In the second episode of the first season of True Detective, entitled “Seeing Things,” the characters Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are investigating the murder of Dora Lange in the year 1995. Their investigation leads them to a burnt-out, crumbling church in the middle of a desolate Louisiana swampland. Upon exiting the car, Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) looks to his side and sees a flock of birds rise from the ground. The birds soon begin to synchronize their movement, forming a sign or symbol in the air. For a moment, Rust looks puzzled — or as if he has experienced deja vu. Then, without a word, he moves on, and the detectives continue toward the burnt-out church.
Three years ago, while I was watching that specific scene in that specific episode, it immediately reminded me of something, but I couldn’t place what it was. Watching the scene play out, the setting itself gave the scene a sense of foreboding, while the random hallucination added a thrilling sense of mystery and the fantastic. It reminded me of books I had read as a child — young adult horror books. Ones with remarkable covers that had frightened and enchanted me as a boy.
But the names escaped me. I finally found relief after a series of Google searches (as one does). The books that one brief scene in True Detective had dredged from my memory were by a young adult author named John Bellairs. And the cover art that stood so vividly in my mind, pen and ink drawings full of shadowy forms and eerie faces, were by the artist and illustrator Edward Gorey.
In his lifetime, from 1938 to 1991, John Bellairs authored 15 young adult horror books. His work is distinguished by three different “series” that focused on a particular teenage boy protagonist: Lewis Barnevalt, Anthony Monday, and Johnny Dixon. In each series of books, the protagonist becomes wrapped in a mystery that involves fighting some force of evil: deceased knights, maniacal wizards, or British occultists bent on destroying the world.
John Bellairs’s most famous young adult novel was his 1973 debut, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. But the Bellairs books I knew best as a child were those in the Johnny Dixon series. In them, Johnny, who lives with his grandparents in 1950s Duston Heights, Mass., because “his mother was dead and his father was flying a jet in the Air Force” (an actual description from The Secret of the Underground Room) finds himself involved in frightening adventures with his friend Professor Roderick Childermass. Professor Childermass is an active professor in his 70s who is cranky, smokes Balkan Sobranie cigarettes (one of the oldest brands of luxury tobacco in the world), an expert on the occult, and loves to bake cakes (with fondant icing) and other complicated desserts with Johnny.
What gives the Johnny Dixon books much of their appeal is the frank way in which matters of the occult are treated by the characters. Professor Childermass is known to say things to Johnny like, “You were right when you said the ghosts of the living sometimes appear to people,” without further explanation. Leaving aside how profound a line like that is when closely analyzed (it is truly something Joyce might have included in the Scylla and Charybdis episode of Ulysses), the forthright and simplistic acceptance of elements of the fantastic is charming, even to an adult reader. There’s no messing around in theories or justification. The logic is simple: some things are just true and they are also just scary.
“John’s stories regularly feature some sort of horror or and supernatural,” says Craig Seemann, who runs the comprehensive John Bellairs website, Bellairsia. “Examples of someone trying to bring about the end of the world, someone attempting to find a way to extend his natural life by supernaturally stealing the life of someone younger, or someone seeking revenge from beyond the grave are all presented as genuine. That is, these are very real events that are taking place with lasting repercussions and it is up to our heroes to find the courage do the right thing.”
Now, this all might sound like well-trod territory in a post-Harry Potter world, but what set the Bellairs books apart, and perhaps ingrained them so deeply in my memory, were Edward Gorey’s cover illustrations. Before his death in 2000, Gorey had a long and fascinating career as an artist, one that took him from the Art Institute of Chicago, to the Poet’s Theatre at Harvard (working alongside Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and others), to a position at Doubleday in the art department, to printmaking and producing experimental theatre in Cape Cod during the latter part of his life. Gorey’s greatest career success is perhaps his costume design on the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which won him two Tony Awards. However, what he may very well be best known for are his covers for John Bellairs’s novels.
“To me, Bellairs and Gorey are a single, two-headed beast,” Grady Hendrix told me. Hendrix is an author of horror and science fiction novels and one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival. “The covers and the illustrations by Gorey felt adult, not geared for kids, and that made all the difference. Whereas a lot of children’s book illustration at the time was joyfully colored with rounded curves and soft textures, Gorey’s drawings were a funereal black and white, with barbed edges and spiky textures.”
Indeed, Gorey’s illustrations give off a sense of hopelessness and terror. Very often they perfectly match and heighten scenes from the novels. In The Chessmen of Doom, Johnny, Professor Childermass, and Johnny’s trusty sidekick, Fergie, are investigating a mystery on an island in the middle of lake Umbagog in Maine. A storm drives them into a chapel. “The chapel was empty. Rows of varnished pews stretched before the communion rail, and on the altar six tall candles burned. Before the rail three coffins stood on sawhorses.” Inside the chapel, they encounter a “man in a long black cassock…His hands were pale and bony, and his face reminded Johnny of a skull. His red-rimmed eyes burned in deep-set sockets.”
Gorey’s corresponding illustration in the book’s frontispiece shows a man dressed in a long, black robe, with a skull for a head. Behind him, six thin, white, candles are lit, their bases shaded with heavy ink lines. The man faces Johnny, the Professor, and Fergie, each one with a uniform, non-plussed, almost childish look on their faces. Below them sit three identical coffins penned fully in black.
