‘Boy in Darkness is the work of a genius and as such, should not be withheld from anyone, even if that genius is twisted and baroque,’ says Diana Wynne Jones.
A complete story in its own right, Mervyn Peake’s Boy in Darkness, now published as a children’s book, is also a part of his powerful Gormenghast trilogy. Is it for children? Diana Wynne Jones discusses:
Boy in Darkness is a frightening book. Having said this, I must add that a large number of readers, whatever their age, actively enjoya frightening book and find that it speaks to them. Furthermore, Boy in Darknessis the work of a genius and as such, should not be withheld from anyone, even if that genius is twisted and baroque. Mervyn Peake always seems to me to start where Lord Dunsany (The Book of Wonder (1912), The Blessing of Pan (1927)) and James Branch Cabell (The Silver Stallion (1926)) leave off, and neither of these writers can be read with perfect composure.
From the very first page, when we are told it is the Boy (Titus Groan) ’s birthday, and he is therefore at the mercy of rituals which ‘lead him hither and thither through the mazes of his adumbrate home’ and eventually to receive gifts presented by ‘long lines of servants, knee-deep in water’ (gifts which are promptly removed again). Mervyn Peake is working to discompose his readers.
Part of the discomposing is done with words. ‘Adumbrate’ is only the first of many peculiar words, used peculiarly. Later there is an ‘oleaginous river’, ‘osseous temples’, ‘an ulna between his jaws’ and many more, all used to strike you between the eyes, not only because you have to consider what the word means, but how well it sounds and how intensely accurate it is in its context. This kind of thing is wonderfully good for children. Those who are brave enough not to give up should gain a spectacular insight into how wonderful words can be.
Insights are what all this discomposing is about. On the face of it, this story is an adventure in which the Boy, sick of the lonely ceremonial life at home in the castle, runs away at night and finds himself in a region of pure damnation, from whence he barely escapes with his life. But from the moment of the ‘long lines of servants, knee-deep in water’ (at which we are meant to ask Why? and to conclude that the Boy was quite right to escape from something so senseless), Mervyn Peake is leading the Boy beyond a mere adventure story, and into seeing and understanding. With an acute draughtsman’s eye, and in sentences which vary from stabbingly simple to complex and meticulously punctuated, he has the Boy pursued across the ‘oleaginous river’ by hounds ‘cocksure of themselves’ that have eyes of ‘that kind of bright and acid yellow that allowed no other colour alongside’, where the Boy encounters the odious Goat.
Here is the first major insight. The Goat walks like a man, only sideways, on hoof-like shoes, and wears clothes, old and dusty and smelly, and the Boy knows there is something terribly wrong here, ‘but why? The gentleman had done nothing wrong.’ But he will do. The Boy is fatally polite, the way children can be (and this, in the normal world, can lead to another small corpse in a hidden ditch), purely on the grounds that the Goat seems civilized. After that it is too late. The Hyena arrives and the Boy is caught. The Hyena is a horrid masterpiece of perfectly described body-language. ‘The shirt he wore was cut off very short in the sleeves so that his long, spotted arms could be readily appreciated’ (for ‘spotty’ read ‘tattooed’ in the mundane world?). ‘His trousered legs were very narrow and very short, so that his back … was at a very steep incline.’ We all know men like this. The two insights here are that the look of a person is important and body-language even more so.
The nasty pair take the Boy down into the regions of true damnation to their master, the snow-white Lamb, who has no soul and whose hands were ‘folded about one another as though they loved one another’ – more body-language and a further insight, this time of perfect selfishness. The Lamb’s hands are in fact very important. With them, he changes men into half-beasts. All of them have died, though, except for the Goat and Hyena, even the Lion, whose demise is truly heartbreaking. And the Lamb wants more. He wants the Boy so much that his hands ‘were moving so fast about one another … that nothing could be seen but an opalescent blur of light’. This puzzles the Lamb’s henchmen. Pretending to explain this, Mervyn Peake produces the major insight to which the rest has been leading: the brain needs the body and the body will sometimes do strange things in order to express what is in the brain. In other words, watch body-language.
