Boy in Darkness

We are all that is left of them…of all the creatures of the globe; of all insects and all birds – of the fish of the salt ocean and the beasts of prey. For he has changed their natures, and they have died. But we did not die. We became as we are through the powers of the Lamb and from his terrible skill.

The deadline for my dissertation is fast approaching and I have Mervyn Peake on the mind. I fancy escaping, for a short while, from the confines of Gormenghast and delving instead into Peake’s shorter fiction. Boy in Darkness [1956] is a deeply unsettling novella, which presents the attempt of the eponymous Boy (unnamed but undoubtedly Titus Groan) to flee from the castle and the nightmarish episode which ensues.


Boy in Darkness demonstrates the same flourishing, wildly evocative language of its predecessors. Through the Boy’s flight from his home, it also explores a similar theme: the desire of youth to revolt against age. The incoherence of the adult world is expressed through the ‘idiotic ceremonies’ in which the Boy is forced to participate; the traditions of the old are meaningless in the eyes of the young. Yet it simultaneously expresses the fears which constrain this desire to rebel, and which come close to curtailing the Boy’s escape: ‘It was not that something had gone that in his heart of hearts he wanted back but that something lay ahead of him that he had no wish to meet.’

The Boy’s fears are not without foundation; lost in an alien landscape, he encounters creatures akin to the Beast-Folk of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. Goat and Hyena possess the uncanny quality of H.G. Wells’ creations; they appear at once both familiar and strange, both human and beast. The Boy struggles to pinpoint the source of repulsion evoked by the creatures (‘The head was long and huge. But why should that, in itself, be repellent or impossible?’) but cannot help shuddering at their distinctly animalistic gestures. Unlike Doctor Moreau’s research subjects, Hyena and Goat are men re-fashioned as animals, but their transformation nevertheless expresses the same anxiety: the possibility that civilised men could revert to their bestial origins. Hyena and Goat have vague recollections of their human experiences: when the Boy weeps in response to his fear and fatigue, his cries provoke old memories, although neither creature can remember what it means to shed tears.

The transformation of Hyena and Goat represents the handiwork of the Lamb, to whom his creations show an almost religious devotion, hailing him as ‘our sovereign lord of the white head’. In contrast to his angelic white features, the Lamb’s voice cuts like a knife, while his sighs are ‘the sound of a scythe’. Unlike his creations, the Lamb is neither human or animal, but distinctly Other. In controlling the half-men he performs a similar role to Doctor Moreau, but with the crucial difference that his experiments were not undertaken in the hopes of benefiting humanity, but rather as an expression of his loathing towards mankind.

Boy in Darkness presents a truly disturbing tale; the crumbling Gothic castle of Titus Groan and Gormenghast feels almost homely in contrast to the cavernous lair of the Lamb.


2 thoughts on “Boy in Darkness

  1. Pingback: Two Superb Short Stories | R. D. Shanks

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