Really. It sucks so much ass that I can’t even properly articulate the force of the vacuum produced by its suckiness. At times it feels like all I do for this degree is sit in front of a textbook or a couple of poorly-written, dry-as-the-Ghobi articles and attempt, to the very best of my ability, to imprint everything I read straight into the hippocampus for short term retention followed by ejection at a later date. It saps at me – even now, when I’ve moved away from the mindless reading and reading and reading, it infects my writing – makes it bland and weak and altogether horrid. It feels as though my ability to think independently has been destroyed – truly the opposite of what I expected a tertiary education to have gifted me. Horrible, all of it. I sit and read and read until I feel my eyes scratched raw by the words and all I can think of is wanting to leave the desk and watch some mind-numbing television or something. To cleanse the mental palate of anything that remotely resembles an intellectually rigorous act and switch the brain firmly to the ‘off’ position whilst my body (as it has already for far too long) sits languidly in standby.
I recently read Titus Groan, a fantasy novel by the British author Mervyn Peake – and I have to say that doing so was an experience that has stuck with me in a way that I didn’t really expect. I’d heard of the novel and the sterling reputation that it and its sequel, Gormenghast, have in the speculative fiction community – both are seen as landmark works that are demonstratively literary in their approach to the writing of fantasy. I know that I myself am quite a rambler – I fill pages and pages up with writing, words that tumble and trickle and play viciously amongst the long slopes of language in a way that is obfuscating and entirely unnecessary. At times I interject with anachronisms, ruining the flow of the piece, and at others I interrupt with colloquialisms that are too modern and bombastic in their natures to suit the otherwise contemplative nature of what is written. I am a horrible writer, I relish in unseemly grandiosity – a terribly astute example of purple prose at its worst. There is no way to ‘reign it in,’ as to do so would require the reigning of so much material that the saddle and rope would not be able to handle it and fall to pieces.
Reading Peake’s work, then, was a true revelation – at last, amongst the barren fields of well-balanced and engagingly-written prose that I have otherwise been subjecting myself to, there is a grotesque, obsessive authorial structure that looms on the literary horizon. A structure, a behemoth, that speaks to me personally, with its strength and grandeur and twisted obscurity. Arrogant and headstrong in its hubris, but perhaps more powerful in the end because of it, Titus Groan and Gormenghast strike a gargantuan pose on the landscape, digging deep to the earthen bones of the place whilst joyously scraping at the sky with jagged peaks. A beautiful place, but one that could all the same never really be called friendly. It is a home that has not been built for the reader. Unlike other novels that I’ve had the terrible pleasure to read, these books of Peake’s do not seem to attempt to accommodate the reader, to make him or her feel welcome in his abode. But, then, they also do not go out of their way to challenge, to push and prod and poke with words to see what makes us tick. In the end, it all feels rather more like a monument – not to the reader, but to the thing itself. To Gormenghast and to Titus, the seventy-seventh earl of that most illustrious line and all that it represents. Titus Groan is a book written for itself – it is beautiful and terrible and long and heavy, grotesquely dark and yet frivolous and light in ways that remain preternaturally unforgiving. It is a novel that should be read, and I am very glad that it has been written.
In some traditions, the prey of the riders of the Wild Hunt is a female troll called ‘Slattenpatte,’ which means ‘wobbly breast.’ The ugly, ferocious Slattenpat puts her long, hanging breasts over her shoulder to run faster.
His horse twisted its head, bucking against the pull of the reins. An eerie half-light covered the land, slowly sweeping from hill to hill like the ragged edge of a vast cloak. They were all uneasy, as it always was before the hunt. Tension coiled tightly in the air, a creeping dread that saturated the fogged moor and made each breath a struggle.
As he straightened himself a powerful sharpness arced upwards from his fingertips and seemed to pierce his skull, flashing white fire. It was all he could do to keep from shouting out and giving free reign to his need to drive the horse forth in a wild blaze of animal sweat.
But he couldn’t. Not just yet. He had to wait, one man amongst countless ranks of hunters. So he stood strong as the white fire traveled up through his limbs and burned his insides, making it impossible to sit still. How could they stand it, these others? Didn’t they feel the deep yearning to do something, anything, to stop the slow spread of the creeping fire? Did it burn as strong for them as it did for him? No answers. But still, he waited.
