At first, I thought of Worldshaker as my ‘Mervyn Peake’ novel. I loved Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast—for me, they’re what Charles Dickens ought to be. I must’ve been desperate for more of the same kind of world (the third in the trilogy, Titus Alone, isn’t the same kind of world), because I had a dream where I discovered a massive volume that just happened to be a sequel to Gormenghast.
Fuchsia and Steerpike from Titus Groan and Gormenghast, as drawn by Mervyn Peake
I was in this strangely constructed library of many floors. When I started reading, the story was wonderful, even better than I hoped—until I woke up. Then the excitement disappeared, and so did my memory of the story. Every last skerrick of it! All I had left was the feeling it had given me, a sense of brooding atmosphere and weird dark characters. So disappointing!
Irma Prunesquallor, by Peake
Abiatha Swelter, by Mervyn Peake
So then I tried to come up with plans for a novel that would be just as brooding and atmospheric as the one that had disappeared on me. I developed the general idea of juggernauts, but the story only crystallised years later, when I had another dream.
I can’t remember where I was, but I was hands and knees looking down into this half-metre trench like a slot in the floor. I couldn’t believe what someone must’ve just told me, that there were human beings living down there.
Suddenly I was falling into the slot, down and down. Shapes of metal, cages and pipes on either side, faintly lit by unearthly green light. I was falling past floor after floor, wire floors that were only a few handbreadths high. And yes, there were human being crawling around on the floors, dirty wretched creatures in rags.
They turned to look at me and I felt their hatred. They meant to tear me limb from limb, probably devour me too. Hands reached out, grabbing at empty air, and still I fell, down and down. I woke up before I hit bottom.
That’s Col’s fall in Worldshaker, when Lumbridge drops him down the manhole into the terrifying world of Below. I think it relates to an experience when I was hitchhiking around New Zealand with a girlfriend and we arrived at the tiny youth hostel in Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland. We weren’t the only ones, because more and more backpackers turned up, until there five times as many people as bunks. The male dormitory ended up like a scene from Hell, everyone like sardines in bunks, underneath bunks, every inch of flat surface occupied. It was stifling and claustrophobic, but better than the pouring rain outside.
Maybe also another experience, even further back. I was in love with big ships, especially naval ships, when I was a kid, so it was a special treat to be taken to a big navy open day at Plymouth, in England. Best of all was an aircraft carrier—I think it was the Ark Royal.
So we went on board, explored further and further down—until suddenly I had the notion that we’d gone down below sea level. Suddenly all the metal walls and ceilings seemed to be pressing in on me, and I freaked out. Big time panic attack! (Well, I was only about six or seven.) When we got back to open light and open air, it was like an escape from Hell.