Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: Boy in Darkness and Other Stories by Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake and I just don’t get along.

Perhaps it’s a tragedy of missed connections, varied personalities, and drastically opposed attitudes towards tale-telling. Maybe I’ve had the misfortune to chance upon his works at inopportune times, but whatever the case, his stories have never evoked that imaginative stirring in me. I had plunged into his Gormenghast novels with high hopes, but found that world too oppressive. I fared no better with Boy in Darkness and Other Stories.

My impression of this collection of tales was that of reading a compilation of literary templates. Any of these tales could easily be the outline that an aspiring writer could use to create his own tale, much as a blogger might customize a template design. These stories are the bare bones of tales, waiting for color and details, strung together with a theme of underdevelopment.

The eponymous story tells of the journey of Titus – of Gormenghast fame – into a dark wilderness, where he encounters a Goat and a Hyena who serve a demonic Lamb. It’s a bewildering world, as the Lamb – a Biblical symbol of God and salvation – is a sort of devilish deity, while the Goat and Hyena who serve him are men degraded to animal form, rather than raised higher by a god. The Boy – who has not yet become Man – must make his way through this darkness, but his path through it is at once too long and too short. The intriguing premise itself is passed over, while the atmospheric descriptions drag on.

The other stories are five in number, and suffer from the same flaw of underdevelopment. The first of these, “The Weird Journey”, is supposedly a play on Baudelaire’s idea of Correspondances, but Peake seems to have tried too hard. Its opening paragraph reads so much like an exercise from a creative writing class that I seriously debated whether I should read the second one:

“Once upon a time-theory, when alone on the great bed, I found that no sooner had my head left the pillow than I fell wide awake. How far I fell I cannot say, but the light was brilliant all about me and the shrill cries of birds were loud in my eyes – so loud, they seemed, that I could not tell whether they were in my brain or whether, all around my head and limbs, they spiraled in a flight too fleet for vision.”

The story goes on in more or less the same vein, and while this oversaturation of metaphors might be someone’s cup of tea, I found it to be unpalatable.

The next tale is a short one, “I Bought a Palm Tree,” and this is perhaps the most enjoyable of them all, for its humor adds spice to a volume that is otherwise rather lacking in it.

Next, one encounters “The Conoisseurs”, two art lovers whose dialogue is supposed to read like a “snippet from one of Oscar Wilde’s short plays,” as the introduction claims. The tale’s ending does indeed have the biting irony of Wilde, but Peake’s style holds it back, preventing that harmony of form and function that was such an integral part of Wilde’s charm – and artistic credo. The following piece of hyphenated callousness, for example, lacks the aesthetic context of Wilde’s writings, and thus ultimately fails as a witty imitation of Lord Henry Wotton’s posturing, which it clearly intends to be:

 “yes, yes, the vase. But, surely, very far from poor. Are the poor ever so elegant? I have been told they have their own kind of beauty – somebody told me that once – I don’t remember who- don’t ask me- but all the same, leaving the poor aside (as one usually does, God help us) – if you see what I mean – they are hardly vases – nor are they rare – my dear chap – one might say they are never rare.”

The penultimate tale is “Danse Macabre”, which, as the introduction claims, “takes a familiar image from the traditional Gothic tale and gives it a new and sinister twist.” But this story finds itself in an uncomfortable tug-of-war between its Gothic atmosphere and its drawing-room setting. The Poe-esque nightmare with which the tale begins – not entirely unreminiscent of The Tell-Tale Heart – is quickly followed by an elegant dinner and drinks party; its attendees are the mere sketches of socialites, lacking the psychological depth that made Poe’s tales so sinister.

The volume ends with “Same Time, Same Place,” a yarn which could perhaps be subtitled “Same Story” for its predictability: a young man, curious for adventure, leaves his familiar home and finds a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love and to whom he rash makes promises. Well, of course she turns out not to be what he imagined, and of course the promises he made to her are meaningless, and of course he returns back home, better able to appreciate what he’s left behind.

This simplicity could perhaps be excused by the fact that these are supposedly children’s stories – except that children’s stories rarely utilize the word “adumbrate” in the opening paragraph or attempt to define themselves as Kafka-esque or Poe-esque. Peake’s collection of tales seems to be having a sort of internal identity crisis, oscillating desperately between simplicity and attempted complexity.