And waited. Until the fire ate up his innards, a profound, searing pain that went deeper than any other, through the weakness of the flesh to the ache of the soul.
And he waited. Until the need to set the fire free, to lay great swathes of destruction across the ground became almost too much to bear.
And so, after time, she crested the hill. The wait was over and the hunt had begun as he urged his horse forward, faster. The clouds collided with a tumultuous roar as the heavens were ripped apart by the fury of his adulation.
They moved as one, he and his battle-brothers, driven by the same desire to capture, to hunt and to catch and to kill her, to rip apart her limbs and scatter them amongst the ruin they left in their wake.
The stench of horse’s piss and the sweat and fear of men mingled on the slopes, lingering for a moment until it was swept away by the wind. They ran and ran, but she was faster, far in front of them as a blackened mote on the horizon.
The clatter of hooves boomed across the hills like the drumbeat of the deep gods, and all who knew him and his for what they were fled. They were the riders of the Wild Hunt, and those who saw them were doomed to die.
And so they chased her as it was both their purpose and their passion. They barrelled across the cliffs and rivers of the land as she ran on. She was fast as the years were slow, stretching into long nights and truncated days that blurred into a mess of salted earth and raped innocence. She was cunning, and knew all the hidden places of land and hearth, had stolen them from the hearts of open men and jealous lovers to store them safe in her spleen. This she did with her magic and her hate and her lust, the broken remnants of her faded love.
The fire in him was dying as they ran forward and out of time. The clattering of hooves had quieted, the torrent of rain and blaze of white fire reduced to whispering wind.
So it was that when they finally caught her, the storm was nearly over, the time for the hunt to end fast approaching. Backed into a corner in the deep valley, she had tired as well. Her body quivered with exhaustion, her arms hanging limply by her side as she drew her last rasping, viscous breaths. The air stank of her, the putrid, rotten smell of the long-deceased and forgotten, and her skin was pallid and pockmarked as it swayed loosely from her formless body like a too-large coat.
They paused as the storm softened. The air was still, the men and horses silent and expectant.
Then the heavy veil of silence was torn with her deafening screech and they were upon her. Though she was fast and cunning and had her broken magic, she was not built to fight and so fell quickly to them.
He was in the middle of it, bathing in her death. Every crunch of bone and fatty marrow and flesh torn from the tattered framework of strung tendons had its exquisite counterpoint in the foulness of her mute wretchedness. With time, only chunks of bloody gristle and ragged skin remained, smeared into the mud and the grass. A victory for the All-Father, the gallows god and the men who had won it for him.
But there were no cheers, no laughter or banter amongst the men. Only silence, as they dedicated their death to their god. Silence, as the white fire died away, the sound of hooves dispersed and the sun pierced the cover of cloud once again. The hunt was over.
Perhaps the above would be a better subtitle to Heinrich Boll’s ‘masterpiece of compression and irony,’ the novella The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum: or how violence develops and where it can lead. After all, the source of Katharina’s violent murder of the journalist Werner Totges stems, ultimately, from the easy suggestibility of the West German populace, their guileless trust in The News for their news. Or perhaps not; I’m not one to push my opinions and present them as irrefutable fact, unlike – as Boll understood (and hopefully present-day readers of his novella understand) – the unscrupulous disciples of yellow journalism present in the mass media. Although, to be completely honest, I suppose the exploitation of the easy suggestibility of the unwary reader has reached far worse proportions than I’m sure Boll ever imagined. The advent of the internet and the resulting floodgate of so-called ‘facts’ – oftentimes flimsy opinion and half-truths masquerading as the irrefutable – has led to a modern society in which what is true and what is not can no longer be easily distinguished. Whether or not this actually matters all that much is something I am still in contention about. After all, what is ‘true’ is only what is perceived as truth (right?). If Katharina, in Boll’s story, is thought by the majority to be a low-life, ‘ice cold and calculating’ ‘gangster’s moll,’ then who am I to argue with the majority?
Who am I? And, perhaps more importantly, who are you? You, as I’m sure you are aware, are the reader. So whilst I am not in any position to argue with the majority, you most certainly are. Do not let your trust in the integrity of the writer blind you to his (or her) machinations! As Boll knew well, just because something is on The News doesn’t mean that it is true; only that it is on the news.
