There’s one person responsible for our generation’s fixation on messy hair, big eyes, and black and white striped clothing: Tim Burton. Since the release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, this filmmaker has shown us how horror can be utterly adorable. Through Jack Skellington, a ghoulish figure who discovers the magic of Christmas, we fell in love with these characters who were slightly terrifying but incredibly endearing.
Burton’s work is a reconfiguration of the frightening. His isolation of bizarre images –placing them next to unexpected situations– has provided a not-so-scary version of the dark and gothic. The tales found in the book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories showcase his writing. Each text is made up of verses, almost as enchanting as those by Dr. Seuss. The illustrations that accompany these stories play with the innocence of the words. While the book was written for children, it keeps the dark background the filmmaker is known for.
Behind this world of gaunt characters, there is a man whose talent inspired Burton: Edward Gorey. This American writer and illustrator did not only instill plenty of the macabre to his works, but also had a very unusual life himself. He had a great love of animal furs, which he eventually gave up to his concern for animal cruelty.
His isolated behavior and disregard for fame gave him cult-like success. His love of Victorian esthetic made the public believe that the elegant quotes placed in black ink next to his illustrations were written by a British author.
One difference between this artist and Burton is that he disliked having his work referred as macabre or creepy. Despite his books displaying the characters’ cruel denouements, he never portrayed any explicit violence. Gorey would use anxiety-driven situations to portray the sense of terror in his readers.
One case of this is in the tale of “The Doubtful Guest,” where a family is visited by a penguin-like bird who leaves audiences with a sensation of desperation despite the reluctant hosts' apparent indifference.
Gorey’s work was always accompanied by two constant elements: ballet and cats. In the author’s minds cats had the same grace in their manner as any ballet dancer.
Between 1953 and 1960 he illustrated the covers of books published by Anchor Books, resulting in one of the publishing house’s most successful collections. Despite most of these being of a scientific nature, Gorey’s designs fit perfectly with the theme of each text. It was during this time that he had the chance to collaborate with artists such as Andy Warhol and Milton Glaser.
The worlds created by Edward Gorey taught us that the marriage of innocence and terror can create a particular atmosphere of unexplainable anguish and restlessness. Yet in our current environment, these esthetic elements are part of the most beloved children’s tales.
If you're in the mood for more illustrations, check out these drawings on the melancholy of women or on the expectations placed on the female sex.
Translated by María Suárez