 This article was originally published at Blogcritics

Friday, March 2, 2012

Book Review: Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles

Imagine two men. The first: a mastermind who lives for solving pretty little problems. Eccentric and amoral, he sees the truth through the fog of that distant Victorian London. The second: a war veteran from Afghanistan, tough, scarred, addicted to danger. He’s a faithful sidekick and chronicler. Admittedly, I didn’t mention a deerstalker or pipe, but nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson come to mind.

Except that that’s not who I mean. That description applies equally to Professor Moriarty and Sebastian Moran. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis, is mysteriously – and tantalizingly – absent from most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He was created by Doyle to kill off Holmes in The Final Problem, turns out to be beyond the events of The Valley of Fear, and appears in none of the other fifty-eight tales. Holmes only encounters him once (with the exception of that fateful meeting at Reichenbach Falls), and Watson himself never actually meets the Professor. In fact, the only time the reader actually “sees” Moriarty is in a narrative by Holmes later related by Watson. That makes Moriarty a rather tantalizingly mysterious blank slate.

Kim Newman has courageously taken up the challenge of filling up that slate in his book Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles.  He’s put together a delightful series of stories – tied together into a novel – narrated by Moriarty’s right hand man, Sebastian Moran. The idea of Moriarty and Moran as a sort of dark-double duo of Holmes and Watson, with Moran recording Moriarty’s crimes, is not entirely new – there are hints of it in Doyle’s stories (referred to as the Canon), and in a few of the more obscure Holmes movies. But never has it been developed to this extent, and never (with the exception of a particular Neil Gaiman story), as delightfully as this.

These stories don’t take place in Holmes’ world, but in a mirror reflection of it. Everything is exactly the same, except that Moriarty’s quite literally replaced Holmes. Newman has carefully, methodically disassembled the edifice that is the Canon, added a few crooked building blocks of his own, and reassembled the entire thing in a skewed, backwards, disturbing and utterly brilliant way. If Neil Gaiman can be described by a reviewer as a demonic chef, then Newman is certainly a possessed architect.

Newman’s Moriarty makes tea, plots dastardly deeds, drives his enemy to lunacy (or, as the latter would prefer, “moonacy”), and avoids being a walking cliché – all before breakfast. The stories are absolutely stunning in their inventiveness, the crimes are ingenious, and the humor is literally breath-taking. Yet they contain just enough reverence for Doyle’s originals. Particularly remarkable is “The Red Planet League,” a play on “The Red-Headed League” and perfect for fulfilling one’s daily humor needs. The prose – which I can’t call “stunning” because there must be a limit to how many times that word can appear in a review – is sizzling, engaging, witty, and punctuated by particularly remarkable passages, such as the following:

“They’ve called him the Napoleon of Crime, but that’s just putting what he is, what he does, in a cage. He’s not a criminal, he is crime itself, sin raised to an art form, a church with no religion but rapine, a God of Evil. Pardon my purple prose, but there it is. Moriarty brings things out in people, things from their depths.
He poured me tea.”

And, of course, the book has its fair share of witty variations on famous Canonical lines: “To Professor Moriarty, she was always that bitch,” and “the worst and wildest man I have ever known.”

There’s only one downfall to the novel, which is more of a small bump in the road than a pitfall, and that’s the question of the intended audience: avid Sherlockians or casual readers? The book is packed with clever references to minor Doyle villains and other Victorian literary works. The avid Sherlockian likes nothing better than a puzzle to solve, and finding these well-hidden hints to familiar works is like getting an early birthday present – except that the endnotes give it away. Answers at the back of the book may make the story clearer for the casual reader, but it certainly spoils the fun for the Sherlockian. And yet, to enjoy the clever, provocative twists on the Canon Newman offers at the deepest level, the detailed knowledge of a Sherlockian is necessary. For example, Moriarty presents himself as a scientist, juxtaposing himself to a conjurer who dabbles in deductions. It’s a clever contrast to Doyle’s Holmes, who is often referred to as a magician or wizard for the deductive skills that make him a beloved hero. Presumably the Sherlockian who catches this twist would know about the conundrum of why Watson had never heard of Moriarty in The Final Problem? Yet this explanation, like many others, finds its way into an endnote. But that’s a minor complaint, really.

In a world overcrowded with Holmes adaptations, pastiches, sequels, prequels, and re-writes, true gems can be as rare as the Pearl of the Borgias, and this is truly one of those gems that Moriarty himself would create a dastardly plot to obtain. There’s much of the Canon Newman left untouched, and one hopes that one day, more ink may flow from his pen onto paper…

This review was originally published at Blogcritics