When Edward Gorey Designed Book Covers for Classic Novels: See His Ironic-Gothic Take on Dickens, Conrad, Poe & More

Twen­ty years after his death, it’s cool­er than ever to like Edward Gorey. This is evi­denced not just by the fre­quent post­ing of his inten­sive­ly cross­hatched, Vic­to­ri­an- and Edwar­dian-peri­od-inflect­ed, grim­ly com­ic art on social media, but by the num­ber of artists who now claim him as an influ­ence. Where, one won­ders, did they come across Gorey in the first place? Hav­ing pub­lished more than a hun­dred books in his life­time (if often in small runs from obscure press­es), he cer­tain­ly put the work out there to be found.

But it was the much more well-known books of oth­er writ­ers like Charles Dick­ens, Joseph Con­rad, T.S. Eliot, and Her­man Melville that first prop­a­gat­ed Gorey’s sen­si­bil­i­ty of, as The New York Times’ Steven Kurutz puts it, “camp-macabre, iron­ic-goth­ic or dark-whim­sy.”

Gorey designed the cov­ers for these books and oth­ers between 1953 to 1960, when he worked at the art depart­ment of pub­lish­ers Dou­ble­day Anchor. He had been tasked specif­i­cal­ly with their new series of paper­backs meant to be “seri­ous,” as opposed to the abun­dance of cheap, low­brow, and often sala­cious­ly pack­aged nov­els that had inspired the term “pulp fic­tion.”

Of the first 200 titles in this series, says Goreyo­g­ra­phy, “about a fourth of these have line drawn cov­ers by Gorey.” Even when oth­er artists (the line­up of whom includ­ed Leonard Baskin, Mil­ton Glaser, Philippe Julian, and Andy Warhol) drew the illus­tra­tion, “Gorey then designed the fin­ished prod­uct lend­ing a uni­form appear­ance to the whole line.” You can see a vari­ety of Gorey’s Dou­ble­day Anchor paper­back cov­ers at Lithub, the most Goreyesque of which (such as Joseph Con­rad’s The Secret Agent at the top of the post) not only bear his illus­tra­tions but con­tain noth­ing not drawn by Gorey, text and colophon includ­ed.

“When these cov­ers first appeared against the back­drop of mass-mar­ket cov­ers in gen­er­al,” accord­ing to Goreyo­g­ra­phy, “they were hailed as ‘mod­ern’ and ‘arty.’ Print mag­a­zine praised ‘a feel­ing of uni­ty… a qual­i­ty of their own.’ ” The end of Gorey’s time at Dou­ble­day did­n’t mean the end of his work on oth­ers’ books: in the 1970s, for exam­ple, he con­tributed suit­ably eerie cov­er and inte­ri­or art to John Bel­lairs’ young-adult nov­el The House with a Clock in Its Walls and five of the sequels that would fol­low it. It was in Bel­lairs’ books that I first encoun­tered the visions of Edward Gorey. More than a few read­ers of my gen­er­a­tion and the gen­er­a­tions since could say the same — and also that we’ve been plea­sur­ably haunt­ed by them ever since.

See more cov­ers over at Lithub.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Edward Gorey Illus­trates H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in His Inim­itable Goth­ic Style (1960)

Lemo­ny Snick­et Reveals His Edward Gorey Obses­sion in an Upcom­ing Ani­mat­ed Doc­u­men­tary

Edward Gorey Talks About His Love Cats & More in the Ani­mat­ed Series, “Goreytelling”

The Best of the Edward Gorey Enve­lope Art Con­test

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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