Sep 10, 2015

Boy in Darkness: Gay Symbolism and Gothic Horror: The Most Frightening Story Ever Told

When I was an undergraduate at Augustana College, I bought lots of old science fiction novels at the used bookstore.  A surprising number had naked men on the covers.  I picked up The Inner Landscape (1969) for that reason.  But even more surprisingly, it contained the most frightening story ever written, "Boy in Darkness," first published in 1956 by Mervyn Peake (who wrote the fantasy trilogy Gormenghast).

A boy -- identified as Titus, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast -- grows up in a gigantic castle, oppressed by endless rituals, expectations, and obligations.  Everyone tells him that there is no world beyond the castle, no life beyond that which he's being groomed for, but he doesn't believe it.  On his fourteenth birthday, he escapes.

He walks through a nightmare world, an ashen wasteland crowded with translucent shapes and slimy things, until finally he encounters two beings, the Goat and the Hyena -- not animals, exactly, nor yet men.  The husks of men.  They were once lovers -- they call each other "my dear" and "my love," but only in mockery, the affection they once shared bled away long ago through their service to the Lamb.

The Lamb is an ancient, evil being, blind, empty of brain or bone, but beautiful, with long golden curls.  He is dependent on the Goat and the Hyena to provide his victims -- men and boys, who he will first drain dry and then change into monsters. The Boy will be his next victim.

Through a combination of courage, luck,  and sheer innocence, the Boy manages to slay the Lamb and release the Goat and the Hyena.  Then he walks "in kind of a dream" to where the searchers from the Castle can find him.

The gay symbolism was obvious -- the Lamb and his minions who worked to pervert men and boys were nothing more than the "Swishes" of Rocky High, who could destroy you with a whispered word or a touch.   But that wasn't the frightening part -- many, many stories of the Cold War Era -- such as James Purdy's Malcolm, depicted gayness as a brooding malignancy.

The frightening part was the end, when the Boy is found, and taken home to return to his duties and obligations.  There really is nothing out there.  There is no escape.

Mervyn Peake drew the illustrations himself.  For some reason he specialized in male nudes, though I haven't seen anything indicating that he was gay.

Boy in Darkness has been made into a short film (2000) starring Jack Ryder (of the British soap East Enders, top photo), and into a play (2009), starring Gareth Murphy (left).

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