Little children don’t enjoy many happily-ever-after moments in Mr. Gorey’s Neighborhood. In fact, they almost always meet a dark and unexpected demise. Take young Ernest, who choked on a peach, or his book-mate Fanny, who was eerily “sucked dry by a leach”.
The unfortunate children are two of 26 characters in one of Edward Gorey’s most popular creations, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” – an alphabetized picture book of kids who fall down the stairs, get sucked into a mire, or tossed from a sleigh. More to the point, they’re examples of the dark humor you’ll find when touring the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port this season.
“Hapless Children: Drawings from Mr. Gorey’s Neighborhood” explores the artist’s not-so-gentle treatment of children, said Gorey House curator Gregory Hischak. And yes, the clever subtitle is an intentional play off the benevolent nature of public television’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Edward Gorey was a prolific artist, writer, book illustrator and even a celebrated stage designer, who created the sets and scenery for the long-running Broadway production of “Dracula” during the 1970s. And while many know him as the quirky animator of those shadowy figures who tangoed through the intro for the PBS “Mystery!” series, Gorey was also highly sought illustrator of children’s books during the 1950s and ’60s. Amid his rising popularity, he took to creating his own books, which he intended as a children’s literature, Hischak explained. Unfortunately, publishing houses didn’t see the work as suitable for youngsters, so Gorey frequently resorted to self-publishing. Many of his works, like “The Hapless Child” and “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” became favorites of adults and children – much in the way that Lemony Snicket stories and Tim Burton’s dark animations found cult status some 30 years after Gorey’s work.
“The Hapless Children” exhibit features work from the 1950s through the ’90s, including some original drawings on loan from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust in New York, Hischak said. And while the collection may be fascinating, the macabre content begs the question: Is it suitable for families with kids?
The answer is an unequivocal yes, says Hischak. Kids are resilient, he said. By age 7, most are ready for Edward Gorey’s books.
The Edward Gorey House is a 200-year-old sea captain’s home on Strawberry Lane, which was purchased by Gorey in 1979 after the artist spent multiple summers with his aunt in Barnstable while working in New York. Gorey moved to Yarmouth Port about six years later and lived in the home for 15 years, until his death in 2000. In his later years, Gorey was fond of visiting auctions, yard sales and estate sales around the Cape, and he collected everything from books and kitschy artwork to shabby-chic furniture, gaudy jewelry, antique glassware, and old farm implements.
If you want to see the exhibit and tour Gorey’s home, reservations are highly recommended as the Gorey House is limiting attendance to a dozen people at a time, due to safety concerns amid the pandemic. Face masks are mandatory, Hischak said, as is safe, social distancing among patrons exploring the 14-room house. After Memorial Day, the museum will likely bring back docents to answer questions and conduct formal tours through the home, he said.
A visit to the Gorey House, including a stop to pore over books and intriguing items at the museum store, should take an hour to 90 minutes, so you might look for a second destination to make a day of it. The area near Strawberry Lane and Route 6A is peppered with historic sites, including the nearby Winslow Crocker House, the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth, and the Yarmouth New Church, now a cultural center and performance venue.
There are also hiking trails and plenty of places for lunch. Heading west on Route 6A, you’ll find the Old Yarmouth Inn, Jack’s Outback and the Optimist Café. A few miles east is Royal II Restaurant and Grill, which is highly recommended by Hischak.
Hapless Children runs at the Edward Gorey House through Dec. 31. Email the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 508-362-3909. Find more information online at edwardgoreyhouse.org.
Andy Tomolonis is a textbook author, travel writer and freelance multimedia journalist.