Saturday, February 7, 2009

Boy In Darkness

Mervyn Peake was one of the finest English writers of the post-war period. Best known for his monumental Gormenghast novels - Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone - set in the sprawling, decaying and decadent Gormenghast castle with its ensconced rituals and mammoth cast of Dickensian grotesques.

Partly satirical, partly horrific, part social-commentary and part comic nightmare, the Gormenghast novels follow the birth, maturity and eventual flight of the castle’s young earl, Titus Groan, as well as the rise and fall of the villainous Steerpike in his attempts to dominate both Gormenghast and its inhabitants.

Less overtly fantastical than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings - and like Tolkien’s masterwork often wrongly described as a trilogy - the Gormenghast novels are arguably more influential in terms of their impact upon the literary development of science fiction and fantasy. Peake’s creation is less easy to imitate than Tolkien's – there are no elves and dwarves here, no magic and no epic struggles that pit good against evil. Rooted in his experiences as a young man in China and in his later experiences in Europe during the Second World War, Peake’s world is a grim and complex one that is more ambiguous than heroic.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his novella Boy In Darkness. First published in 1956, as part of the collection Sometime, Never, Boy In Darkness is probably best regarded as an addendum to the Gormenghast cycle, one of the tales that happen on the sidelines while the rest of the epic story unfolds.

On the day of his fourteenth birthday, the young earl of the castle – only referred to as The Boy for the majority of the narrative but early on identified as Titus - indulges himself in ‘one tremendous day of insurrection’ opting to leave behind the nonsensical and arcane rituals that govern both the day and his whole life and to explore the vast castle as an explorer might.

Finding himself in a strange and decaying landscape – stranger, even than the castle itself – he falls prey to the sinister Goat and Hyena, warped henchmen of a creature known as the Lamb. Camp and malicious at the same time, the Goat and Hyena provide a singular anchor for both the Boy and the reader, with their echoes of H.G Wells’ grotesque man-animals in The Island of Dr Moreau. Their bickering and violence conversely provide a sort of light relief in what is a dark and joyless world and their comical yet horrific appearance is in stark counterpoint to the Lamb who’s sinister intentions become focused upon the helpless Boy.

The Lamb himself is one of Peake’s strangest and most terrifying creations. His exact nature is never revealed and it is left to the reader’s judgement and imagination to concoct an explanation. Warped geneticist? Evil sorcerer? Product of the Id made flesh? Whatever the Lamb is, he is truly demonic..

Frequently described as a nightmare narrative and often compared to the work of such writers as Kafka and Poe, Boy in Darkness is a masterpiece of atmospheric horror. To say that it proceeds with the logic of the nightmare is to both capture its essence and do the story a massive injustice. Peake was far too controlled a writer to allow the lapses of logic and contrived leaps that the true nightmare brings and there are no such lapses or leaps here, rather the story unfolds in such a way as to make the grotesque seem commonplace and the fantastic appear utterly normal.

A haunting and compelling story from a writer who was unafraid to plumb the darkest depths of the human psyche.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting, James. I loved the Gormenghast trilogy. My Eyre and Spottiswood edition of Titus Alone uses the same Peake drawing for its cover as the book shown above.

    Boy in Darkness is one I haven't read, so your post is more interesting for that.