Pictures: The ghastly world of Ogdred Weary

The dark, appallingly funny works of Edward Gorey are finally being published in Britain. Not before time, says Ian Irvine, who met the septuagenarian genius, balletomane and recluse at his house on Cape Cod
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By the age of 40 most of us have absorbed as much culture as we can stand. Oh yes, every year there'll be some new films, perhaps a play, probably a few novels, a CD someone recommended, but mostly we live off the capital stored up in our culturally voracious teens and twenties. We don't keep up and the familiar becomes habitually preferred to the new.

Edward Gorey isn't like that. I spent a day with him at his house on Cape Cod soon after his seventieth birthday, and his conversation revealed the curiosity and enthusiasm of a precocious teenager. After a lifetime of rapacious reading and looking, he was still as keen to discuss new novels by Michael Ondaatje and Peter Ackroyd or his recent interest in early Renaissance art as he was the works which impressed him in his youth. And to his great knowledge of early cinema he has added an equal expertise in US television soaps and sitcoms. From such disparate resources is distilled his cosy/sinister brand of deadpan hilarity.

Gorey, a writer and artist of genius, is now 73, and it's more than high time that he was better known in this country. The Doubtful Guest and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which Bloomsbury are now publishing, are just two of more than 50 small illustrated books which Gorey has written, and his work also includes award-winning stage and costume designs, illustrations for books by TS Eliot and Samuel Beckett, posters, post- cards and toy theatres. Though the style ranges from plain line drawing of Japanese assuredness to dark and manic crosshatching, everything, from his earliest published volume, The Unstrung Harp, onwards, is instantly, unmistakably his - products of an imagination as powerful as Aubrey Beardsley's or Magritte's.

Though it's hard to generalise about a body of work featuring characters as diverse as serial killers, hapless orphans, dim authors, young balletomanes, guests at an orgiastic house party, homicidal insects, heavy Victorian fathers, inanimate objects and lugubrious imaginary animals, they are all creations of a mind vastly stocked with, and inspired by, literature and art. Nature doesn't get a look-in when measured against the diverse influences of Ronald Firbank, Evelyn Waugh, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll or the Surrealists.

Ghastly things often happen in his stories, but he prefers to imply than to show the particulars. As in the novels of one of his favourite writers, Ivy Compton-Burnett - in which unspeakable crimes more common in Greek tragedy appear amid the rigid decorum of a Victorian family household - the revelation is made more devastating for the rationing of detail.

Thus in The Curious Sofa: a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary (one of Gorey's many anagrammatic pseudonyms) the erotic adventures, with men, women and sheepdogs, of a young woman named Alice are hilariously presented without the slightest impropriety being shown or described. Two-thirds of the way through, the bare caption "Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan" chills with its nonchalance and prefigures the horrible, nameless finale.

Gorey was born in Chicago in 1925, the only and much adored child of a newspaper reporter and his beautiful wife, a government clerk. At the age of three he taught himself to read - a feat which he is still at a loss to explain. He recalls his childhood as happy and normal, although his parents moved house a great deal: by the age of 11 he had attended five schools. After high school he managed only one term at the Art Institute in Chicago before being drafted into the army in 1943. On his discharge in 1946 he went to Harvard, where he majored in French and shared a room with Frank O'Hara, later the most celebrated poet of the New York School. He worked in various publishers' art departments through the Fifties, but when fired as art director from one in 1961 he didn't bother to find another job: he had enough freelance work and had already published his first four books.

The overused title of "eccentric" can confidently be applied to Gorey. He is the stuff of which legendary anecdotes are made. After moving to New York in 1953, he became renowned for his attendance at every performance of the New York City Ballet, evening and matinee. He retired only after the death in 1983 of the company's great choreographer, George Balanchine, which he took as a cue to leave the city permanently for Cape Cod. (Ballet, a great love, has directly inspired a few of his works - The Lavender Leotard, The Gilded Bat - and, more generally, the figures in his stagey tableaux often assume Balanchine poses.)

Night after night, Gorey would appear at the theatre, tall and bearded, wearing a full-length fur coat under which he wore blue jeans and tennis shoes, his hands heavy with rings. Throughout his work versions of Gorey himself appear, often beset by gloom or angst, while in person he is charming, unneurotic and remarkably youthful- looking.

Despite his obvious Anglophilia, he has never visited England - indeed, has only once left America. He took a cruise across the Atlantic which visited the Scottish Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland without putting in on the mainland. The trip had been inspired by a desire to see the Hebridean setting of the Powell and Pressburger film, I Know Where I'm Going, which starred Wendy Hillier.

Nowadays Gorey leads a reclusive life in Yarmouthtown on Cape Cod. In his large house, filled with many, many books and an uncertain number of cats, he also keeps his collections of finials, wrought-iron utensils, driftwood and stones. He also makes, handsews and stuffs creatures from his imaginary bestiary, such as the melancholy Doubtful Guest.

When not drawing, he writes, directs and stages dramas to be performed by local amateurs. At the time of my visit he was writing one in clerihews, a fiddly verse form, based on the life of local girl Lizzie Borden - the celebrated 19th-century murderess who gave her father and mother 40 and 41 whacks respectively with an axe. As he once insisted, only half-jokingly, in an interview, "I write about everyday life."

The Gashlycrumb Tinies' and `The Doubtful Guest' are published by Bloomsbury at pounds 5.99 each