The Delightfully Macabre Picturebooks of Edward Gorey

Jamie Gomersall, MLitt Student

For a number of years, I have had a peripheral awareness of Edward Gorey’s work, but it was not until last Christmas that I received my very own copy of one of his books. Since then, I have fallen in love with his work. His gothic sensibilities, morbid sense of humour, and plots that frequently involve mysterious deaths in old country houses, or children being lured away by bizarre creatures, are ingredients that make Gorey’s picturebooks a treat to read.

The first text of his I came across was a picturebook called The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), an alphabet book that lists twenty-six inventive ways in which a group of children come to a grizzly end. The book is amusing, in a macabre way, and illustrated with the beautiful pen-and-ink drawings that made Gorey famous. The Gashlycrumb Tinies displays many of the features one would expect from Gorey’s work, from the Victorian style of the fashion and the settings, to the rhyme scheme, and the prevalence of death as a major theme.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963)

One of the things I find most intriguing about Gorey’s books is that they feel as though they belong to another time. The black-and-white illustrations would not be out of place in an austere Victorian-era children’s book. So stylistically old-fashioned are some of his books that I was surprised by how recently he was working. When I imagined the author behind these strange texts, I envisioned a pale and sinister Edgar Allen Poe type figure, scribbling down these ghoulish tales by candlelight. Even the name, ‘Gorey’, seems to suggest such a character. It turns out that the Edward Gorey in my head didn’t quite match the real-life Gorey, a bearded and bespectacled gentleman who lived in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in a house he shared with his many cats.

Edward Gorey, at home with his cats. Photograph © Steve Marsel Studio Inc.

From 1953, up until his death in 2000, Gorey produced more than one hundred books, usually small hardback volumes with titles that are equal parts humorous and baffling, such as The Fatal Lozenge, The Glorious Nosebleed, and The Haunted Tea-Cosy. Though working in the twentieth-century, there is a definite nineteenth-century feel to his work, and in interviews he discusses having been influenced by writers of that period. He cites Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear as major influences, and that the tradition of British nonsense rhyme inspired much of his work. One of my favourite picture books by Gorey is an alphabet book called The Utter Zoo Alphabet (1967), which is certainly a descendent of the nonsense alphabets produced by Edward Lear. In this text, Gorey presents an A-Z of strange animals, from the Ampoo to the Zote, with short descriptions of each.

The Utter Zoo Alphabet (1967)

It is unsurprising that Gorey enjoyed a readership consisting of both children and adults. The books exhibit Gorey’s whimsical imagination, with fantastical creatures and suspenseful narratives that would pique the interest of child readers, while also having sinister undertones and an atmosphere of dread that adults such as myself are fascinated by. Not to mention, the illustrations are works of art in themselves. When asked why his children’s books were not as upbeat or colourful as those produced by his contemporaries, Gorey explained that he thought such work was tedious. He remarked, ‘Sunny, funny nonsense for children- oh, how boring, boring, boring’.[1] For Gorey, the edge of malevolence in his children’s books is what made them interesting. It might seem troubling that books like The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which depict the death of children with such relish, are read by children, but the deaths are often so absurd that they become more amusing than shocking. It is when the books have a foot in reality, however, that the result can be chilling. One such book is The Loathsome Couple, which I found particularly unsettling. The events in The Loathsome Couple are based on the Moors murders carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the nineteen-sixties. Published in 1977, it chronicles a fictional couple, Harold Snedleigh and Mona Gritch, who lure children to a remote villa to murder them, until they are eventually discovered and arrested.

I found the way in which Gorey used the picturebook format, one that is so keenly associated with young children, to present a subject matter that is so horrific, nothing short of jarring. Gorey himself stated that it was ‘by far my most unpleasant book’[2], and it is easy to see why. Unlike his others, which would please both child and adult audiences, The Loathsome Couple is distinctly for adult readers, at least in my personal opinion. The others I have been cheerfully making my way through; though chilling, are chilling in a much more enjoyable way.

While Gorey was inspired by Carroll and Lear, his work has in turn inspired children’s authors working today. Lemony Snicket, for example, exhibits a similar gothic sensibility in his A Series of Unfortunate Events novels, which also hinge on placing children in dire situations. Philip Ardagh’s Eddie Dickens novels similarly makes use of Victorian settings, and the accompanying illustrations by David Roberts are very evocative of Gorey’s. It is no wonder that Gorey has left his mark on children’s literature, as his books are so peculiar that they must surely leave an impression on those who read him. His books are fascinating little marvels, brimming with deliciously dark humour, and I would heartily recommend them to all.

The Epiplectic Bicycle (1969)


[1] Stephen Schiff, ‘Edward Gorey and the Tao of Nonsense’, The New Yorker, 9 November 1992, 84.

[2] Christopher Suefert, 2012. Edward Gorey Talks About the Utter Zoo (Mid-80’s Interview).

Postgraduate Open Day

Our second Children’s Literature Open Day for this academic year was held on February 8th 2017. It was a great chance to welcome visitors to Newcastle and to showcase the kind of work we do here at Newcastle. We were also lucky enough to welcome Costa Award-winner Frances Hardinge to Newcastle for a public event.

