Dark, impossibly creative, epic, horrific, beautiful – Peake weaves a world and characters out of something beyond the capability of dreams and nightmares, so complex and unique are they in their looks, language and actions. The book is more about the vast Gormenghast castle itself than the people in it. The structure is alive and breathing, vivid and haunting from its loftiest towers into its darkest shadows. The atmosphere surrounds you and seeps into your heart and mind. The book is one that you inhabit rather than read. It is remarkably compelling in its terror, and never more so than in the strange character of Steerpike, the grim and bloodily ambitious kitchen boy who seemingly embodies Gormenghast, seeks to control it, and very nearly destroys it. Although you shudder at the destruction he brings, you want him to succeed if only to keep him present in the narrative, if only to linger a little longer in the book’s shady corners.
I keep one book with me no matter where I move. I read it perhaps once a month, and have ever since early childhood. Its illustrations are so intricate that even now I find new details. I feel as though I have inhabited its dark forests, looming castle and glowing cottage in the glen. It set the tone for my childhood, which was one of mystery and imagination, solitude and an abiding affection for place. The book is ‘Snow White’, written by Josephine Poole and illustrated by the incomparable Angela Barrett. It captures all the eerie wonder of those fairytales that kindle the imagination, that stir the heart with the endurance and tenderness of their characters, even while chilling you with evocations of dark, thorny woods on moonless nights.