This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Mervyn Peake (1911 — 1968) was a visionary English writer, poet, and artist named to The Times’ list of “The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945.” Peake is best-known for the phantasmagorical Gormenghast series (1946 – 1959). Parkinson’s disease robbed Peake of the ability to complete the later novels in the cycle. Early influences included Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, but the weirdness that permeates his work also demonstrates knowledge of Decadent-era literature and, in art, the Grotesques. Much of his short fiction is collected in Boy in Darkness and Other Stories (1976, revised 2007), including “Same Time, Same Place,” chosen for inclusion in The Weird. Our newest contributor to 101 Weird Writers, writer and scholar Sofia Samatar, has lent her considerable insights into Mervyn Peake and his work, in the process discovering several threads running though his unique aesthetic sensibilities and charting where they weave together.
- Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
1. The House of Darkstones
Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other — other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is child.
Gormenghast, the second volume of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, opens with an extraordinary series of portraits in words. As if walking through a gallery in the somber halls of Gormenghast Castle, the reader views each character for a brief time before moving on to the next. The portraits form a bridge between the action of the first volume, Titus Groan, and that of the sequel. In describing the characters, Peake revisits key episodes of Titus Groan; as such, the word paintings can serve as a reminder for the returning reader about to begin Gormenghast, or an introduction for the new one. This practical function, however, in no way explains the richness of the portraits, or the way Peake dwells on certain aspects of his characters as though darkening them obsessively with his pencil. That avid concentration, out of all proportion to the obvious goal, produces both lushness and a sense of enclosure approaching to claustrophobia. These qualities are the hallmarks of Gormenghast — both the castle, and the literary phenomenon.
“There was a library and it is ashes. Let its long length assemble” (1). The word paintings do possess plot: these lines, from the section devoted to Titus’s father, recall the burning of the library in Titus Groan. Yet each character portrayed exists alone, as if enclosed in a frame, preoccupied only with his or her own particular part of the story. Some, of course, are cut off from the others by death, and appear as ghosts, but even the living are depicted in isolation. In the chapters that follow, the living characters will interact, but the portraits that open Gormenghast speak to their essential condition. They are marooned in the massive edifice that is Gormenghast, just as Gormenghast itself is marooned in an inclement countryside, or — to extend the discussion into another of Peake’s worlds — as the ship The Black Tiger tosses on an inhospitable sea in his picture book, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor.
The impulse is to compress as much as possible into a very small space. We can see the same impulse in Peake’s fascination with naming: if the word portraits are novels writ small, the names of characters are writ even smaller, each distilling an entire personality into a single word. Peake’s playful names — Steerpike, Swelter, Flay — are so evocative they serve as identifying badges for the characters. Of course, no actual personality can be so reduced, and Peake’s characters are deformed by the process, so that Swelter the chef is all heat, sweat and suet, and Flay, the Earl’s devoted manservant, is so narrow and fleshless he creaks. These signpost names and their grotesque bearers recall the work of Dickens, but transpose Dickensian humor into a grimmer key. Where Dickens offers whimsical sketches, and reserves his more extreme distortions for villains and minor characters, Peake delivers Goya-like charcoal portraits, and remains faithful to the grotesque. All of his characters, major and minor, are informed by the grotesque aesthetic, as they are formed — or, perhaps more accurately, deformed — by Gormenghast Castle, which exerts a terrible pressure of ritual, masonry and age. “Gore” and “ghastly” are both present in the name of this castle which, in an early draft, Peake called “The House of Darkstones.”
2. “As a picture it must be lived with. But where?”
The popular story of Peake that has come down to us, and which is only beginning to be challenged, is of an artist who fell to pieces. The Gormenghast Trilogy is too often read as the literary expression of this unraveling. Such an approach renders the third book, Titus Alone, very much alone, separate from the first two novels: by subjecting Titus Alone to a sort of clinical reading, as if it were a record of Parkinson’s disease, it stymies any attempt to discover what Peake may have been trying to accomplish in the novel. Michael Moorcock has written of the exploratory nature of Titus Alone, and this avenue deserves further study, as do other aspects of Peake’s life and work. The “umbrageous legacy” of the Gormenghast novels — the brooding Gothicism that has become synonymous with Mervyn Peake — is important, but it is only part of the story.
