Mar. 3rd, 2011

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This article in the New York Times is a fun account of Edward Gorey's work but it's grossly remiss in not mentioning that Gorey illustrated one of my favorite childhood books, The House With a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs.

It's a real shame that Bellairs lived at a time when children's books never topped the bestseller lists and writing for children was a far more workaday occupation, not the path to superstardom and outlandish wealth that it can be today. I have no doubt that writers like Bellairs made a very good living off their work, but I'm sure none of them ever collected paychecks like J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyers. I have never heard Rowling mention Bellairs as an inspiration, but from my very first reading of Harry Potter, I thought she must have been familiar with his work -- Bellairs' atmospheric series of novels about an awkward orphan boy who discovers that he belongs to a family of wizards combating the resurrection of an all-powerful "dark lord" were just so similar to Rowling's premise, if not her execution.

Along with Bellairs, another childhood favorite was Zilpha Keatley Snyder, whose work I see very much echoed in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy. It's funny, and also kind of sad, that today a young-adult author can build a huge following off just one series, while writers like Snyder churned out dozens of novels in relative obscurity to anyone over the age of twelve.

As for Edward Gorey himself, I've adored his work since I first saw it, which I'm pretty sure was in Bellairs' books. There's something in his illustrations that often can't be explained -- black humor, of course, but also something genuinely frightening, even the ones that are not overtly macabre. They have the quality of some of the best ghost stories and worst nightmares, the sort where you can't put your finger on exactly what's wrong, but you just know that something is, and terribly so. You can't just look at Gorey's drawings, you have to stare at them, always imagining that if you just study them closely enough, you'll finally figure out why that curtain, or that picture frame, or that bit of hedge in the background is making you shudder. But you never do.


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January 2012

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