Mervyn Peake and I just don’t get along.
Perhaps it’s a tragedy of missed connections, varied personalities, and drastically opposed attitudes towards tale-telling. Maybe I’ve had the misfortune to chance upon his works at inopportune times, but whatever the case, his stories have never evoked that imaginative stirring in me. I had plunged into his fantasy classic Gormenghast novels with high hopes, but found that world too oppressive. I fared no better with Boy in Darkness and Other Stories (Centenary Edition).
My impression of this collection of tales was that of reading a compilation of literary templates. Any of these tales could easily be the outline that an aspiring writer could use to create his own tale, much as a blogger might customize a template design. These stories are the bare bones of tales, waiting for color and details, strung together with a theme of underdevelopment.
The eponymous story tells of the journey of Titus – of Gormenghast fame – into a dark wilderness, where he encounters a Goat and a Hyena who serve a demonic Lamb. It’s a bewildering world, as the Lamb – a Biblical symbol of God and salvation – is a sort of devilish deity, while the Goat and Hyena who serve him are men degraded to animal form, rather than raised higher by a god. The Boy – who has not yet become Man – must make his way through this darkness, but his path through it is at once too long and too short. The intriguing premise itself is passed over, while the atmospheric descriptions drag on.
The other stories are five in number, and suffer from the same flaw of underdevelopment. The first of these, “The Weird Journey,” is supposedly a play on Baudelaire’s idea of Correspondences, but Peake seems to have tried too hard. Its opening paragraph reads so much like an exercise from a creative writing class that I seriously debated whether I should read the second one:
“Once upon a time-theory, when alone on the great bed, I found that no sooner had my head left the pillow than I fell wide awake. How far I fell I cannot say, but the light was brilliant all about me and the shrill cries of birds were loud in my eyes – so loud, they seemed, that I could not tell whether they were in my brain or whether, all around my head and limbs, they spiraled in a flight too fleet for vision.”
The story goes on in more or less the same vein, and while this oversaturation of metaphors might be someone’s cup of tea, I found it to be unpalatable.
The next tale is a short one, “I Bought a Palm Tree,” and this is perhaps the most enjoyable of them all, for its humor adds spice to a volume that is otherwise rather lacking in it.
Next, one encounters “The Conoisseurs,” two art lovers whose dialogue is supposed to read like a “snippet from one of Oscar Wilde’s short plays,” as the introduction claims. The tale’s ending does indeed have the biting irony of Wilde, but Peake’s style holds it back, preventing that harmony of form and function that was such an integral part of Wilde’s charm – and artistic credo. The following piece of hyphenated callousness, for example, lacks the aesthetic context of Wilde’s writings, and thus ultimately fails as a witty imitation of Lord Henry Wotton’s posturing, which it clearly intends to be:
“yes, yes, the vase. But, surely, very far from poor. Are the poor ever so elegant? I have been told they have their own kind of beauty – somebody told me that once – I don’t remember who – don’t ask me – but all the same, leaving the poor aside (as one usually does, God help us) – if you see what I mean – they are hardly vases – nor are they rare – my dear chap – one might say they are never rare.”
The penultimate tale is “Danse Macabre”, which, as the introduction claims, “takes a familiar image from the traditional Gothic tale and gives it a new and sinister twist.” But this story finds itself in an uncomfortable tug-of-war between its Gothic atmosphere and its drawing-room setting. The Poe-esque nightmare with which the tale begins – not entirely unreminiscent of “The Tell-Tale Heart” – is quickly followed by an elegant dinner and drinks party; its attendees are the mere sketches of socialites, lacking the psychological depth that made Poe’s tales so sinister.
The volume ends with “Same Time, Same Place,” a yarn which could perhaps be subtitled “Same Story” for its predictability: a young man, curious for adventure, leaves his familiar home and finds a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love and to whom he rashly makes promises. Well, of course she turns out not to be what he imagined, and of course the promises he made to her are meaningless, and of course he returns back home, better able to appreciate what he’s left behind.
This simplicity could perhaps be excused by the fact that these are supposedly children’s stories – except that children’s stories rarely utilize the word “adumbrate” in the opening paragraph or attempt to define themselves as Kafka-esque or Poe-esque. Peake’s collection of tales seems to be having a sort of internal identity crisis, oscillating desperately between simplicity and attempted complexity.