I'm not usually a book collector in the typical sense of the word. I care about content, not presentation. If there's any kind of price gap between the cheapest edition and the nicest one, I'll go for what's cheapest, and while I prefer a pristine copy to a worn one, I can make do with creases to save a few bucks. And I've never much cared about signed books. What exactly do you do with an author signature, after all, apart from looking at it once or twice for a few seconds? But Edward Gorey, now, he seems to be different.
There are practical reasons to prefer the first editions of some of Gorey's books; they tend to be sturdier than later printings, and to better match his own presentation preferences. But even if that weren't the case, I would want first editions, and while I wouldn't pay a lot extra for a signed copy, I'd pay more than is usually the case. There are, I think, two reasons for this. The first is that there's something about Gorey's works that almost demands a noticeably worn book. It's so refined, so antiquated, so vaguely Victorian, that bright white pages and a fresh binding seem wrong. The second is that Gorey's style is so unusual, so eccentric and distinctive, that one feels one is buying an encounter with a mindset as much as a printed book. (That's the kind of sentiment I would hate in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, but with Gorey it's just true.) A signature, the knowledge that the author handled this book, heightens that sense of encounter.
But what is Gorey's sensibility? I have to be careful in describing it, because his work is easy to caricature, and if I make it sound like generic macabre humor, people might do what I did for a long time, and say, "I'm not at all interested in that." Perhaps I should start with a quote, from The Unstrung Harp. On this page, the novelist Mr Earbrass has just dropped the manuscript of his novel off at his publishers:
Mr Earbrass escaped from Messrs Scuffle and Dustcough, who were most anxious to go into all the ramifications of a scheme for having his novels translated into Urdu, and went to call on a distant cousin. The latter was planning to do the antique-shops this afternoon, so Mr Earbrass agreed to join him. In the eighteenth shop they have visited, the cousin thinks he sees a rare sort of lustre jug, and Mr Earbrass irritatedly wonders why anyone should have had a fantod stuffed and put under a glass bell.That is all the text on this particular page; the facing page contains this illustration:
There's a lot to admire here. The humor of the publishers being named Scuffle and Dustcough, of course, though that's a bit obvious, the kind of joke that wouldn't mean much if it were Gorey's full range. But his sense of the absurd is much keener. It's not just the translation into Urdu; it's the formal language in which it's described: "most anxious to go into all the ramifications of a scheme." There's the notion of going to call on a distant cousin, with its air of old-fashioned etiquette, and the inherent retrospective quality of antique shops. Not to mention the faint ridiculousness of the detail of the eighteenth shop. And then words like "lustre jug" and "fantod," which have a suggestive sound even if you don't know what they mean. The elegant, the disturbing, and the random: these are the components of Edward Gorey's world.
I'm not much on visual art, so I can't particularly comment on Gorey's drawings, except to say that they have much the same quality as his prose: fine detail, simple elegance, and an air of oddness or gloom that is subtle yet inescapable. The oddly shaped heads of all the characters in this book are bizarre, and yet somehow perfect for its atmosphere, as is the distinctive fashion sense, parallel to Gorey's own.
Nothing much happens in The Unstrung Harp, which deals with "the unspeakable horror of the literary life." This plotlessness is common in some of Gorey's books. In others, disastrous things happen with alarming regularity. One of his most shocking works is The Loathsome Couple, a picture book detailing a fictionalized version of the Moors Murders. He is perhaps most famous for The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet (one of many Gorey wrote in his fifty-year career) in which each letter is the name of a child who dies in a macabre or ironic way. Apart from The Unstrung Harp, my personal favorites include The Listing Attic, a collection of limericks, of which the jacket copy says, "“The majority are macabre, some are nearly pointless, and five are written in what the unwary may take to be French;” The Fatal Lozenge, an alphabet of rhyming quatrains ("The Baby, lying meek and quiet/Upon the customary rug,/Has dreams about rampage and riot,/And will grow up to be a thug."); The Remembered Visit, a melancholy story about things forgotten and left undone; The Blue Aspic, featuring an unhappy dancer and her obsessive fan; The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, a send-up of the elements of the country-house murder mystery; and The Other Statue, a book that seems random and may perhaps turn out to be less so.
For those interested in dipping into Gorey's work, your best bet is the four Amphigorey collections, each of which contains at least fifteen individually-published works. Gorey himself was ambivalent about the Amphigorey volumes, which can put as much as four pages of the original onto one oversize page. It's certainly true that this format encourages one to read too quickly, speeding through books rather than savoring detail and mood. Reading The Unstrung Harp in individual form, I noticed little touches I had missed the first time around (that the rejected cover for the fictional book of the same title is the actual cover of the real book; that there are legible words on the rejected sheets scattered around Mr Earbrass' desk; the sheer humor and faint sense of loss conveyed by the words "Bloaters? Angus?"). But for those who aren't sure they want to pay $15 for a 64-page picture book, the Amphigorey omnibuses ($19 to $22) are a fine sampler, from which one can select books one would like to have in individual form. (The list I compiled yesterday has 20 items on it, some of which, alas, are available only in signed limited editions that I can't bring myself to pay for.) In the end, I suppose, the particular effect of Gorey's work is so indescribable that I can only recommend you check it out for yourself. Don't read for narrative, because you won't find it. Take things slowly, and learn to appreciate the method of his nonsense. Believe me, it's worth it.