Lots of little beasties

Monday Book Review

December 09, 1991|By Mike Lane

THE WORLD OF CHAS ADDAMS. Alfred A. Knopf. 305 pages. $30. MY FAVORITE Charles Addams cartoon depicts a woman racing across a sandy dune, chasing the shadow of what is obviously her husband being carried away by a huge bird. Hands cupped, she's shouting: "George! George! Drop the keys!"

No, maybe that's not my favorite. Maybe it's the one where a poor soul is trying to end it all by sticking his head in the oven. Behind him, his landlady shouts: "Mr. Mitchell, you know you don't have kitchen privileges!"

If you're as much a Charles Addams fan as I, you'll find your favorite in this hilarious collection, one of two recently published. (The other is "My Crowd," a 1970 collection of 180 Addams cartoons republished by Simon & Schuster to coincide with the release of the Paramount movie, "The Addams Family.") There are enough chuckles here to keep you up through any dark and stormy night, shutters banging, bats flapping. And if you've never heard of Addams, you must be from another planet. That makes you a Chas Addams kind of alien.

His macabre humor graced the pages of the New Yorker for 50 years. Long before ghoulish was fashionable, Addams had perfected the art. His cartoons were the natural home of boiling oil, witches' brew and other . . . things. The drawings were peopled by rather ordinary folks with extraordinary things happening to them. See the woman ski through the tree? Addams put an onlooker there -- looking startled. That's you and I. It was his exquisite comic touch.

To be sure, there have been and are excellent macabre cartoon artists: Edward Gorey, creator of the animated cartoons that introduce the PBS "Mystery" series, and Gahan Wilson, who draws twisted monsters. Gary Larson (see "The Far Side" in today's Accent section) combines the macabre with the wacky. But Addams, who died in 1988, made it all seem somehow believable and possible.

Space creature stands at a woman's door. Behind the creature thousands of space ships just like his are landing. "I'm sorry, sonny," she says. "We've run out of candy."

One of Addams' set pieces was, of course, the Addams family of wicked beasty people who lived in a horrible old mansion with trap doors and phonographs that changed records with human arms and hands. We see them now -- mother, father and two little beasties gazing with pleasure from a long window. Outside there's a howling hurricane. And the father says, "Just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive!"

Addams made people laugh until the day of his death, when he went down to his vintage car parked on the street, got behind the wheel and had a heart attack. His wife, Marilyn, provided a comic line worthy of the master: "He's always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go." He's still making us laugh. Fresh new Addams cartoons and color covers (see this book, incidentally, for several of his exquisite watercolors) still grace the New Yorker. The magazine says the work was left by the artist, but don't you believe it. I have a feeling he visits the offices on dank, black, drizzly, wretched nights in the wee small, bloodless hours and slips the cartoons noiselessly under the door. Then he glides away with a barely audible chuckle.

Get this book to reacquaint yourself with Addams' howls past the graveyard. When you're done with it, don't put it on the coffee table, where you'll probably just dust it from time to time. It's a very heavy book, you see, so tie a thick rope around it and attach the other end to someone you want to drown in a deep, black, cold lake -- the guy who's in charge of your office, for instance.

It'll make you feel much better at a time we can all use it, and Chas Addams would appreciate the joke.

Mike Lane is The Evening Sun's editorial cartoonist.

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