Soul of Gormenghast

If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing – flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

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The Princess

These mirrors reflected back the features of the girl slouched on a stool before them. She was pale in the sickly way that was fashionable in the city, slender, and her hair, albeit lank, was long enough to sit on. It swaddled her like a light, blonde cloak. There was naught amiss in any singular component of her appearance, other than the skin being a touch too white, the lips bloodless. These minor, natural flaws did not explain why hers was but the deceptive beauty of the poisoned apple. It was not merely that she was shallow, a creature of simple malice: within her tiny skull a storm raged, hectic, vicious and vengeful. The depths of her character were murky and she herself, had she made the attempt, would struggle to rationalise her behaviour. In morals she was well-versed, for they had been imparted to her through fables as a young child, yet she could find no trace of villainy in her own actions. In her skewed world-view she was set apart.

A Reverie of Brothers by R. D. Shanks

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A Ghost Story

Now, however, as I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in their sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It was one of what I can only describe – and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw – as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed – must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her.

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

‘Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
‘Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!’

I was pretending that I did not speak their language; on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world; I was almost halfway past the fence.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

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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.

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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.

The Erlking

Who rides so late through the night and wind?
It’s the father with his child;
He has the boy safe in his arm,
He holds him secure, he holds him warm.

“My son, what makes you hide your face in fear?” –
Father, don’t you see the Erlking?
The Erlking with crown and flowing robe? –
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.” –

“You dear child, come along with me!
Such lovely games I’ll play with you;
Many colorful flowers are at the shore,
My mother has many a golden garment.”

My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the Erlking promises me so softly? –
“Be quiet, stay quiet, my child;
In the dry leaves the wind is rustling.”

The Erlking,  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Hyde Flippo

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The Erlking by Albert Sterner, ca. 1910

The Ugly Sister

Joanne Harris’ The Ugly Sister is a short story from Jig & Reels, a collection of stories which combine the magical and the everyday in myriad unsettling ways, whether it’s the school reunion of a class of witches, or a role-playing game which descends into a killing spree.

Joanne Harris

The Ugly Sister presents the Cinderella story from the perspective of one of the step-sisters. To complicate matters somewhat, the ugly step-sister in question is currently playing the character in a pantomime, yet she is not merely an actress; the reader is required to follow the fantastical logic of the story’s world and accept that our narrator truly is the ugly step-sister. In this way, the story plays with the conventions of both realist and fantasy writing; it grants too much attention to the mundane to fully transcend into a fantasy realm, yet to view the narrator as delusional actress is far too reductive a reading.

The narrator has existed ever since the story of Cinderella came into being, and has evolved alongside it throughout its various reincarnations. Joanne Harris astutely notes the ways in which fairy tales evolve to match the mood of the time, from the cruelty of the Grimm Brothers’ vision (‘the old days were savage, with crows to peck out our eyes’) to the triviality of the pantomime villain. Modern cinema, too, fashioned another angle on the story:

Nowadays, of course, we have trial by Disney, which is almost as bad: evil becomes ridiculous faced with so many pratfalls and flour bombs. There’s no dignity left in being a villain.

Granting a voice to an otherwise marginalised character enables the reader to appreciate a very familiar tale in an entirely new light. Cinderella is presented as irritatingly perfect (‘Mistress Smuggerella was toned, sleek, a perfect size eight’) while the sisters are ordinary, not the hideous caricatures they have become in the popular mindset. It is easier to perceive them as villains, and, by extension, the blonde, petite Cinderella as the downtrodden, oppressed heroine, by rendering them monstrously ugly.

The narrator uses her own treatment at the hands of her biographers to raise a slightly unsettling point about history: that it ‘favours the lookers’. Throughout human history, an association has been made between beauty and virtue; to be ugly is to have your sins written across your face. The theory of Physiognomy, for example, may appear out-dated and pseudo-scientific to us, yet have we truly moved on from believing we can read people’s characters in their faces? Although the story of Cinderella has been rewritten countless times throughout the ages, our attitudes towards ugliness seem to have remained static. In The Ugly Sister, Joanne Harris draws upon the reader’s knowledge of a conventional fairy-tale to probe our understandings of the connections between internal virtue and exterior appearance.