Gothic tales grip the addict

8th November 1996 at 00:00
BOY IN DARKNESS By Mervyn Peake Hodder Pounds 9.99

CLOCKWORK OR ALL WOUND UP By Philip Pullman Doubleday Pounds 9.99

Famous for his Gormenghast series (50 years old this month) and for his strange paintings which seem to plumb schizophrenic depths of despair and horror, Mervyn Peake was not a happy bunny. Quite how unhappy he was, I hadn't grasped until I read Boy in Darkness.

Without the macabre and obsessive detail of the Gormenghast trilogy and without such semi-sympathetic characters as Fuchsia and Flay to break up the monotony of malice and decay, Peake's imagination is seen here in all its hideous doom and gloom. It's jolly well written, though.

The plot, if such it can be called, follows a Boy (Titus, though not much is made of this) in his flight from the stifling ceremonial of the Castle into the desert ruled by the White Lamb who lives in a vault. Other inhabitants of the desert fight over who is to have the honour of dedicating the Boy to the Lamb. But the Boy snatches his chance and kills the tyrant Lamb, to return to the relative sanctuary of the Castle. Any echoes of Christian imagery can, it is safe to say, be read as intentional.

In the end, you are either a Peake addict or not. This handsome edition of a slight novella, first published in 1956, will grip the addict but novice teenage angst-seekers would be well advised to start with Titus Groan.

Clockwork, a truly Gothic tale from this year's hot children's author, Philip Pullman, features the stock ingredients: wild nights, burgomasters, horses and iron swords, characters with names like Otto and Doctor Kalmenius. But relax, we are in the hands of an authentic story-teller, who will not waste all his special effects just to make your flesh creep.

The alternative title, All Wound Up, points the reader in the direction of one of those deliciously intricate fairy tales which have beating at their core the knowledge that everything unwinds back to its proper place, the wicked and lazy get their just deserts and the prince is rescued by the power of love. Which doesn't mean that it's a cosy tale, but it is deeply satisfying and deserves to become a classic.

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