Then the Boy is prepared to meet the Lamb. By this time he knows what is in store for him and he has to do something. Here Mervyn Peake reverses what he has just told us. Up to now, Titus has been a mere helpless body. He has to tell himself that this body is connected to a brain, and to think, in order not to become another half animal. Brain can lead body and save it. The Boy tries it. First he argues (something most Boys are good at) and sows doubt in the minds of the Goat and Hyena, then he acts, with a trick, and distracts the Lamb long enough to be able to cut him in half. And the Lamb is only sudsy fleece. This could be allegory (in which case, I am afraid it is somewhat wishful thinking), or magic. Anyway, it makes a perfect ending. The combined insights expose something we see all the time and usually disregard: that the way people talk and move is part of the way they are. It may seem like nothing, the way the Lamb does at the end but I myself would prefer every child to gain these insights from being frightened by this book, rather than the hard way, in a deserted field a hundred yards from home.
Diana Wynne Jones is a leading writer of fantasy for children.
Illustrator P J Lynch on the challenge of illustrating Peake:
Mervyn Peake was a remarkable writer whose Gormenghast trilogy is for me the outstanding work of fantastic fiction produced in this century. He also happened to be one of the finest illustrators that Britain has ever produced. His ink line drawings, nervous and feathery yet incisive, go perfectly with his text. His work first captured my imagination in my late teens and I’ve been an admirer ever since.
So when Victoria Eldon at Hodder asked me to provide illustrations for an unknown story by Peake, Boy in Darkness, my feelings were very mixed – I was hugely flattered but also daunted. Hodder wanted a colour book jacket and a series of line drawings to punctuate the text.
Early in Boy in Darkness, Titus Groan the young lord of Gormenghast makes a desperate escape from ‘the endless ritual of his primordial home’. This was the scene I chose to illustrate for the book cover – it is an exciting episode and it gave me an excellent opportunity to portray the decaying grandeur of Gormenghast from above its roof tops. Just my kind of thing!
The line drawings were to prove more of a problem. As Titus’s adventure progresses he meets some of Mervyn Peake’s most bizarre creations. One is described as having a ‘face … too massive altogether for decency, for there is a kind of malproportion that is best kept away from public view.’ Another character, the Lamb, is surrounded by an icy aura, ‘an aura like death, gelid and ghastly – yet febrile also and terrible in its vitality.’
Such wonderful descriptive writing unfortunately gives the illustrator a few headaches. Whilst I in no way wanted to do a pastiche of Peake’s illustrative style, I couldn’t help wondering how he would have tackled it. My first efforts were heavily detailed, literal interpretations of the author’s words – but they weren’t right. In fact they were so wrong that I thought of phoning Victoria and asking her to pass the job on to someone else. But I persevered.
I looked again at Peake’s drawings – so spare, so little detail – sometimes they seemed like little more than scribbles, but they were so right. I came to realise that this text, so heavily detailed itself, requires a kind of vagueness in its illustrations – shadowy, scratchy images that won’t fight against the pictures that Peake has created in the reader’s mind. But this would be so different from my usual style.
Eventually, after much experimentation, I found a technique that seemed to work for me. I approached the subjects in my usual way, drawing in ink over a pencil rough. Then I took the image and reduced it down to postage stamp size on a photocopier. When I enlarged that image again on the copier, the detail had been broken down and I was left with a rough impression of my original drawing. By drawing on the copies and then reducing and enlarging them again, I eventually achieved the kind of results that I wanted.
I’m pleased with my work on Boy in Darkness and thrilled to be able to say that I have illustrated Mervyn Peake, but each time I look at the book I think I’ll always wonder how ‘he’ would have illustrated it.
P J Lynch won the 1996 Kate Greenaway Medal.
A novelist, poet and artist, Mervyn Peake is best known for his extraordinary Gothic fantasy trilogy, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) about Titus, 7th Earl of Groan who lives in his crumbling and ritual-bound castle of Gormenghast surrounded by a cast of strange characters. The trilogy’s appeal to a readership which takes in both older teenagers and adults, is somewhat akin to that of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Boy in Darkness, although part of the Gormenghast trilogy (the boy is Titus) was first published in 1956 in a collection called Sometime Never: The Tales of the Imagination. It has now been published for the first time on its own as a children’s book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Titus Groan and to commemorate the unveiling of a Blue Plaque to Peake on 15th November 1996 at the house he lived in for the last ten years of his life.
Peake was also well known as one of the finest illustrators of his day with the ability to combine beauty, humour and the grotesque. Particularly well known are his powerful and extraordinary illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.