The Gashlycrumb Tinies | To Learn from the Past

The Gashlycrumb Tinies is a tale (or tales) of utter absurdity. Presented as a warning of the ever present “adult threat”, it intends to emphasise the seemingly ludicrous paranoia of parents about the gruesome ends their children may meet. However, its style and macabre method of storytelling has inspired many reproductions over the decades, with some recent additions touching on very pressing contemporary issues.

Written in the early 1960s by author and illustrator Edward Gorey, The Gashlycrumb Tinies is an abecedarian picture book depicting the tragic demise of twenty-six young children. Beginning with “A is for Annie who fell down the stairs” and ending with “Z is for Zoe who drank to much gin”, it is filled with beautiful line drawings of bombs, thugs, axes and various other forms of dispatchment. It uses a childlike style of storytelling to create considerable unrest in the reader. Surely a book written for learning your A-B-C’s would contain kid friendly content? Basil, who was mauled by bears on page two, would surely disagree. Yet, its mature content provided a new form of adult literature, one which uses simplicity as a crux for exploring issues of its time. 

While the rhythmic language almost counteracts the macabre ends of twenty-six well dressed children, it’s the inherent beauty captured within the art that makes this piece so special. As a poem or short story, the imagery Gorey intends to convey may have gotten lost amongst scratching heads, but the use of surrealist art tinged with a gothic atmosphere leads to clear and callous experience. It’s a combination of his talents that created such an influential type of storytelling, one which has been reproduced countless times since its conception. In fact, a recent proliferation of Gorey’s piece made news headlines due to its mimicked style and content. In October of 2018, popular humour magazine MAD published a piece called “The Gashtlygun Tinies”, a spoof of Gorey’s work that the magazine is renown for. In its introduction, it references its inspiration, though quickly separates the two, discussing the original’s need for revision. See, in our current society, children have no need to fear tacks, drains or trains. Author Matt Cohen suggests that gun violence, on the other, is currently the primary cause of children’s death.

Artist Marc Palm then treats us to an absolutely devastating journey through the lives of twenty-six children at their school, all pursuing self-improvement and happiness. Slowly, the piece morphs into something more sinister, as ominous shadows begin inhabiting the halls, and our character begins looking more and more frightened. The piece’s purpose becomes clear when we reach the letter Q, which is for “Quinn whose life had just begun”, “R is for Reid, valued less than a gun.” The artistic repurposing contained none of the wry wit or humour the original possessed. As opposed to its intended comedic role, the words now take on a lacerating new meaning. We are not reading an absurdist piece on the almost humorous paranoia of society. We ourselves are living in a Gorinian work. 

The cover of Mad’s “The Ghastlygun Tinies”

When asked about his creation, Palm went on to say that this method of storytelling was “the perfect way to approach this sort of thing.” To think, a structure of storytelling popularised almost sixty years ago can still hold such a potent affect in our current social climate when utilised effectively. Maybe you have come across a piece similar in style or rhythm to the Gorey’s magnum opus. Maybe its poisonous humour has seeped its way into your comedic preferences. What can be said is that the The Gashlycrumb Tinies populariseda simple, confronting type of storytelling that has influenced the way we discuss contemporary issues, and can make one smirk with unheeded callousness just as it can send you spiralling into paralysing sorrow.

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