For many readers, it is nearly impossible to separate Bellairs from Gorey. “I used to stare at the Gorey covers and frontispieces, matching them to scenes in the books,” says Leanna Chappell, a 36-year-old librarian and head of youth services at the Swanton Public Library in Ohio. “Gorey does a great job of conveying creepiness without being gratuitous, and the books have a similar feel.”
Seemann draws other parallels that extend beyond the duo’s collaboration in print. “I’ve always found Gorey’s work to be wonderfully disconnected from anything contemporary, call it Victorian or Edwardian or Weirdian,” he says. “This goes hand-in-hand with John’s novels: novels written of a time-period long after the event. John’s books are of another time, but a place strangely familiar.”
However, despite their interwoven legacy in the minds of readers, Bellairs and Gorey never met. A member of The Edward Gorey House Museum in Yarmouth, Mass., went so far as to say that they may never have corresponded.
Andreas Brown who helped Edward Gorey establish the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust (and who was a friend of Gorey for many years) acknowledged this to likely be the case. “I haven’t seen any correspondence between them in the archives. They would send him the manuscript and he would read it and then do a cover that he thought was appropriate for the story,” Brown told me in a phone conversation. “It doesn’t mean there couldn’t be two or three letters in miscellaneous correspondence. But as far as we are aware, they never communicated.”
At 84, Brown has spent a large portion of his time immersed in the life and work of Edward Gorey. They met at the legendary Gotham Book Mart in New York, which Brown bought from Frances Steloff in 1967. After helping Gorey set up his trust, Brown served as something of a financial guardian angel for the artist. And the picture Brown paints of the relationship between Gorey’s illustrations for John Bellairs’s novels is one merely of a professional obligation.
“Gorey was at that time doing jobs that he wasn’t always happy with,” Brown says. “Publishers were putting deadlines on him. But at the same time he needed the money.”
In fact, according to Brown, later in his life, Gorey wanted to disown his cover illustrations for Bellairs. “He called me up one day and said, ‘Let’s get all of the Bellairs work out of the archives.’ He just didn’t think it represented him and what he was trying to do. He saw it as his grunt work.”
The relationship between authors of children’s books and their illustrators is traditionally more of a professional arrangement than close collaboration. Usually, a publisher will keep the author and illustrator as separate as possible in the publication process so as not to throw any complications into production. However, there have been iconic author and illustrator pairings that have broken this unwritten rule, such as Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake and A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard (who illustrated the Winnie-the-Pooh books) among others.
And Gorey’s disconnect from those beloved illustrations would most certainly come as a shock to readers who still cherish John Bellairs novels. “There are not as many anymore,” Leanna Campbell told me based on her experiences at the Swanton Public Library. “But they’re still out there, especially fans of Gorey’s work.” Indeed, they are still out there, especially on Twitter, where readers still show their appreciation of Bellairs’s with snapshots of pages from the book featuring their (or their kids’) favorite quotes. Or, more likely, they are sharing their favorite Gorey cover.
Even Brown, when asked to explain why people might still have a fondness for the Gorey and Bellairs pairing, was able to find a fond memory. “There was an exhibit of Gorey’s illustrations for the Bellairs books at Gotham Book Mart. I don’t recall what year,” he told me. “We had sketches and preliminary drawings and things like that. A large portion of the people that bought them were young guys from Wall Street. They all read these books when they were in elementary school. The show sold out very quickly.”
Like those young guys from Wall Street, I had read John Bellairs books in elementary school. But the names John Bellairs and Edward Gorey had receded into my own memory until a single scene in True Detective pulled them back. It would be tenuous at best to say that a prestige television show — one full of more grotesque horror than any Bellairs book or Gorey illustration — about a fraught partnership reflects in any way on the relationship between the two men. So, I won’t try to draw any conclusions there.
Instead, after re-reading several of the Johnny Dixon books, which I ordered online in a rush of excitement to research this story, the only conclusion I can come to is that John Bellairs’s stories and Edward Gorey’s illustrations still make a perfect match. The moments of horror in Bellairs’s fiction are abrupt and unsettling: a glance towards a window reveals a pale face pressed against the glass, a ritual is performed with a bloody human skull, in the catacombs of chapels our heroes encounter the mummified bodies of monks. And on every cover, there is a Gorey illustration capturing one specific moment of despair exactly as it is described on the page.
Craig Seemann articulated the creative synchronicity between Bellairs and Gorey through an anecdote once told to him by Al Myers, who was a friend of Bellairs at Notre Dame. According to Myers, he and Bellairs were browsing a bookstore and came across The Fatal Lozenge, an illustrated alphabet book by Edward Gorey. According to Seemann, “Myers says that Bellairs was particularly fond of Z, which was illustrated with a Zouave [a class of French Army infantry members in the 19th and 20th centuries] hoisting an impaled baby on a bayonet with an accompanying verse. In short, Bellairs appears to have been an early fan of Gorey’s work. The Fatal Lozenge was published in 1960. It’s odd to realize that in less than 15 years, John would be a published author with Gorey as his illustrator, too.”
So, in many ways it doesn’t matter that Gorey and Bellairs may never have met, or that Gorey saw his illustrations for the books as nothing but a means to an end. Sometimes, for whatever reason, some things in life just fit. And something you see as inconsequential, a job, a relationship, a tossed off song or illustration, can wind up defining your legacy. Some things in life are just true.