I’m going to talk about a poem, but I’m not going to talk about one of the usual culprits (you know, that happy handful that attain a kind of epic scale and go on to influence art and literature and eventually devolve into satire—there will be no literary dissection of “The Raven,” is what I’m saying).
I suspect that many people are familiar with Edward Gorey. He was one of those rare children’s authors who rivaled Dr. Seuss in whimsy and alacrity of verse, although when I was young, I didn’t equate him with Seuss at all—they were too different from each other in other ways. Gorey was easily as prolific, but he was so startlingly morbid that he could only be viewed as his own thing completely.
To me, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” represents the pinnacle of Gorey’s morbidity, if not his unbridled weirdness. You can see the full text and illustrations here.
Essentially, what we have is the standard alphabet poem. However, it also happens to be a poem about children dying in bizarre and graphic ways. Despite its bloodthirsty content, it conveys a neat, rather Victorian sensibility and an almost nursery rhyme quality to the meter, and this pleased me deeply when I was eight.
In fact, I have an idea that the first time I heard this poem corresponded pretty closely with the first time I saw the movie Heathers. Somehow, the two things became linked in my head: children of privilege dying to serve a dark, vindictive, screwed-up sense of humor. The appeal was in the cheerful shock value, the unexpectedness of the kill. I was struck by the delicate irony as the socially invulnerable becomes the unsuspecting victim. I had a cassette tape of Tammy Grimes reading the poem in her prim little-girl’s voice, and I listened to it over and over.
Wait. This may explain so much.