"A is for Amy who fell down the stairs."
So begins Edward Gorey's tragic tale of how 26 children meet untimely demises in alphabetical order. AND IT'S AWESOME!
Here again, I find myself reviewing a favorite children's book that I didn't actually read as a child. My mother didn't believe in gruesome deaths and other such unpleasantness. But kids eat this stuff up! One of my favorite games as a child was playing "The Dying Informant", which simply consisted of running into a room, flinging yourself to the floor and pretending to die in the most soap-opera-y, over-the-top, drawn out way you could describe. This book gave me so many methods to add to my repertoire.
It's not just the variety of the scenarios that is interesting, it's the language that Gorey wields so deftly. Each page has no more than eight words, yet every page has a different verb, with pages rhyming in softly rocking couplets like a demented Mother Goose rhyme. It's clear that this isn't a book about children being murdered left and right, it's more a list of tragic and unlikely accidents being divulged in an understated mock-reverent tone. The shortness of the widely kerned sentences forces you to read it slowly and lugubriously, like an undertaker delivering bad news.
Not "killed", not "strangled", not "murdered". The charmingly dated colloquial "done in by". Tragic, yet tidy. The words may be dire, but Gorey, despite his name, tends to eschew truly violent images, focusing on the moment just before the terrible incident takes place. It creates a giddy tension because the reader knows what is obviously about to happen, yet the children in question seem either totally oblivious, or are only expressing the mildest concern, which is what makes it funny.
My favorite is:
Not "eaten". Not "mauled". "Assaulted." Like they only meant to take his wallet. Classic.
The book hangs together so nicely because Gorey's illustrative style is as spare as his writing. Bleak high contrast and ambiguously abstracted space creates a vague discomfort and sense of abandonment and insecurity. You laugh, but at the same time, there's a part of you that relates to these helpless children.
So in the spirit of Halloween, pick up a copy of this cult classic for some ghoulish good fun, and don't let your children get assaulted by bears when they go Trick-or-Treating tonight. Have a safe and Happy Halloween everybody!