Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.

Boy in Darkness

Boy in Darkness - Mervyn Peake,  P.J. Lynch I read this story in a volume that includes a few others (see http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/58583992). This review is limited to Boy in Darkness:

This 90-page novella resulted in three pages of notes! It is so beautiful and so strange, and not even strange in the same way as the other Gormenghast books.

The story starts on Titus's fourteenth birthday (part way through the second of the Gormenghast "trilogy"), though all but once, he is referred to as "the Boy". He is a truculent teen, exasperated by the relentless and oppressive rituals that govern his life: "He was in a frame of mind quite savage in its resentment".

Watching a fly, "the Boy became dimly aware of exploration as something more than a word... as something solitary and mutinous... the first flicker of imperative rebellion... against the eternal round of deadly symbolism." (And yet this book is laden with symbolism.)

Naturally, he wants escape. So he does. "To be alone in a land where nothing can be recognized, that is what he feared, and that is what he longed for."

So far, so "normal" in Gormenghast terms. But then "the moon slid out of the thick clouds and he saw ahead of him a river", but there is something strangely unsettling about this river, and it's at this point the story takes on a more dream-like, allegorical or even magical feel. He awakes to "foreign air" and "indications... that he was on evil ground".

In the second part, the Boy encounters Goat and Hyena: part-human creatures who want to take him to their menacing master, the Lamb. "You are what [not "who"] we have been waiting for."

The disused mines where these creatures live sound a little like Gormenghast, with their lavish but decayed furnishings, but for all the oppression of the Castle, the mines have more menace: a "well of darkness.. a prodigious shaft more like an abyss than anything constructed".

The sycophantic Goat and vain Hyena compete for their master's approval. Their master is in some ways a stereotypical evil genius: he transforms and brainwashes his subjects, has a grand but evil plan that is going awry, and lives in an underground lair - but he is a lamb of the purest white (a strong symbol of purity and sacrifice), with child-like hands, which he uses to perform gross transformations.

Fortunately, the Boy's profound infusion of the liturgy of ritual, coupled with his intelligence, mean he can talk eloquently and persuasively (he even gets Goat and Hyena to make him a palanquin to take him to the Lamb).

The Lamb, now blind, lives in the mines and transmutates humans into a sort of animal hybrid, based on what he thinks they are really like, and somehow sucks out their souls. He has been doing this for more than a hundred years, but all have died except for Goat and Hyena, and he doesn't know why. He has waited ten years for another subject. His plans for the Boy are clear: "His very bones cry out for realignment: his flesh to be reshaped; his heart to be shrivelled, and his soul to feed on fear."

The Lamb's motives are never clear (beyond "his exquisite pleasure to debase" and "a deep and burning hatred of all humans"), but in some respects, he is like the leader of a cult (albeit with very few followers): Goat chants "he is the heart of life and love, and that is true because he tells us so" and both Goat and Hyena are subjugated to the extent they know they are "of a lesser breed and that to serve and obey their master was its own reward".

Some of the descriptions of the Lamb are wonderfully awful and often contradictory:
* "no substance... only the yielding, horrible mollience of endless wool."
* "white as... the brow of a dead man; white as a sheeted ghost... Bright wool... white wool... in half a million curls... seraphic in its purity and softness... the raiment of the Lamb."
* "the hollow where his soul should have been seethed with horrible sickness"
* "white lord of Midnight" whose voice is like "the sound of naked innocence".
* "The Lamb had bared its pearly teeth."
* "his arms like little white doves"
* "quenchless vitality of his evil"

It may not start with "Once upon a time", but the ending is classic fairy tale - not in the sense of being overtly happy, but in terms of how the ending comes about. When the Lamb dies (leaving no body or blood, but just a mass of dazzling curls), the spell on Goat and Hyena is broken and they turn into very very old men.

Despite Peake’s widow saying in her foreword that “The Boy”, though not named, is Titus, he is actually called that once early on, when he looks out of the window of his room. Furthermore, in her memoirs ("A World Away" http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/487563887) she explicitly describes it as "Titus outside the Titus books". Apart from that, the descriptions of him and his home leave no doubt (an earl who is “lord of a towered tract”, “at the beck and call of officials” and “remote ceremonies the meaning of which had long been forgotten”, leaving “dust-filled rooms of his seemingly endless home”).

