"The early baby boom grew up with him," Dery said. "Boomers have now grown up, had children, and raised those children on Gorey." In other words, an only child who didn't have any children of his own shaped the consciousness of a generation of young readers.
Lee Wierenga, the Pennsylvania-based curator of "Elegant Enigmas," was one such child. "I learned my ABCs from The Gashleycrumb Tinies," she told me. A reporter once asked how that education affected her. "I said, Well, I'm not twitching and drooling!"
Wierenga values Gorey's clever playfulness and the trust he places in the reader to grasp what's left unsaid. Gorey always left important details tantalizingly, ominously vague: the moment of the Gashleycrumb children's deaths, the particulars of a sex act known only as the "Lithuanian typewriter" in The Curious Sofa.
What remains is a menacing humor, which Dery locates somewhere between "camp gothic" and "ironic macabre," though Gorey shrank from those terms. "Neither of those catchphrases drives a pin through the wriggling death's head moth [of Gorey's sensibility]," Dery says.
However elusive Gorey's humor may be to describe, it is uniquely suited to the present moment. "The time seems right for Gorey in a way it hasn't in the past," he says.
Among Gorey's most visible present-day ambassadors are the Baudelaire children, the downtrodden heroes of Lemony Snickett's fantastically popular children's books, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snickett — the pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler (Gorey was also fond of pseudonyms) — is "absolutely unabashed in his devout Gorey fandom, and will happily admit that Gorey inspired the very idea of A Series of Unfortunate Events," Dery says.
Those who missed the Baudelaires might have read or seen the animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman's young adult novel, Coraline, the story of a little girl pursued by button-eyed doppelgangers of her parents. And for those who willfully ignore the children's market, there's Tim Burton's blithe morbidity, the archaic industriousness of steampunk, the gloomy shrouds of creepy sister designers Rodarte, and the menacing crinolines of Anna Sui. Collectively, Dery sees these as "a harmonic convergence of data points that seem Gorey-esque."
For as many disparate data points that Gorey influences in our time, an equal number of far-flung cultural influences reached him in his. "This is a man with deep familiarity with Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book — works of Japanese literature that are thousands of years old — but who also owned an exhaustive videotape collection of seemingly every Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode," Dery says.
In trying to convey the way in which Gorey consumed culture, Dery compares him to French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, a magpie, and the director John Waters. He categorizes Gorey's sensibility as proto-postmodern: just as Buffy has become a television classic, intellectuals who don't scoff at it have become the norm.
In addition to Buffy, Gorey had a predilection for low-budget horror films and crap television. Whenever Gorey found an interview too boring or too personal, he'd start talking about The Golden Girls. It was his favorite show.
Eugenia Williamson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original version of this article stated that Mark Dery's biography of Edward Gorey would be published by Alfred A. Knopf. This version reflects the correct publisher, which is Little, Brown and Company.