Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) was the first book written and illustrated by Mervyn Peake, who went on to write Gormenghast. I’ve always been a bit in awe of Gormenghast, having started it on several occasions and been defeated each time. It’s the sort of book best read when locked in a tall tower waiting for your hair to grow.
No such problems with Captain Slaughterboard. Peake fills it with warmth, humour and great depth. The central journey in the book is not the one taken by the crew of the Black Tiger around tropical waters, but one that takes us deep into the heart of the Captain’s existential crisis.
It all begins when the Black Tiger moors off a pink island (‘That’s just the sort I like’), home to a bestiary of preposterous purple creatures with names like the Guggaflop, the Hunchablil and the Saggerdroop (his ear for a great name is already fully tuned in).
But the Captain’s eye is caught by a hairy yellow goblin,’Just the sort I’ve been wanting.’ And he orders its kidnap before quickly falling in love with his strange new companion, abandoning piracy for a life of eating, drinking, dancing and fishing.
The rest of the crew soon come to a sticky end, and as we never see any of the violence it’s quite easy to imagine that the Yellow Creature, with that slightly knowing look in his eyes, may have had something to do with it. They eventually abandon the Black Tiger for the pink island where the Captain retires, choosing domestic bliss over his old life.
Although it’s over 70 years old now, Captain Slaughterboard remains incredibly fresh. The quirky story combines beautifully with Peake’s gorgeously detailed illustrations, which have been beautifully coloured for the 2009 edition, in a muted palette of browns, blues, purples and a splash of yellow.
‘If only he knew it, the Captain has found Utopia‘ writes Mervyn Peake’s son Fabian in the introduction. The underlying message of pacifism and platonic love isn’t what you’d expect from a book published as the world went to war, ‘But on the contrary he offers hope for a better future’.