WHAT DOES IT MEAN and how does it relate to Gormenghast?
According to the foreword by Peake's widow, it was subtitled "The Dream", though she says "It was written as a story, to be read as a story", but acknowledges the many and varied slants people like to put on it (religious allegory, nightmare etc) and concludes "It is all or none or some of these things to the reader".

"The Boy", rips off a symbolic necklace (echoes of baby Titus ripping a page of book of ritual), sees night-owls (significant creatures in the main story), and Peake's recurring themes of islands and isolation run strong. More oddly, there is a scene near the end where his tactics are a very close parallel of a specific incident of Steerpike's! Titus promises titles and a gold throne, just as Steerpike promises the twins.

However, it's hardest to ignore the repeated and overpowering inversion of the symbolism of a sacrificial lamb.

* "Ritual, like a senseless chariot, had rolled its wheels - and the natural life of the day was bruised and crushed."
* "That ochre-coloured and familiar patch of mildew that stretched across the cancelling like an island.... He knew by heart the tapering peninsular that ended in a narrowing chain of islets like a string of discoloured beads... and he had many a time brought imaginary ships to anchor in hazardous harbours or stood them off when the seas ran high where they rocked in his mind and set new courses for yet other lands." (Islands are a recurring theme in Peake's work)
* "in the tortuous Castle... he had on many an occasion been terrified, not only by the silences and glooms of the night but by a sense of being watched, almost as though the Castle itself or the spirit of the ancient place moved with him as he moved, stopped when he stopped; forever breathing at his shoulder-blades and taking note of every move he made."
* "Towers that a moment ago had been ethereal, and all but floated in the golden air, had now become, through the loss of the sun's late beams, like black and carious teeth."
* Bells "a murmuration, with the clamour of tongues that spread their echoes over the great shell of the Castle like a shawl of metal."
* "The night was heavy with its own darkness."
* "Signs of faded elegance... now breathed a folorn and dismal air" yet "there is a certain grandeur in decay and in stillness which slows the footsteps."
* "It was as though he had been deserted by the outriders of his memory, and an uprush of fear flowed over him like an icy wave."
* "sullen water with bilious moonlight glowering on its back."
* Sinister hounds have yellow eyes: "If a colour can have any moral value, it was incredibly wicked".
* "The sun gave out the kind of light that sucked out every hue... The water under the sun's rays was like grey oil that heaved as though with a voluptuous sickness."
* "Joyless sunlight... A gleam of dull light that had both fear and vengeance in it."
* "Far away beyond the power of search, in the breathless wastes, where time slides on and on through the sickness of the day and the suffocation of the night, there was a land of absolute stillness... the stillness of apprehension and a dire suspense. At the heart of this... where no trees grew and no birds sang, there was a desert of grey space that shone with a metallic light."

OLD REVIEW (i.e. succinct)
A curious allegorical story that starts when Titus runs away on his 14th birthday (part way through volume two, Gormenghast). He escapes the confines of the castle and encounters a pack of hounds but the story only turns to horror when, exhausted, he is found by two human-animal hybrids: Goat and Hyena, both determined to get the credit for delivering him to their evil overlord, a blind sheep living in an opulent disused mine who uses sinister powers to mutate people into the creatures they resemble. The character of a clever sheep, who is very white but very evil, wants sacrifices and is referred to as “The Lamb” (echoing Christian terminology) is certainly counter-cultural and, to some, potentially blasphemous. Whether this story is real (inasmuch as anything in Gormenghast is real) or a dream, let alone what it signifies is left to the reader: a bloodless sacrifice of a lamb; a critique of religion, despots, genetic engineering, power and corruption; something Freudian, or what?.

Perhaps the strangest aspect is that this was initially published in a collection of three short stories (others by John Wyndham and William Golding) that won a sci-fi prize (according to Maeve in "A World Away").

All my Peake/Gormenghast reviews now have their own shelf:

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake