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Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey

My 500-page (!) biography, Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, the first full-length biography of the artist, writer, stage designer, playwright, and legendary eccentric, is out now from Little, Brown.


Gorey, who died in 2000 at 75, was the unequaled master of—of what? Gothic whimsy? Camp macabre? Existential black comedy in the Firbankian mode? Essentially unclassifiable, he was, at the end of the day (and it’s always twilight, in Gorey’s stories), simply, inimitably Edwardian. His influence reverberates in the novels of Lemony Snicket and Ransom Riggs, the movies of Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro, the fashion of Anna Sui and Kambriel, the graphic novels of Alison Bechdel, Sue Grafton’s bestselling “Alphabet Series” of mystery novels (inspired by Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies), the annual Edwardian Ball (an exercise in steampunk-goth cosplay inspired in part by Gorey’s work), and the fantasy lives of numberless fans who would live, if they could, in his obsessively crosshatched, amusingly lugubrious little worlds.

(Photo: Richard Corman; copyright Richard Corman, all rights reserved.)

In March, 2011, the The New York Times ran my feature on Gorey’s posthumous popularity and his mounting influence on pop culture:

Gorey was born to be posthumous. His poisonously funny little picture books — deadpan accounts of murder, disaster and discreet depravity, narrated in a voice that affects the world-weary tone of British novelists like Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett — established him as the master of high-camp macabre.

Told in verse and illustrated in a style that crosses Surrealism with the Victorian true-crime gazette, Gorey stories are set in some unmistakably British place, in a time that is vaguely Victorian, Edwardian and Jazz Age all at once. Though Gorey was a 20th-century American, he conjured a world of gramophones and cars that start with cranks, of boater-hatted men in Eton collars knocking croquet balls across the lawn while sloe-eyed vamps in cloches look on, and sinister things sink, bubbling, into the reflecting pond. His titles are instructive: “The Fatal Lozenge,” “The Deadly Blotter,” “The Hapless Child,” “The Haunted Tea-Cosy.”

That led, in turn, to a Publisher’s Weekly announcement of a book deal:

“Cultural critic Mark Dery’s first true biography of Gorey, one of the distinctive literary forces of the last half of the twentieth century, looking at his impact on children’s literature, illustration, and popular culture, to Michael Sand at Little, Brown, at auction, in a good deal, by Andrew Stuart at The Stuart Agency.”

Which gave rise, in the fullness of time, to the following critical notices:

One of the Best Books of the Year – NPR

“As a perfervid Goreyphile, I was a bit leery of a biography undertaking to spell out the details of his life. Did I really want to have the mystery solved? But Mark Dery drags the pond to revelatory result, contextualizing and analyzing Gorey, plunging into his obsessions, dissecting his sexuality, and even examining the philosophical import of nonsense while somehow managing to leave the central enigma radiantly intact. This is an absolutely riveting book about an utterly sui generis subject.”―Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

“The best biographies are the result of a perfect match between author and subject, and it’s relatively rare when the two align perfectly. But that’s the case with Born to Be Posthumous–Dery shares Gorey’s arch sense of humor, and shows real sympathy for his sui generis outlook and aesthetics. Dery’s book is smart, exhaustive, and an absolute joy to read… the biography [Gorey] has long deserved.”―NPR

“Smart and entertaining… brings us closer than ever to understanding a man devoted to enigmas.”―Washington Post

“Edward Gorey has been granted the most remarkable biography, one I believe he could have lived with. What was the likelihood that this singular genius could be restored, with such compassion and grace, within his whole context: Balanchine, surrealism, Frank O’Hara, Lady Murasaki, et al? This is a Dery Gorey book.”―Jonathan Lethem, author of The Feral Detective

“Provocative… Dery makes a convincing case that Gorey was the true godfather of Goth, inspiring a generation of pop culture memento mori, from the IMAX-scale nightmares of Tim Burton… to the travails of Lemony Snicket… Dery has set the standard for a comprehensive appraisal of his legacy.”―San Francisco Chronicle

“Gorey has found a superb biographer in Mark Dery… Some enigmas aren’t meant to be solved–but they can be usefully illuminated. That’s just what Dery does in this excellent book.”―Seattle Times

“Edward Gorey’s ardent admirers have long known there is something about his work one can’t quite pin down. Past all reason, Mark Dery has pinned it down. A genius book about a bookish genius.”―Daniel Handler, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events

“That sense of our ultimate aloneness in the world makes Gorey’s books as haunting as they are odd. Dery’s affectionate tribute to an artist who was ‘incomparably, unimprovably himself’ also shows Gorey evoking in his work feelings of alienation, longing, and dread that are perhaps more common than we like to admit.”―Boston Globe

“Mark Dery’s deep, clear-eyed biography of Gorey is so welcome. He pulls at the disparate threads running through Gorey’s art… and unearths the artist’s gay identity.”―NPR