All about the Children’s Literature Unit

We kicked off with an introduction to the Children’s Literature Unit by Dr Lucy Pearson, who is just one of a great team of children’s literature scholars here at Newcastle. Professor Kimberley Reynolds (19th and 20th century children’s literature), Professor Matthew Grenby (18th century children’s literature), and Dr Pearson (modern and contemporary children’s literature) are at the heart of the Children’s Literature Unit, but they are joined by Creative Writing colleagues Ann Coburn and Zoe Cooper – both award-winning authors for children – and by a host of colleague whose work deals with children and childhood, including Professor Kate Chedgzoy (Renaissance childhoods), Dr Helen Freshwater (child performers and family theatre) and Dr Martin Dubois (Victorian nonsense rhyme and fantasy literature). This diverse team takes a whole range of approaches to children’s literature studies, but perhaps the most distinctive aspect of children’s literature at Newcastle is a common interest in historical approaches and book history. In different ways, CLU scholars are interested in how children’s books came to be and how they live in the world.

Alongside the staff who work in this area, there are of course our brilliant postgraduate students, who meet twice a month to share their work (and to create this blog!). Having a thriving group of scholars and students working on different aspects of children’s books means there is always someone to share your ideas with, a chance to learn something new, and a place to get a bit of moral support.

Studying at Newcastle

The Percy Building, home to the School of English at Newcastle University.
The Percy Building, home to the School of English at Newcastle University.

Two of our postgrads came along to share their experiences of Children’s Literature at Newcastle. Masters student Liam Owens spoke about the research he’s been doing on the MLitt in Children’s Literature. Liam says:

“Studying the MLitt is fantastic. It gives me the freedom to research the areas of children’s literature which interest me, and the structuring of the course means I’m able to write on as few or as many topics as I like. This term I’ve just completed a research assignment on the representation of the posthuman in the works of twice Carnegie winner, Patrick Ness. Now I’m in the middle of conducting research on digital story apps and arranging empirical research with a local primary school. Without the MLitt, I would never have been given the opportunity to research children’s literature in such diverse ways.”

One of the illustrations from 'A Monster Calls'.
One of the illustrations from Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (2011).

Lucy Stone spoke about her PhD research, which draws on the amazing archives at Seven Stories:

I was 13 and beginning to learn German when I first read Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971). The story stuck with me over the years. It was at the University of Cambridge while I was undertaking an MPhil in Education that I learnt of Seven Stories here in Newcastle where Kerr donated, along with the manuscripts of her published picturebooks and novels, her childhood drawings, paintings and writings. I was struck by their colour, light and life, which appeared to be in contrast to the childhood of exile I understood Kerr to have led, despite the light and warmth infused in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Newcastle University works in close collaboration with Seven Stories and I was very fortunate to be awarded first a David Almond Fellowship and now a Research Excellence Academy Studentship to study the Collection and find out how and why Kerr’s juvenilia resounds with such joy and shows a humanity and remarkable talent.

Seven Stories, National Centre for Children's Books,
One of Judith Kerr’s watercolours made as a child, included in her memoir Creatures (2013). You can view the original at Seven Stories.

Seven Stories and the Robinson Library

Students visit Seven Stories.

One of the most exciting aspects of working on children’s literature at Newcastle is our partnership with Seven Stories: the National Centre for Children’s Books. Archivist Kris McKie came along to share some details of the collection, which now represents over 250 authors and illustrators! You can explore the collection on the Seven Stories website, and if you’re interested in coming to work on archive material keep a look out for our annual David Almond Fellowships, which provide small bursaries to support work on the Seven Stories Collection.

The University’s Robinson Library also has fantastic children’s literature collections, including the Book Trust collection, and an extensive collection of modern and contemporary British children’s books.

Fantasy Worlds with Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge

We were beyond thrilled to finish our Open Day with a fantastic event with Frances Hardinge! Frances’ books are favourites here in the Children’s Literature Unit and when our partners at Seven Stories suggested we might be able to invite her for a joint event we were very excited. The event was an in-conversation with PhD student Aishwarya Subramanian, whose research on British children’s fantasy after Empire has given her lots of thoughts on fantasy worlds and the way that authors play with them.

Frances and Aishwarya in conversation.
Frances and Aishwarya in conversation.

The discussion ranged from the role of the YA writer to the place of the fantasy author in our current political context. Frances spoke about her interest in times of transition: many of her books focus on historical moments of change (the impact of Darwinism in The Lie Tree; the aftermath of World War One in Cuckoo Song) or feature actual revolutions (Gullstruck Island and Twilight Robbery to name just two!). These ideas of transition seem especially relevant now, and Frances spoke about her desire to encourage readers to ask questions and the pleasure of writing for young people, who are naturally given to this.


Frances also spoke about the flexibility of young readers, which affords her the opportunity to write books which don’t conform to any one genre. In merging genres, she also takes the opportunity to pull in lots of interesting ideas she’s picked up along the way – her approach to history was a great reminder of just how much fun research can be!

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Frances’ spontaneous recitation of the whole of ‘Jabberwocky’, which was word perfect. The poem helped to instil a love of language in Frances at a young age – one which has gone on to enrich and enliven her books. We can’t wait to see which worlds she wanders into next, and whether she finds a good use for place names such as Clenchwarton (a small village in Norfolk).

Find out more

If you’re interested in studying children’s literature at Newcastle, find out more on our children’s literature pages or contact one of the Children’s Literature Unit. If you’d like to know about future public events, join our mailing list.