Mervyn Peake was born to missionary parents in China in 1911, and spent his early years in Tianjin. G. Peter Winnington’s biography, Vast Alchemies, mentions several elements of Peake’s early life that may have found their way into his art, such as the flooding of Tianjin in 1917, which likely inspired the flooding of Gormenghast Castle. Even more significant to Peake’s writings and drawings was the landscape of Sark, where he spent time both before and after his marriage to Maeve Gilmore. Sark is, of course, an island, and therefore in a sense an enclosure, sharing some of the attributes of a ship or a castle; its cliffs entered Peake’s illustrations for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and it provided the setting for Peake’s novel Mr. Pye. Peake was a painter, and made a living as an art teacher and illustrator. His service during World War II included a brief term as a war artist. He was, as the writings of those who knew him assert again and again, a person of enormous humor, generosity and exuberance.
And this is the Mervyn Peake we may have trouble seeing through the massive shadow cast by the Gormenghast books, and by his illness. The piratical Peake, scandalizing the inhabitants of Sark with his gold earring and scarlet-lined cloak. The Peake who clambered up the cliffs with a fledgling cormorant in his pocket. The Peake who, having failed out of school and thus forfeited the opportunity to exhibit the Gold Medal painting he had been working on, flipped it over and painted another picture on the other side. The Peake who drew inspiration from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan as well as the plays of Marlowe.
If we find it hard to associate this merry and dashing figure with the author of the Gormenghast books, we won’t be the first ones to have trouble placing Mervyn Peake. Throughout his life, observers struggled with the combination of playfulness and darkness in his work. His picture book, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, was deemed “quite unsuitable for sensitive children” by the Times Literary Supplement, due to its “rather horrific gallery of portraits” (2). In 1944, he exhibited, among other works, a large painting called “Mr. Brown’s Resurrection,” said to portray a scene from everyday life with a “nightmarish” quality. The painting, unfortunately, did not survive. We are left with the bemusement of a reviewer for the Sunday Times: “As a picture it must be lived with. But where?” (3).
Where can we live with Mervyn Peake? The tension between restriction and excess in his work certainly suggests a Gothic sensibility, and the gloomy atmosphere of Gormenghast Castle undoubtedly allies it with Otranto, Udolpho and the House of Usher. I would like, however, to offer another way of approaching his work, one that may embrace both Gothicism and play. This is a road that begins not with Marlowe or even with Dickens, but with another of Peake’s influences: adventure fiction.
3. Oh, Crystal Worlds!
Although Mervyn Peake was never very good at school, he was an enthusiastic reader. As a child, he read News from Afar, a monthly children’s magazine distributed by the London Missionary Society, and submitted letters and drawings to it. His imagination was captured by Treasure Island to the extent that he learned most of it by heart, and wrote a story of his own about a boy named “Hugh Silver.” His fascination with pirates continued into adulthood, flickering in his gold earring and in the Captain Slaughterboard drawings. Drawing was his earliest and most consistent passion: a friend of his parents’ in Tianjin recalls that he “simply drew, all the time… It was difficult to get him to bed simply because he stuck to this drawing” (4). A similar image surfaces during Peake’s war years: Philip Best, who served with him, remembers how, wherever and whenever possible, “Gunner Peake” would take out his stub of pencil and draw, “[i]n complete happiness and wrapped within himself,” and with “tremendous purpose and concentration” (5).
“That,” Best adds, “was Peake’s discipline.” But the image of Peake here suggests a person in the grip of something altogether more spontaneous and satisfying than discipline. The combination of purpose, concentration and “complete happiness” fits both art and play. The page is a little world, an enclosure to be filled by the artist’s design; imaginatively, the artist enters this space, so that to an outside observer he appears “wrapped within himself.” Without trivializing the artist’s work in any way, I want to suggest that the enclosed space of the work of art shares an affinity with the pirate ship, which is bound upon adventures but is also a little world, of which the pirate captain is the absolute ruler. “Her name was the Black Tiger,” Peake writes of the ship in his picture book, “and Captain Slaughterboard ruled her — every inch!” (6). This type of enclosure differs from the Gothic type, which is imposed from the outside. This enclosure is built, and claimed, from within a larger structure, as a child’s pirate vessel is constructed of living-room chairs. The dangers and mishaps of adventure fiction are pleasurable in part because of the enclosures created in opposition to them: the cave, the campsite, the boat.
Here, then, is a way of reading enclosure and compression in Peake’s fiction: as a form of play. The joy of the game glimmers in Titus’s marbles: “Oh, beautiful marbles! Oh, blood-alleys! Oh, clouded ones, aswim in blood and milk! Oh, crystal worlds, that make the pockets jangle — that make the pockets heavy!” (7). These pocket worlds inspire more than a passing delight: Fuchsia Groan’s love for her private universe, her attic, “equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply” (8). The child’s love for the secret enclosure is the love of all human beings for “the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.” It is the diver’s love for the sea, the farmer’s love for the earth, and also “[t]he love of the painter standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making” (9).
