Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake

As part of the celebrations for Titus’s 10th birthday in Gormenghast a sort of court masque is put on, featuring four giant puppets — the Lion, the Wolf, the Horse, and the Lamb:

“The Lamb, a little less in height than its companions, for all its towering stature, was a mass of pale golden curls. Its expression was one of unspeakable sanctity. However it moved its head — whatever the angle, whether it scanned the heavens in search of some beatific vision, or lowered its face as though to muse upon its own unspotted breast — there was no escape from its purity. Between its ears, and set upon the golden curls was a silver crown… It carried nothing in its hands for they were clasped upon its heart.”

Sometime, Never - coverThe figure of the Lamb, a somehow menacing mix of purity and unease, obviously stuck in Peake’s mind, because when he was asked to contribute to an anthology of three novellas, published in 1956 as Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination (alongside “Consider Her Ways” by John Wyndham and “Envoy Extraordinary” by William Golding), the figure of the Lamb became the centrepiece in an encounter with one of the most insidious visions of evil in fantasy literature.

The Inner Landscape (cover)The resulting novella, “Boy in Darkness” (which was later included in another three-novella anthology, The Inner Landscape, in 1969, which swapped the Wyndham and Golding stories for “The Voices of Time” by JG Ballard and “Danger, Religion!” by Brian Aldiss) is a mini-masterpiece. Changing the puppet Lamb’s “golden curls” for the purest white, and blinding its eyes with blue-tinted cataracts, Peake does that thing again of creating a character that seems so familiar, so right in its every action and spoken word, I’m wondering where I could have encountered it before.

The first question to ask, though, is whether “Boy in Darkness” is part of Peake’s Titus series at all. From what I can gather, in the initial version, Peake only referred to the protagonist of his tale as “the Boy”, though this Boy is the fourteen-year-old “Lord of a tower’d tract”, and the opening paragraph makes it clear this is Gormenghast in all but name:

“The ceremonies were over for the day. The Boy was tired out. Ritual, like a senseless chariot, had rolled its wheels — and the natural life of the day was bruised and crushed.”

Apparently, after its first publication, Peake changed the manuscript to call the Boy “Titus” (twice, to my count), and it is in this form it’s currently published (in Boy In Darkness and Other Stories). But whether Peake had named him or not, the world he depicts — in its scenery and its concerns — is Gormenghast, and the young Boy is as much Titus as he can be.

Boy In Darkness and Other Stories coverThe plot is simple. Fed up with the castle and all its ritual, the Boy runs away, and finds himself lost in a desert land of industrial ruins. There, he falls into the hands of the Goat and the Hyena, a bickering pair of half-human half-animal creatures whose task it is to find victims for their “White Lord”, the Lamb, who dwells deep in an abandoned mine. With the inescapability of a nightmare (Peake at one point thought of subtitling the novella “A Dream”), the Boy is drawn closer and closer to the Lamb, and we, the readers, learn what the Lamb is planning. This creature, it seems, has the ability to change people, physically. He has done this countless times, but the Goat and the Hyena are the only two surviving examples. And the Lamb has not had a new victim, a new plaything, for a very long time.

The power of the tale resides entirely in Peake’s depiction of the Lamb. It is the very understatement of his bleating speech, the stillness of his body — all except his ever-weaving, self-fondling, whiter than white, softer than soft hands — that makes this apparently so innocent thing so unutterably evil. It is the hands of the Lamb that you will remember:

“There they were, folded one about the other as though they loved one another; neither gripping one another too passionately, for they were made to be bruised, nor touching one another too lightly, for fear of losing the sweet palpation.”

By the end of the novella, the hands are in a frenzy of anticipation:

“…they were moving so fast one about another, circling one another, separating, threading and weaving their ten fantastic fingers in such a delirium of movement…”

Peake’s writing is at its best when he writes of the Lamb, of “the quenchless vitality of his evil”, his “yielding, horrible mollience of endless wool”.

John Batchelor, in his 1974 book on Peake, calls the Lamb “the most blasphemous of Peake’s ideas”, saying it is clearly a “Christ in reverse”, but I think its power is simpler than that. The Lamb is a thing that is as evil within as it is seemingly innocent without. Yorke - My Eyes Mint Gold coverBatchelor goes on to say: “The story is too dark and pessimistic to have fitted the imaginative world even of Titus Alone.” And Malcolm Yorke, in his 2000 biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, says that “elements of fantasy are introduced that would have been intolerable in the world of Gormenghast”. He finds the style “irritating”, but most of all thinks the whole “a puzzling, unbalanced and very disquieting story and one wonders about the mental health of a person who could engender such a bleak world.”

I disagree on every count. I love the writing, and I think it fits in with Peake’s Gormenghast — as a nightmare episode — perfectly.

And the story isn’t puzzling at all. In fact, like the Lamb, it is almost overwhelming in its purity. Fantasy is so often about being careful what you wish for, and Peake’s protagonist, the Boy, starts off wanting to escape, but:

“…to be alone in a land where nothing can be recognised, that is what he feared, and that is what he longed for.”

And sure enough, the Boy, escaping, finds himself in the hands of a creature whose sole intent is to turn him into something he himself will no longer recognise, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually too:

“For it is the Lamb’s exquisite pleasure to debase.”

Yorke’s main criticism of the story is that “the evil is palpable enough, but where is it opposed by virtue?” But the virtue is as simple as the Lamb’s evil. It’s only the threat to the Boy’s individuality, his existence and his ability to be himself that is needed to justify his fighting back against the Lamb, whose evil is so like that of a child abuser, seeking, as it does, to corrupt others in order to both re-enact and in some way justify the corruption it, at some point, must have suffered. Fighting against the Lamb is simply a fight to retain one’s individuality, something that goes to the heart of Peake’s Gormenghast novels.

The story, then, is primal. It is about an encounter with a corrupting evil, but it is done so powerfully that it — particularly in the soft, white, quietness of the Lamb — will linger rather longer than you’d like.

Comments (5)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Your comment (“Fantasy is so often about being careful what you wish for, and Peake’s protagonist, the Boy, starts off wanting to escape,”) is very true, and reminds me of another Peake story (I’m guessing you’ve read it) – ‘Same Time, Same Place’.

  2. Murray says:

    True, Aonghus. Just looking at “Same Time, Same Place” again, I see it’s got the same urge to escape from home at the start of it. I remember, when I first read that story, feeling sorry for the bride-to-be, and rather judgemental of the narrator for how quickly he drops her.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    That’s to your credit – although I suspect you may be in the minority!

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I really enjoyed this story. Having read your review first – and so having a rough idea what it was about – I began it with certain expectations. I reckoned the story was a metaphor for something else: that Lamb was Mengele maybe, or an unsavoury tutor from Peake’s schooldays, partially because this is a tendency of mine, partially because – reading ‘Gormenghast’ – I’ve become increasingly curious about Peake’s approach to theme and structure. Just how premeditated is his approach? Is there a sub-text to his work (e.g., is Gormenghast an allegory for the British love of ritual, an anglicised version of his Chinese childhood or what? Etc, etc)? Or is it meant to be taken at face value?

    I think this story is meant to be taken at face value. Like you say, the essence of what makes Lamb work is the disparity between his outer appearance and his true nature. However, that final twist – when Titus kills Lamb, Lamb has no substance, no internal organs: he’s just wool – while seeming appropriate in the circumstances (and not without precedent re villains dissipating into something harmless) still has me wondering.

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    Glad you enjoyed the story. I wonder if Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau might have been an influence on the Lamb, too, and the beast-like Goat & Hyena.

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