Sometimes writers are forthcoming about their influence. Edward Gorey, for example, once remarked to his friend Clifford Ross that inspiration comes from everywhere: “Be open to everything. Never close your mind, because you never know where your next idea might come from. You just never know .” Sometimes artists themselves find it difficult to explain the inspiration for a work before it has become something. As Nathalie Tierce notes in her 2019 essay “Reverse construction a myth,” “People often ask me where the ideas for my paintings and drawings come from. Although I have a general idea of things that interest me, the specific way it looks is a series of surprises for me.” It is an interesting experiment to consider the importance of artistic and literary inspiration in the work of Gorey and Tierce, two artist-writers who delight in playing with – and overcoming – the expectations readers bring to a work based on their consciousness about earlier texts.
Let’s start with Edward Gorey. What interests me most about his work when viewed through this lens is how singular it seems while still referencing a wide range of earlier texts: paintings and prints, fairy tales and nursery rhymes, ballet sets, Victorian pornographic books – the list goes on and on. Just one look at one of Gorey’s works and you know instantly it’s a Gorey, yet his work is famously steeped in a concentrated brew of artistic and literary history. In his book from 2021 Gorey Secrets: Artistic and Literary Inspirations Behind Diverse Books by Edward Gorey, Malcolm Whyte examines Gorey’s oeuvre through the prism of his influences. Each chapter places a different text under scrutiny as Whyte moves through Gorey’s allusive world, considering the origins of characters such as the “Pious Infant” or the foam on the white waves of Dong with a glowing nose (1986).
The joy of Whyte’s book lies in what the author describes as “the surprises, the growing wonder and the fun generated by thorough research [Gorey’s] books for their probable sources of inspiration and hidden roots.” Above all, Whyte highlights the eclecticism of Gorey’s interests and obsessions—his openness to anything as a possible subject. The best known of these obsessions are carefully recorded: Agatha Christie, New England primers, Edward Lear, abecedarians, New York City Ballet But there are also more obscure inspirations, including Gardner McKay and his lions or the symbolic character of grapes in The curious sofa (1961). Some entries leave you wanting more (such as for Gorey’s 1984 book, The tunnel accident); however, it appears to be part of Whyte’s approach. As he notes, his book is intended to serve as an “introduction” to Gorey’s inspirations, not an exhaustive encyclopedia.
I would argue that anyone familiar with Nathalie Tierce’s work will also automatically know a Tierce when they see one. Like her first book of “surreal adventure for adults,” Adventure leftovers (2019), her latest volume, Pulling weeds from a cactus garden, unearths material from society’s subconscious and draws characters and symbols to the surface that readers will immediately recognize. In doing so, Tierce participates in the Gorey tradition of destroying the readers’ expectations of the work they have picked up – in this case the picture book.
At first glance, Tierce’s new book looks rather unassuming, enveloped in a deep green cover with picture frame inserts of two images that hearken back to the classics of Lewis Carroll. However, a closer look at these images should immediately unsettle the reader, just like the cover of Gorey’s Gashly Crumb Tinies (1963) would have done for those familiar with abecedarians. On Tierce’s cover, a girl who looks like Carroll’s Alice looks fearfully back over her shoulder at an angry red mouth that is closing fast. The girl appears to be running and she has a red fabric on her hand, the bottom of her skirt and her iconic blonde hair. The image could portray Alice running from the Queen of Hearts after allegedly being caught red-handed. But the substance also looks a lot like blood. This sense of unease and questioning grows when you turn to the back of the book, which shows the image of a white rabbit, gaunt and wild-eyed, with teeth more reminiscent of Dracula’s (and perhaps Bunnicula’s?) than Carroll’s troubled teeth. but ultimately harmless hare.
On one level, Tierce’s book feels like a bit of a trick. From the full title on the inside cover (Pulling weeds from a cactus garden: Life is full of dots) to the eerie, disorienting, but nonetheless humorous artwork that graces the pages, the book clearly aims to increase our understanding of the purposes of—and audience for—a “children’s book.” The basics of a typical picture book remain intact: colorful illustrations, rich prose, fast pace, exclamation points! But the twisty, rather plotless narrative and its accompanying imagery offer a mix of characters and symbols drawn from horror, comics, myth, fable, film, modern art, and more—all of which seek to borrow from the author’s introduction to “explore unsettling, deeper currents , that runs through our society in the United States that we were otherwise too distracted to scrutinize.”
Like Gorey’s books, which use threads from earlier children’s texts to examine morbidity, rank conservatism, or the unwieldy power of adults, Tierce’s picture book forces the reader to consider the real fact that getting through some classic children’s books is like running a gauntlet. In other words, many of the things that appear in children’s books are quite scary if seen in their true light. Like other authors before her, including Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Angela Carter, Tierce uses symbols and characters from children’s literature that readers will immediately recognize, while giving them a new, more complex aspect through their various connotations to illuminate what Tierce describes as the “turbulence, fear and confusion we were experiencing and trying to wade through” during the COVID-19 lockdown.
At the beginning of Gorey secrets, Whyte notes that he set three goals in writing the book: “to convey the fun and excitement of searching for Gorey’s influences; to contribute fresh insights into his work to Gorey devotees; and to introduce new Gorey readers to the endless pleasure that his books give.” If you’re someone who appreciates the revisionary nature of texts, you’ll love learning about the secret tendrils that run throughout Gorey’s oeuvre, connecting seemingly disparate texts in the most interesting ways. I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s fast-paced journey through Goreyana, and Whyte is an effective tour guide who keeps things moving. As I read, I found myself repeatedly reaching out to the Gorey books in my possession to look at them through the new lens Whyte provides.
In the same spirit reads off Pulling weeds from a cactus garden will also likely find deep enjoyment in parsing and piecing together Tierce’s complex fairytale allusions, such as her Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and confused-looking riff on the Cheshire Cat. As with Whyte’s treatment of Gorey, the reader will find delight in the way Tierce reveals the “range of surprises” buried within her book’s pages. Readers may also find a few references to Gorey himself. After all, as Tierce considers in his essay on inspiration and meaning quoted above, “Graphic Novels by Edward Gorey and Alice in Wonderland was heaven to me.” Just prepare to have your memories of these lyrics broken up and rearranged. In my opinion, that’s more than half the fun.
Jessica McCort is Associate Professor in the Department of Literature, Culture and Society at Point Park University. McCort’s scholarship focuses heavily on the appropriation of children’s literature, especially European fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, by American women writers.