Boy in Darkness and Other Stories
Poppy got this book for me some time ago because she knew I wanted to read "Boy in Darkness." It's a collection of short stories by Mervyn Peake, all of which had been previously published, but which are here collected together for the first time, and accompanied by illustrations by Peake, which were selected for inclusion by his family and friends, as well as various experts. The titular tale is an adventure in the life of Titus Groan, a character whose life Peake had already explored in great detail in three novels. (You can read my reviews of those here.) This story is set during Titus' childhood, perhaps some time before or during the events of the second Titus book, Gormenghast. The boy is never given a name in the story, but it's clear from context and from things Peake himself said that he is meant to be Titus. As usual, Titus is feeling trapped by the ritual and rules of the castle, and runs off into the wilderness, where he soon finds himself lost and hungry and thirsty. He meets a dirty, creepy, goat-like man-thing who calls himself (understandably) Goat. Goat tells Titus he wants to take him to meet some other people, and promises he'll be fed there, but it's hard to know whether he can be trusted, or what will happen to Titus once he gets to this place. Titus responds as he usually does in a crisis: he faints. So Goat picks him up and begins carrying him. On the way, he runs into a colleague of his, a hyena-like man-thing called Hyena. It turns out they were both once men and have been made the way they are now by the power of another creature called the Lamb. The Lamb finds the essential animal nature in people and brings it out, transforming them. He once had many animal people in his court, doing his bidding, but all of them have long ago died from the trauma of their transformations - all except Goat and Hyena. Goat and Hyena have since been spending all their time looking for someone else for the Lamb to twist to his will, and now begin fighting over the honor of presenting Titus to their master. Titus wakes up in the middle of all this and realizes these two guys are pretty dumb and he can probably outsmart them. The Lamb, it turns out, is a blind monster with incredible psychic powers which he uses to inflict pain and control people's minds. But his powers require concentration, and Titus is ultimately able to break that concentration long enough to do what must be done. The buildup to the final confrontation is very slow and long, but after the climax, Peake seems to lose all interest in the story. Everything is quickly resolved in short, bland, straightforward sentences, and before we know it Titus is back in the castle and has no memory of this little adventure.
I found the very slow intro to this story rather frustrating and dull, and was annoyed again at Titus' tendency to pout and stomp and demand special treatment, and to faint at the least provocation. The story started to get really interesting only in the latter half, where we meet the strange entity known as the Lamb, and get a look at his huge, cavernous domain, full of strange old pieces of metal and a weird and mysterious history. Is the Lamb living in the burnt-out husk of some kind of post-apocalyptic domain? Where does his strange power come from? What is he? It's fascinating stuff. And the final confrontation, though it seems to happen rather suddenly and unexpectedly when it finally does happen, is exciting. But the way that Peake chose to end the story is really puzzling. On the one hand, I can understand why he wouldn't be interested in writing all the details of how Titus gets out and gets back - I'm not sure I'd be interested in reading it, either - but it seems like he could have spent at least a little more time on it. As it is, it feels like he's just utterly disinterested in what he's writing, and is just trying to throw together a quick conclusion so the story can be done. There's no explanation for why Titus forgets everything; it just seems to be a convenient device to explain why this didn't come up in the later parts of the Titus novels. So the story has its moments, but overall is a bit disappointing.
Next up is "The Weird Journey," which is indeed weird. It tells of someone awakening to find his body moving of its own volition through a strange and disturbing landscape. The story is surreal, nonsensical, and silly, and occasionally tries rather unsuccessfully to invoke a sense of horror. "I Bought a Palm-tree" is also silly, but otherwise rather realistic - it feels almost like an excerpt from a comical memoir. It's about the wacky misadventures that occur when a man decides to buy a palm-tree. Sadly it's not as amusing as I think Peake wanted it to be. "The Connoisseurs" is a short bit of irony about the sad and ridiculous gymnastics of the human mind, and the nature of beauty and authenticity. Two antiques experts at first are entranced by a beautiful vase, but slowly convince themselves it must be a fake, and therefore ugly. The only way to determine for sure whether it is or not is to smash it open. It's a weird little paradox, like that inherent in most tests for witches.
The next story is "Danse Macabre," which is about peoples' clothes coming to life. It's written as horror, but ends up being more silly than scary. Ultimately the events of the story do have horrific consequences, but it's hard to care much about what has happened, because Peake never spends any time letting us get to know or care about the characters. We learn almost nothing about them, except that they once loved one another. Of course, this can be interpreted as something more than a horror tale; it's also about two people in a broken relationship being pulled back together almost against their own wills. The story is a bit eerie, with a vaguely interesting (if also rather ridiculous) premise, but overall I think it's a failure.
"Same Time, Same Place" has a character at its heart with a dilemma similar to that of Titus. He's a young man who can't stand his family or the repetitive traditions of his home, and wants desperately to get out and away. But when he does escape, he finds himself frightened and alone. Things seem to change for the better when he falls for a woman he meets at a restaurant. He meets her there again and again. She is always there before him, and always insists that he leave first, so he never sees her stand or walk, but this is of little interest to him, and they make plans to marry. By chance, on his way to the ceremony, he catches a glimpse of her through a window and learns the secret she's been hiding from him: she's essentially half a woman, and is attended by a group of other people who are also... biological curiosities. He's horrified, deserts her, and retreats to his home, embracing its boring normality with relief and love, never to leave again.
It's a very disturbing story. The room full of freaks is described with a great deal of disgust and horror. When the narrator passes them by again at the end, the fear is still there, but it's now accompanied by a great deal of sadness and guilt. It's a weird mix of emotions. It's hard to know what to feel. Sure, the main character was betrayed and lied to, so you can sympathize with him to a certain extent, but it's impossible not to hate his cowardly retreat, desertion, and self-imprisonment at the end of the story. Peake's main characters always seem to react first to a crisis by running away from it. It's an irritating habit. Plus, there's the vague sense that the freaks are being picked on just for being freaks, and that's not cool.
I can't say I enjoyed this story, and not just because it left me unsettled, disturbed, and unsatisfied. The writing is also rather weak. It feels like it's trying to be a gothic horror tale, almost in the style of Lovecraft, but it's failing.
I'm glad I read it, but this collection is really not very good. None of these stories are particularly satisfying; in fact, most are some combination of gimmicky, bland, weird, pointless, and ineffective. Except for a few brief moments in the Lamb's lair in "Boy in Darkness," none of them showcase Peake's facility with language and his amazing descriptive abilities. It's interesting to see Peake experimenting here, dallying with memoir, comedy, the surreal, nonsense, and even gothic horror. But none of it comes close to his work in the Titus novels.
Mervyn Peake: Writings & Drawings
This is a large coffee table book containing a biography of Peake, along with many examples of his writing and art, including works in progress, and both previously published and previously unpublished pieces. I have to admit that I just scanned the biography and the longer excerpts, and concentrated mostly on the poetry and the illustrations. Peake's poetry ranges from nonsense stuff for children, in the vein of Lewis Carroll, to more serious, unrhymed works. I'm sad to say he's not very good at either, although the nonsense is marginally better. What really stands out in this book are his incredible illustrations. His work is really quite imaginative, unique, and beautiful. There's one section showcasing a short epistolary children's story he wrote, accompanied by illustrations of an adventure in the polar regions, that's particularly wonderful. I would also love to see a full set of his illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This is definitely a fascinating book that gave me another, even more detailed look at Mervyn Peake as a man and as an artist.