Kevin McDermott, Elephant House or, the Home of Edward Gorey (Pomegranate 2003)

Anyone who has watched the Mystery! series on the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the past 20 years or so is familiar with one small portion of the works of Edward Gorey. It was Gorey's artwork that was used in the program's animated introductory segment each week, and it was representative of much of his work, in which darkly whimsical characters in vaguely Victorian or Edwardian dress do and say things that range from offbeat to macabre. His artwork was almost always in black and white, with lots of crosshatch shading. When it involved words, it was often filled with puns and dark humor. His drawings appeared for decades inside and on the cover of The New Yorker.

Gorey was a prolific author and playwright as well, creating word-and-picture books like Amphigorey, parts of which went on to become plays such as the musical Amphoragorey.

Gorey was an intensely private man, and for the last two decades of his life until he died unexpectedly in 2000, he lived alone in an aged, ramshackle Cape-style house in Yarmouthport, Mass. There, he lived the life of an artist and an eccentric collector — of antiques, found objects, books, recordings, cats, stuffed animals and much, much more.

Photographer and former actor Kevin McDermott was a friend of Gorey, and after his death received permission from the estate to photograph the interior of the house before it was disturbed, boxed up, catalogued, carted up and hauled away. This book is the result.

In spare but apt prose, McDermott takes a tour of the house, from the front porch and through all the rooms, describing what he sees and then offering superbly composed photogaphs. Many of the photos are in black and white, as befits a record of Gorey's life and art, but many too are in color — because many of Gorey's collections centered around color, particularly the rocks and glass objects he arranged on windowsills throughout the house.

Beginning with two full-page portraits of Gorey, one of the artist's be-ringed hands, one of his face in profile as he gazes solemnly into the near distance, followed by one of the exterior of Elephant House, McDermott displays an exterior life of the man who obviously had an immensely rich interior life.

The house got its name from an antique toilet in an upstairs bathroom which resembled an elephant's head. The beginning of each chapter contains a short Gorey verse and one of Gorey's off-kilter drawings of an elephantine form, nearly all of which are whimsical or darkly humorous, as if Gorey saw that although the elephant is the most dignified of creatures, it can also be the most comic as well. One two-page series starts with a photo of an elephant's-head piece of driftwood, and is followed by a sketch obviously inspired by it.

The collections are fascinating, and lovingly photographed. They range from stones arranged in groups on the porch steps and presided over by a ceramic rabbit gazing skyward, to lines of flatirons, shelves full of frog figures, miniature cities of pewter salt-and-pepper shakers, glass balls, eggs and much more. A double-page spread in color shows the jumble of rocks and ceramic figures on the tile counter next to the kitchen sink, complete with a tiny plastic kewpie doll huddled in one corner of a windowsill.

One feels like a voyeur, peering at these photographs of the artist's home, but emerges with, if not an understanding of his mind, at least an idea of what a wide-ranging and quirky soul he had. Complete with a Forward by John Updike, Elephant House is a loving final chapter in the life of a popular yet enigmatic artist.

[Gary Whitehouse]