s trump cards.)
Like Magritte’s surrealist painting The Key to Dreams (1930), the Fantod Pack is an inventory of unlike things whose only connection is their role in the artist’s personal mythology: urns (“The Urn”); the bearded, fur-coated, hypermasculine gent (“The Ancestor”); dead, dying, and ill-used children (“The Child,” a grinning skeleton tot pulling a wooden animal on wheels); the Black Doll (which, unlike the other nineteen trumps, bears no title and has no explanation beyond “In the words of the old rhyme: What most you fear / Is coming near”).
On the back of each card, Figbash—an inscrutable creature with a long-beaked, featureless face, a squat, short-legged body, and impossibly long arms—rides a unicycle while balancing a platter on his upraised hands. On the platter sit a skull, a chalice, and a candle, barely more than a stump but still burning—memento mori rich in occult associations, though their spookiness is undercut by Figbash’s antics.
Each of the Fantod Pack’s cryptic images dares us to uncover its meaning. But one card, “The Bundle,” suggests that the key to Gorey’s dreams will always elude us. A bulky package tied up with a latticework of ropes, it calls to mind The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920), a surrealist object created by the photographer Man Ray in homage to Ducasse’s deathless line in Les Chants de Maldoror (a proto-surrealist novel written under the nom de plume Comte de Lautréamont), “beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” In Ray’s case, we know what’s inside the lumpy blanket tied with twine: a sewing machine. The contents of Gorey’s bundle, on the other hand, are unknowable.
To those who believe that “eroticism is all-pervasive, almost claustrophobic, in [Gorey’s] little books,” as the author of one magazine profile asserted, “The Bundle” will invite the obvious Freudian reading: a stifled sexuality, kept tightly under wraps. At the same time, it has a huddled, abject look; its outline strongly suggests a shrouded figure with its head on its knees—the universal posture of despair. Like the rest of Gorey’s “great secrets,” it’s an arcanum whose purpose is to remain arcane.
Image: “The Bundle.” The Fantod Pack. (Gotham Book Mart, 1995)