The Doubtful Guest, written and illustrated by Edward Gorey

Published 1957
Review by Tim

The little fellow pictured here has haunted me since childhood, though I have long since forgotten the exact circumstances of our acquaintance. The creature would appear in my mind at odd intervals, sparked by some more or less random association. This happened more often once I started watching the PBS series Mystery!; the drawing style used for the animated credits that opened and closed the show were strongly reminiscent of the creature and its reluctant hosts. This, by the way, was no mere happenstance - I'll have more to say about that later.

It was not until a year ago that I learned again the title and author of the story. I was browsing the humor section at a local bookstore here in Santa Fe, when I happened across a dozen or so books by an artist named Edward Gorey. These books contained drawings of people that matched stylistically the images I carried inside my head. I leafed through all of the books, searching among the quaintly old-fashioned and occasionally macabre drawings for the creature I remembered so vividly, but couldn't find it. At this point I wasn't at all sure that the similarities weren't coincidental. Then, just yesterday, I ran across Gorey's work again, this time at a bookstore in Albuquerque. And there, hidden amid more substantial companions, I found a slender volume that bore on its cover my creature of memory. It was titled The Doubtful Guest.

The story is told in a set of fourteen whimsically rhyming couplets, like a Dr Seuss book, each occupying a single page opposite a drawing that illustrates it perfectly. The illustrations have a Victorian manorial feel. Terraces are surrounded by stone railings, supported by pear-shaped balusters. Fluted stone urns rest on squat, substantial pilasters. Tall doors and windows pierce the great stone walls. Indoors, the walls are covered by flowered wallpaper above a dark wooden wainscot. The clothing and furnishings are also old-fashioned, and the overall effect is reinforced with a shading style that makes the drawing resemble an antique lithograph.

The star of the story, of course, is the "doubtful guest" itself (Gorey refers to the creature as "it" throughout the book - since there appears to be only one of its kind in the world, I suppose its sex is immaterial), which appears late one "wild winter night" at an ordinary family's home, and will not go away. To my mind the creature's form is perfect, if for no other reason than that it has stuck in my mind so tenaciously all these years. The creature has about it a lugubrious solemnity that makes its weird mischief all the more hilarious.

Edward Gorey died last April of a heart attack, at the age of 75. My knowledge of the artist and his work is limited; however, in preparing this review I learned a few things that I'll pass on. You may have formed the impression by now that Edward Gorey is a writer of children's books, but this is not the case. He has published over 70 works, most of which are far more substantial than The Doubtful Guest. While his work is often macabre, it is never morbid. Gorey's connection to Mystery! was mainly to allow animator Derek Lamb to adapt his work to the credits, plus some small assistance in designing the sets used by Vincent Price and Diana Rigg. I understand that he also created a handful of animated short features for use on the show, though I have never seen these. Gorey also worked in both professional and amateur theatre, and designed the sets for the Broadway revival of Dracula in 1978.

October 2000

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