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“GASHLYCRUMB TINIES,” The Original ABCs of Death

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by: Samuel Zimmerman on: 2013-02-01 16:56:17

It’s a timeless precursor to everything from the wicked grin
of FINAL DESTINATION’s elaborate doom to the morbidly humorous goth teen angst
now sold fervently in suburban malls. While certainly not the first to reveal a
sense of gallows humor about imminent death, Edward Gorey’s GASHLYCRUMB TINIES
hath endured, influencing the likes of Tim Burton and Clive Barker and
reassuring that even as we suffer the little children to come unto the Grim Reaper,
it’s quite alright to crack a smile. 

Small in stature itself, Edward Gorey’s abecedarian book
reimagines one of our earliest means of education in fine black and white
illustration, rhyming the deaths of twenty six children by varying means—many,
simple mistakes. “A is for Amy,” it begins, “who fell down the stairs.” As if
the entirely probable, everyday fear of a little one—perhaps our own—taking a
tumble is a tad too pervasive, Gorey immediately follows with something a bit more
grandiose. “B is for Basil assaulted by bears.” Axes, leeches, modern living
and home décor all clasp their hands around Kate, Fanny, Una and more. It’s a
big, scary world out there and the miniscule frames of Gorey’s brood are no
match.

Released in 1963 by an author who spent a great deal of his
life in Massachusetts, it’s not hard to imagine many readers mistaking Gorey
for a Briton. From his artistic aesthetic, to Death’s top hat and umbrella, to
the children’s names—Clara, Ida, Maud, Neville—their tea dresses and small
suits, and their health-related passings (fits, wasting away) Gorey paints a
positively Victorian picture in GASHLYCRUMB. Aside from being his natural
inclination (other works like THE DOUBTFUL GUEST and THE OBJECT LESSON also
carry the style) GASHLYCRUMB’s recalling of an 1800s English mindset and
setting is the perfect frame.

A so-called “cult of the child” had taken hold of artistic
and intellectual circles in the back half of the nineteenth century, as the
likes of painter John Evertt Millais and authors Charles Dickens and Lewis
Carroll (whose own fascination with idyllic children, without proper context,
came under much scrutiny) illustrated, wrote of and greatly enjoyed the company
of the young they so perceived to have an ethereal quality. Close to godliness with
innocence untainted, children were depicted in portraits and serene scenes,
admired endlessly—that is, until they hit 10, or so. They were not alone,
however. The aforementioned, much as artists do, expressed a larger phenomenon
at work. Author Jackie Wullschlager writes in her exploration of the Victorian
obsession, INVENTING WONDERLAND, “men such as Carroll, Ruskin, Dickens and
Kilvert took the Victorian romance with childhood to an extreme, but everywhere
in nineteenth-century society and art a fascination with childhood is apparent.”

While obsession is no longer quite the right word, there’s
an undeniable pedestal children have found themselves on in the ensuing years. Filled
with an innocent grace, tragedy befalling the young remains a crutch in drama
and a touchy topic to broach in horror, going so far as to be completely turned
on its head via killer kid films. THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES manages to both adhere
to a certain reverence of children, killing its characters off before they’ve
had a chance to sully their purity, and retroactively give the Victorians a
reason to clutch those pearls. The entirety of the time, it’s morbidly grinning
from ear to ear, backed by a light, nursery rhyming air.

Is the tiny odyssey of lettered death educational, as
well?  It would seem so. Barring two out
and out murders (Kate, struck with an axe; Hector, done in by a thug), nature
and pure happenstance are the real culprits of the iconic work. Such is death,
so it goes and so everyone who reads it knows. There’s a laugh to be had in the
certainty of our end, and Edward Gorey has undoubtedly helped many find it.

So, before you settle in to the truly outrageous THE ABCs OF
DEATH, might we suggest you prime your young ones and future horror hounds with
THE GASHLYCRUMB TINIES?

 

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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