Monday, 4 May 2015

Edward Gorey: The Dark Soul Haunting John Bellairs

I've recently rediscovered John Bellairs' "Johnny Dixon" mystery series, which I absolutely loved as a child. The stories have their cheerful moments, but for the most part they are dark and genuinely creepy. Set in 1950's Massachusetts (the same setting as a lot of Lovecraft's lore) the stories feature young Johnny Dixon and his best friend, the fantastically named Professor Roderick Childermass, encountering the forces of darkness.

There are two things that make the "Dixon" novels scary: the sheer terror that Johnny Dixon, the protagonist, feels as he is thrust from one grim scene to the next, and the illustrations by Edward Gorey. Have a look.

The boy isn't even afraid anymore. Gorey did ghosts wonderfully.

"Somewhat unreal" indeed. Gorey's line style for the fog is nothing less than elegant.

Gorey and his ghosts. This phantom woman is still feminine, even in death, while the sleepers are terrified and helpless.

A recurring motif of Gorey's style is victimized children. Check out "The Gashlycrumb Tinies" to see more.

Gorey uses pen and ink for most of his work, rarely delving into colour or even ink washes grey tones. His work looks like a starker, bleaker version of Charles Adams', which was already famous for its macabre humour.

Gorey illustrates desolate settings featuring frail and helpless subjects, and his pairing with Bellairs was nothing short of sublime. His drawings for the "Dixon" series do more for me than just "set the mood"-- it paints the inside of my skull with the same black ink of Gorey's, preparing the darkly lit stage for Johnny Dixon to inch out on. Here are some more covers.

Some characteristics of Gorey's covers for the "Dixon" books are that the protagonists are usually facing away from the viewer, are thin and weak looking, and the supernatural characters-- like the skull in the "Sorcerer" cover or the robot just above-- are looking directly at the viewer, giving an unsettling, eerie feel of danger.

Later releases of Bellairs' "Dixon" books don't feature Gorey's illustrations. Maybe it's because both men have both passed on and there's some kind of legal thing inhibiting the publishers (or something.) But it's a shame. While Bellairs was no doubt a talented writer, the "Dixon" books are seriously diminished by Gorey's loss. 

It's amazing how much more a book becomes with the right illustrations and cover.

-An abandoned Tumblr page focused on Gorey's work.
-John Kenn's blog, a spiritual successor to Gorey.
-Another successor? Tim Burton.
-A Wiki devoted to John Bellairs.

Skulls, fur coats and Victorian clothing are further motifs.

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