Two Superb Short Stories

Recently I’ve been enjoying lots of new series, such as Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, the Death Note manga and lots and lots of Agatha Christie novels. Before I dive much further into all these new interests, I thought this would be a good time to look back over my bookshelves and discuss a few old favourites! So here are two short stories that I would highly recommend!

  1. Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake

Of course this macabre tale had to feature on this list – it’s so wonderfully strange and surreal! While the hero of this story is clearly Titus Groan of the Gormenghast series, it can be read in isolation from the series and still make perfect sense. It would be an excellent introduction for anyone new to Peake. I have talked about this story in detail before so suffice to say, it’s an atmospheric, nightmarish tale, which breaks down the boundaries between humans and animals. This is a story best read on a dark night, so close the curtains, dim the lights, and let yourself be absorbed into Peake’s disturbing fantasy.

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2. Please Excuse My Husband, He’s a Vegetarian by Michele Roberts

As a vegetarian, it might be surprising that I’m fond of this story, but I challenge anyone to resist this appealing dark comedy. It tells the story of a British husband and wife trying to settle into life in France; the wife manages to adjust with ease, but the husband’s vegetarian habits are rather baffling to this new society. The wife’s growing frustration is aimed not at their new French neighbours, but instead it’s her unfortunate, oblivious husband that has to face her wrath. I won’t spoil the ending, but even though I recognised some of my own awkward restaurant encounters in this story, it’s an entertaining reminder that not everyone is happy to be accommodating!

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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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Top 10 Closing Lines

10. ‘One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?”

Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut

9. ‘Time to go.’

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

8. ‘Write to me quickly to tell me that he has come back…’

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Expurey

7. ‘As I began my homeward journey, I thought of my old friend Chang Tzu, who, waking suddenly, wondered whether he had dreamt that he was a butterfly or whether a butterfly was now dreaming that it was Chang Tzu.’

Under Fishbone Clouds, Sam Meekings

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6. ‘But now it’s time to let me go.’

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

5. ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and because I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon

4. ‘But whatever happens, wherever the scene is laid, somebody, somewhere, will quietly set out – somebody has already set out, somebody still rather far away is buying a ticket, is boarding a bus, a ship, a plane, has landed, is walking towards a million photographers, and presently he will ring at my door – a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus.’

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

3.  ‘Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

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2. ‘And so, exulting as the moonlit rocks fled by him, exulting as the tears streamed over his face – with his eyes fixed excitedly upon the blurred horizon – and the battering of the hoof-beats loud in his ears, Titus rode out of his world.’

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

1. ‘But once you’ve climbed out of this fleshy tomb, where is there left for you to go?’

Beijing Coma, Ma Jian

Holy crumpet, a nomination!

A gigantic thank you to I’m a Book Lover and Proud for nominating me for ‘The Very Inspiring Blogger Award’! The nomination was completely unexpected and very very much appreciated! I’ve only been blogging since December but I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering and interacting with other bloggers so far, and it means a lot to be welcomed into the wonderful community of book-bloggers on WordPress.

Here are the rules:

  • Display the Award Certificate on your website.
  • Announce your win with a post and link to whoever presented you with the award.
  • Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers.
  • Drop them a comment to tip them off after you have linked them in the post.
  • Post 7 interesting things about yourself

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7 facts about me (I may have interpreted the word ‘interesting’ quite loosely):

  1. Victorian London is my favourite fictional setting. (Excluding Hogwarts and Gormenghast, of course!)
  2. I spend more time than I’d like to admit looking at pictures of kittens/gifs of cats falling over.
  3. I cannot cook, at all. Left to my own devices, I will try to survive solely on bagels and chocolate. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m still functioning…
  4. When I was young(er), I wanted to be a member of Team Rocket.
  5. I love A Song of Ice and Fire but there are quite a few characters I still haven’t forgiven George R.R. Martin for killing off.
  6. I once met Sebastian Peake, Mervyn Peake’s eldest son.
  7. My favourite words are currently ‘rambunctious’ and ‘piffle’.

I would like to nominate the following talented people. I can’t recommend these bloggers highly enough!

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 far hyena laughter

To north, south, east or west, turning at will, it was not long before his landmarks fled him. Gone was the outline of his mountainous home. Gone was that torn world of towers. Gone that grey lichen; gone the black ivy. Gone was the labyrinth that fed his dreams. Gone ritual, his marrow and bane. Gone boyhood. Gone…

He only knows that he has left behind him, on the far side of the skyline, something inordinate; something brutal; something tender; something half real; something half dream; half of his heart; half of himself.

And all the while the far hyena laughter.

 Titus Alone,  Mervyn Peake

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Illustration by Gavin O’Keefe, 1991.

The vastest things

The vastest things are those we may not learn.
We are not taught to die, nor to be born,
Nor how to burn
With love.
How pitiful is our enforced return
To those small things we are the masters of.

The Vastest Things, Mervyn Peake, c. 1946

I think this is quite possibly my favourite poem of Peake’s. It captures perfectly the spirit of optimism that fuels his artistic drive. Although this spirit may be harder to find in his war poetry, or disguised beneath the darker themes of madness and corrosion in the Titus books, Titus will ultimately ride out of his castle to freedom. Here, too, even in our ‘pitiful return’ we can hold onto the sense of vastness.

Peake's Progress