Boll’s novella esplores the easy suggestibility of the trusting reader. The writer’s aim is to influence the reader, to implant thoughts, ideas, concepts and the like into the reader’s mind. The reader must be aware of this, and monitor what thoughts are being placed where, by whom, and for what reason, to make sure that what is being thought is really what the reader wants to think! Of course, the reader’s inclination towards suggestibility can only be manipulated by a skilled writer (we would hope). An author who writes:
‘Hit yourself on the head!’
will most probably not achieve the results he was after (excluding the proportion of the population that belongs to a very small and very stupid minority, of course). The reader needs to be coerced, charmed, to be seduced into thinking as the writer wishes – it is a subtle game.
What Boll points out, though, is that this ‘art’ of the writer – his ability to influence the reader – becomes completely unnecessary when so-called ‘facts’ become involved. When certain statements are presented as ‘The Facts,’ the reader automatically becomes more willing to accept the unacceptable simply because… well, look at the facts. For example, consider again the above statement:
‘Hit yourself on the head!’
when it is presented as the logical end result of indisputable ‘fact’:
‘The recent literature shows that blunt force trauma to the cranium encourages an increase in the rate of growth of areasthe brain’s frontal lobe, cerebellum and hippocampus, potentially augmenting memory, coordination and executive cognitive ability. So: hit yourself on the head!’
Convincing, is it not?
Outside, the sky slowly darkens as electric light bathes the train carriage. In the harsh whiteness, the passengers’ movements become stiff and awkward, the life sucked from their myriad conversations and worries. An insistent drone emanates from the long fluorescent tubes that hang stretched overhead. It distracts her, makes it impossible to think clearly – an insect, a small parasite insidiously burrowing its way into her head with its incessant murmuring.
“Are you okay?”
Dominique is worried about her. Dom – she knew that it would be hard on her, hard for everyone, Scully especially.
No, can’t think of him. It’s too raw, the pain too recent like a heaving wound that feels as though it would go away if she could just stop thinking about it, stop looking at it, prodding and poking and worrying.
“Oh. Yeah – I mean, yes, I’m okay.” Not enough. She has to say more. Can’t leave Dom like that. “I’m okay. Look, I’m sorry about this, I really am. I mean, it’s not as though I don’t love you, it’s just… I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” Dominique sighs and sidles closer to her. “Billie was a lovely girl, and Scully was nice in his own way too, but you have to understand – they weighed you down. You see that, don’t you? They were like rocks tied around your neck. But now you’re free of them, free to do what you want, to be the artist you were born to be. Don’t you see what I’m telling you? You’re free to be with me. How can that be hard?”
She sighs. Dominique is right. She is where she wants to be, with a woman who is everything she admires. Beautiful and talented and mysterious. What would her parents think of her now?
What did it matter that she would never see Billie’s wild curls again, never feel the roughness of Scully’s palms and the blind adoration that was his love. They were the preface to her grand story, the introduction of the play. Weights around her neck.
An announcement booms out across the platform crowded with people eager to be gone. The train will be delayed for another half-hour due to an accident on the line. The station is very sorry for any inconvenience caused, and no, there will be no compensation.
After a pause, the train sways a little from the rush of people leaving to make their way through the numerous cafes and streetside stores that line the roads outside the station. They leave behind a string of moans and complaints about the unfairness of life, how this incident has completely upset their plans for the rest of the evening.
“Do you want a coffee?” says Dominique, standing to leave.
“No thanks, I’m fine. You go without me, I just need a little rest. Love you.”
The door slides softly shut, causing the still-buzzing light to flicker momentarily. She sits and stares aimlessly in the cold light of the compartment, now empty. The train is quiet and still as she waits.
I took a stroll down Raglan Road
Alone and far from home,
For I dream of a statue of flesh and of blood
And a face that makes my heart burn.
A monolith crowned with cold, dark strands
Of night with a forest of stars,
The only love who could take my heart
And mar it with unhealing scars.
Dead with despair in her hair-woven snare
My heart still and forever shall yearn,
For I loved with a burning hot passion
That cold stone cannot ever return.
Candle burns brightly
As electric light fizzles outside.
The rain beats endlessly on
The door to my home.
It is an ugly house.
Three windows. Two broken.
Lonely light flickers from
Behind a barred, broken door.
I sit in my house
Night or day.
Sun burns brightly
Candle dies quietly.