Monday, 5 September 2011

Boy In Darkness & Other Stories (Centenary Edition) by Mervyn Peake, Edited by Sebastian Peake, Peter Owen Publishers

One of a dozen reissues this summer to celebrate Peake’s birth centenary has been this modestly slim collection of the half-dozen short stories he’d found time to squeeze out on Sark between the illustrations, paintings, sculpture, plays and poetry.
  Effectively, the title story is a discarded chapter from the second half of ‘Gormenghast,’ set during one of 12-year-old Titus’s initial attempts at escape from the castle and his heredity.
  Lost in an outer forest, the Boy encounters the seemingly demonic Goat and his even more satanic bully of a master, Hyena.  These characters are nightmarish enough, except each are in thrall to a creature even worse; the hollow Lamb and its insatiable hunger for other’s souls.
  Imagine if the ‘Alice’ books had been penned by Clive Barker, drawn by Goya, and you have a fair idea of the tale’s horrific nature.  Always confounding category, this story most clearly highlights Peake’s belief in fantasy as a genre as much for adults as for children.  (In fact, he often felt frustrated by publishers who only perceived it for the young and marketed it as such).  It is a brilliant nightmare, but, ultimately, too graphically so for the trilogy.
  ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ is an autobiographical account of an exotic impulse buy during the Peakes’ time on Sark.  The writing is spare and wry, somehow defying the time in which it was written.
  As is ‘The Connoisseurs,’ which asks of us, what price beauty when a maker’s mark on a piece of art is deemed more important than either its appearance or its positive effect upon the onlooker?
  ‘The Weird Journey’ is a typically Peake-esque flash of madcap wit couched in paradoxical Edwardian SF.  A lot like his nonsense verse.
  ‘Danse Macabre’ exists in the historical Y-fork between the traditional pre-War ghost story and the proto-comedic fantasies of Richard Matheson to come.  A lovely waking dream.
  ‘Same Time, Same Place’ ends the collection and is, perhaps, the most interesting tale behind ‘Boy.’  A young man, desperate to leave the daily monotony of living with his parents, finds release in his growing desire for a woman customer at a Lyon’s Corner House.  He is pleasingly surprised by her own swift, reciprocal willingness, finding her always at her table on his arrival while insistent on remaining as he leaves.  She instantly agrees to marriage after he proposes, and, on the big day, as his approaching bus passes the window of the room in which they are about to register – he receives a frightening revelation.  He decides that, by comparison, his old life wasn’t quite so bad after all.
  This story, wittingly or otherwise, appears to harbour a moral, being a warning against prejudice and the power of immature desire.  As a truly vagabond artist it is difficult to believe Peake sided with the young man, having several outsider-type friends of his own such as Augustus John and the young Quentin Crisp.  At the end, you suddenly feel sorry for the lady he has betrayed and are, surely, meant to.
  This is more a title for fans of Peake, so I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction.  What it offers instead are intriguing glimpses of the creator outside Gormenghast’s dominant realm.

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