A different way of reading enclosure; and also, perhaps, a different way of reading excess. For all their preoccupation with compression, the Gormenghast novels are sprawling, unwieldy things, with an organic feel, like shrubs allowed to grow wild. This is the complement to scribbling small: doodling out of proportion. Again, I don’t wish to trivialize Peake’s work by the comparison. Doodling, a form of play using pencil and paper, is also a type of improvisation, of experimentation, yielding unexpected and sometimes striking results. The impulse toward embellishment, toward drawing outside the lines, gives the Gormenghast novels their fascinating bulges and extra appendages, such as the stream-of-consciousness monologues of the chapter “The Reveries” in Titus Groan, or the elaborate preparations for Irma Prunesquallor’s party in Gormenghast. Doodling, less controlled than drawing, allows for humor and transgression. Far from being too adult for the eyes of “sensitive children,” the “horrific” portraits of Captain Slaughterboard, bristling with the energy and wickedness of doodles, may be too childish for sensitive adults.
The child’s secret world, where joyous grotesquerie proliferates, is for Peake the center of life. To betray it is a crime. This is what gives his story “Same Time, Same Place,” reprinted in The Weird, its atmosphere of loss. On the surface, “Same Time, Same Place” is the story of a youth who escapes a ghastly bride; underneath, it concerns a child’s loss of his secret world. Though the narrator is nearly twenty-three years old, his childish character is obvious from the first sentence: “That night I hated Father” (10). It is equally clear that he is right to hate the “dark, smug mortality” of his parents’ home (11), and to escape to Piccadilly Circus. He goes there in search of adventure, which he imagines taking place in a private enclosure: “How wonderful it would have been to have known of some apartment, dimly lighted; of a door that opened to the secret knock…” (12). His dream comes true, not in a dim apartment, but in a crowded restaurant, where he meets and falls in love with a majestic lady. The enclosure appears later, as the window that frames the narrator’s view of the office where he is to meet and marry his love. Within that frame, the hand of a diabolical doodler has been at work: the horrified husband-to-be sees a bearded lady, a man with “the longest neck on earth,” a tattooed man, a man with a cloven hoof in place of one of his hands, and lastly his diminutive bride, who resembles “a mechanical doll” (13).
These grotesques are portrayed as absolutely malignant. Yet the young man’s return to his parents’ dull home reads as tragic. Terror shares space with romance (same time, same place); in fleeing the apparently horrible, the young man has closed the door on his private world, and betrayed both his bride and himself. “Since then I have never left the house,” he declares: an image of a perverted enclosure, where the child-narrator will always belong entirely to his parents, and where transgression and art are impossible (14). Mr. Slaughterboard, an early iteration of the Captain, loathes the thought of such cowardice: “If I ever disobey the artist within me, may my eyeballs turn to blood, and my tongue become a fungus” (15).
The work of Mervyn Peake was made possible by his absolute fidelity to the closed space of art, a fidelity so difficult to sustain that we see it only rarely, and which will always result in works that are sui generis. His oeuvre is a legacy both umbrageous and quicksilver-bright, full of glowering portraits that always retain a hint of the absurd, and lugubrious halls in which a child has fashioned a hidey-hole and is enjoying a feast of seed cake and dandelion wine. Although the exquisitely vile Steerpike steals most of the scenes in Gormenghast, it is after all Titus Groan who is the hero: Titus with his pocket full of crystal worlds, whose true home is not Gormenghast Castle but a castle in the air. For first and ever foremost he is child.
(1) Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast, in The Gormenghast Trilogy (Woodstock, NY: 1988), 400.
(2) G. Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2000), 115. All biographical details are drawn from this source.
(3) Winnington, 173.
(4) Winnington, 37.
(5) Winnington, 133.
(6) Mervyn Peake, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2001), 2.
(7) Gormenghast, 462.
(8) Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan, in The Gormenghast Trilogy, 58.
(9) Titus Groan, 59.
(10) Mervyn Peake, “Same Time, Same Place,” in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (New York: Tor Books, 2012). Kindle edition, loc. 11180.
(11) “Same Time, Same Place,” loc. 11196.
(12) “Same Time, Same Place,” loc. 11210.
(13) “Same Time, Same Place,” loc. 11280 – 7.
(14) “Same Time, Same Place,” loc. 11314.
(15) Mervyn Peake, Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 69.