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“The Ghastlygun Tinies“, MAD magazine’s mordant riff on The Gashlycrumb Tinies, updates Edward Gorey’s book for our age of school shootings. Gorey’s mock-moralistic abecedarium plays the deaths of little innocents for laughs (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/ B is for Basil assaulted by bears …”). By contrast, Matt Cohen and Marc Palm (writer and cartoonist, respectively, of the December 2018 takeoff) show us a series of “affecting scenes,” as Gorey would call them — school kids caught unawares in the moment before their deaths in what we assume will be a hail of semi-automatic gunfire. It’s a fate that’s been nauseatingly normalized, thanks to the NRA and their political enablers: “G is for Greg who was caught unawares/ H is for Hiro who needs more than prayers …” It’s scarifying stuff, a far cry from the macabre wit of the 1963 original, whose satirical target was the chirpy homilies of most ABC’s of the day.
A writer for the parenting website website Fatherly noted in an item about MAD’s somber parody, that the magazine had “used nostalgia about a beloved kids book to make a very unfunny statement [that] forced their readers to pay attention” to school shootings. This inspires an aside: Has The Ghashlycrumb Tinies really become “a beloved kids book”? When Simon and Schuster published it in 1963, they deemed it too dark for children. In a nice twist, Boomer and Gen-X Gorey fans seem to be raising their children on it, turning it into a bona fide kids book. Siobhan Magnus, the American Idol finalist who sports a Tinies tattoo and sings in a retro ‘90s band named after Gorey’s Doubtful Guest, claims to have learned her ABC’s from the book.
Judging from the profusion of Tinies tattoos on the Web, Magnus is not alone. Flickr, Tumblr, and other social-media sites are awash in photos of Gorey tattoos, most of them variations on the illustration that inspired Magnus’s tattoo: Tinies’s front cover, a group portrait of Death in the guise of the Bad Shepherd, surrounded by his doomed flock.
Affectionate parodies of The Gashlycrumb Tinies are everywhere, drawn in a heavily crosshatched style meant to approximate Gorey’s. There’s a Tolkien-themed “Gashlycrumb Hobbits” T-shirt, with the wizard Gandalf playing Death’s part; a Game of Thrones takeoff that transposes Gorey’s parade of little deaths into the gore-soaked sword-and-sorcery world of the hit TV series; a Dr. Who version, The Gallifreycrumb Tinies, that gives the Gorey treatment to 26 memorable deaths from the sci-fi show (“Gallifrey” being the good doctor’s alien home world); a splattery tribute, by the horror novelist Clive Barker (in collaboration with the artist Paulo Andreas Lorca), that ups the gross-out quotient by a factor of 10 (“C is for Claus who was born with no bowels”); a Harry Potter spoof, The Hogwarts Tinies or, After the Rowling; a Game Over Tinies that reimagines the fates of Gorey’s mites as videogame deaths, with a cast composed of Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Brothers, and other classic characters; and, in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential race, The Ghastlytrump Tinies, a gut-clenching vision of the horrors in store for America under a Donald Trump administration.
Less obviously, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2011), a bestselling young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, was inspired by Tinies. Much taken with the “Edward Gorey-like Victorian weirdness” of the antique photos he collected, Riggs wondered if the “haunting images of peculiar children” might be fodder for “a book, like The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Rhyming couplets about kids who had drowned. That kind of thing.” Sue Grafton, the novelist, nicked the idea for her alphabetical murder mysteries (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.) from the Gorey book. “I was smitten with all those little Victorian children being dispatched in various ways,” she told The New York Times. “‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs/ B is for Basil assaulted by bears; C is for Clara who wasted away/ D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh.’ Edward Gorey was deliciously bent.”
What would Gorey have thought of the MAD parody? Too grimly unfunny, I suspect — and too overtly political. Gorey, who prized barely-there understatement above all, shrank from anything polemical. He was a true-blue liberal who abhorred right wingers — “Nixon works me up terribly,” he said in a Watergate-era interview — but lost his faith in politics after stuffing envelopes for Adlai Stevenson only to see the former Illinois governor roundly trounced by Eisenhower in ’52. (He “became unstrung by it all” was his way of putting it, in The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux.) Ever after, he eschewed politics, although he nursed an undying animus toward Jack Kennedy “because,” Gorey groused, “as a senator he refused to stump for Stevenson.” Edward “wasn’t a big fan of the Kennedys,” Gorey’s cousin Skee Morton confirmed, when I interviewed her for my Gorey biography, “but I don’t know that he was a big fan of anybody’s after that, politically.”
I wondered aloud about the contrast between Gorey’s political liberalism and the implicit conservatism of his aesthetic. “Movies made a terrible mistake when they started to talk,” he famously quipped; Picasso he detested more than tongue can tell. His little books are set, more often than not, in the Edwardian or Victorian eras; the Roaring Twenties is as close to our moment as Gorey ever comes. Nostalgia is usually understood as a reactionary impulse — a rebellion against a civilization in decline, the wish that things would remain as they once were (or, better yet, as we imagine they were). Gorey was politically liberal yet the world he dreamed was a silent film with hand-cranked cars and gramophones. Why did he want to step into a flickering, black-and-white past? Ken Morton, Skee’s son, shrugged. “His social commentary was very vague,” he said. “It was more along the lines of, ‘the terrible tedium of it all.’”