Musings on “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”
“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears…” That initial couplet, announcing the untimely demise of twenty-six very unfortunate children, has amused and horrified readers – often concurrently – for fifty years.
In 2013 we celebrate the golden anniversary of the publication of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Edward Gorey’s most iconic alphabet book and likely his best known work. Its images have graced postcards and posters, magnets and mugs: for Gorey lovers and for novices, affection for the Tinies endures. Indeed, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, over its fifty-year history, has never, ever, been out of print. The doleful moppets made their initial appearance within Simon and Schuster's 1963 slip-cased publication of The Vinegar Works. The Gashlycrumb Tinies was included with two companion volumes – The Insect God and The West Wing – billed by Gorey as "Three Volumes of Moral Instruction."
The Edward Gorey House museum in Yarmouth Port, MA is honoring this milestone with its 2013 annual exhibit devoted to The Vinegar Works and a focus on the Tinies alphabet treasured by Gorey readers the world over. The Gashlycrumb Tinies has, in fact, been published in ten languages other than English.
What is it about this masterwork that has kept our attention for a half-century despite condemnation that it is far too dark? Perhaps A. Robin Hoffman said it best: "...the most horrifying thing about The Gashlycrumb Tinies may be that which it declines to show." The text tells us that events have occurred. However, the accompanying art only sets the stage for the tragedies. With “P is for Prue trampled flat in a brawl,” we see neither violence nor mayhem. The masterful Gorey instead shows vulnerable Prue reaching to open the door of a saloon bar. The horror inside waits: the reader is left to complete the action, filling in the pieces leading to Prue's fateful conclusion. Gorey has cast his readers as the villains knowing that we will draw the events of her demise within our own imaginations.
But akin to crouching behind the chair while peering out at a B-horror movie, the Tinies' reader can always close the book – and shut out the impending doom. Yet Gorey has toyed with us. Could it be that instead of presenting us with the blood and viscera that make up much of popular media that Gorey felt no need to go so far? Perhaps he has tweaked us by presenting us only with the possibilities of disaster - and that is quite scary enough, thank you.
So celebrate the anniversary with us and indulge your inner child that likes a good fright. Curl up with a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Buy yourself a new one because yours is faded, or stained, or worn out – or perhaps you loaned yours and of course it was never returned. Whether you are hard-core enough to buy a Tinies lunch box and send your kid off to school with it, is strictly up to you. We won't judge.
Edward Bradford & Patrice Miller