“Same Time, Same Place” by Mervyn Peake (1963) bears similarities with William Sansom’s “A Woman Seldom Found” and, as the editors suggest, Lenora Carrington’s “White Rabbit.” It is a grotesque, dreamlike story with definite Freudian overtones, consisting of a young man’s rebellion and encounter with that which is other and grotesque.
The story’s narrator is driven to a hatred of his parents for no reason apart from his father’s nicotine-stained moustache and mother’s scuffed-up shoes and his childhood home’s nasty brown décor. Significantly, he hates his parents “for being human.”
In search of something more, he leaves home for Piccadilly Circus in search of a woman who can serve either as a lover or a mother to him. He ends up finding both. A single, perfect woman sitting at a table engages him in enchanting conversation and tells him to meet her again at the same time and same place each night. They hold hands, but when he tries to touch feet, he can’t find hers beneath the table—a moment that passes quickly but has ominous implications.
Finally, the woman proposes marriage, setting the time and place for the ceremony and making all the arrangements. The young man comes to Piccadilly to become a husband—only to see her grotesque form revealed, as well as that of her colleagues. Her entourage includes a man with a tall, skinny neck and bird-like head (who reminds me of Mr. Odd from Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook), a young man with goat hooves for hands, a bald man with a head completely covered in tattoos, a bearded lady, and the woman he has been dating, who is exceptionally short in stature. The woman, who evidently has dwarfism, is called “it” and the narrator apparently mistakes her for a dog or a animatronic doll at first. This clashes with his vision of her so badly that he runs away in horror.
He reaches the bus but has one last look at them on the street corner as it pulls away. He describes the woman’s face like “a pale balloon with a red mouth painted on it.” Either this is an ungenerous description of a human being or a truly grotesque, uncanny face that swells like something artificial, not natural.
The narrator returns home changed. He loves his parents now, and promises never to leave the house and his small, familiar world ever again.
What struck me most about this story is how it uses the grotesque. The description of the parents in the beginning is as grotesque as the description of the man’s bride, but in a more familiar, human way. On the other hand, the colleagues of the woman are described as grotesquely other, like caricatures with exaggerated body parts. They are an eruption of the surreal in the everyday realism and conformity of the rest of the story.
My first instinct was to agree with the narrator that the man with “the tallest neck in the world” and the woman who is so low to the ground she seems to be a dog are not quite human. However, thon second thought, the narrator has demonstrated that he sees the grotesque even in ordinary, familiar people such as his parents. This begs us to ask whether these five “monsters” are simply ordinary folk living on society’s fringe who have deformities that the speaker chooses to exaggerate.
Deformity and disability become monstrous in this story. Describing people with dwarfism as less than human has not aged particularly well. Perhaps this goes to indicate how much the genre of the weird tale has evolved: New Weird celebrates otherness and nonconformity, while previous generations of weird fiction writers have equated otherness with evil and portrayed it in a more negative light.
If the story were written today, I imagine it might focus less on the man’s disgust at his beloved’s deformity and more on the woman’s friendships with her “colleagues” who support her through their shared experience of being freaks. The narrator is incapable of seeing past the body of the woman who so seduced his mind and heart. This reminded me of what must be the case for many women and men who get dumped when their partner discovers their illness or deformity–or even, in the case of transsexual people, a sexual organ they was not expecting. One has to wonder what it’s like trying to date judgmental men as a woman with dwarfism.
Peake’s treatment of otherness must be considered, however, in the light of the narrator’s unreliability, which I believe implies Peake never intended the reader to completely share the narrator’s horror of the other. The unreliability is is shown from the first page, when the reader learns the young man hates his parents without rational cause. In the same way, his description of the woman and her entourage may be tainted by his general misanthropy. It is his hate for the human race that leads him to describe abnormal bodies using grotesque language.
Indeed, the psychological focus of the story seems to imply the story has less to say about physical bodies and more about the state of mind of a person who sees the world in a grotesque way. The grotesque can be understood as a form of the abject body which must be rejected to bolster the ego. The narrator hates his father and searches for the perfect woman who can be wife and mother at the same time–a dynamic Freud would find interesting. However, when he discovers the real woman is not what he expects, his desires are frustrated. He has encountered the Real, understood as that which does not conform to one’s desire. To reinforce his own ego, the young man then regards the young woman as abject using the language of the grotesque, rejecting her from his identity.
“Stranger met in the city turns out to be strange, grotesque, other”–this basic plot is echoed strongly by William Sansom and Lenora Carrington. It seems the anonymity, diversity, and sublime human scale of cities leads weird fiction authors to perceive them as ideal milieus in which to set tales about the strange and peculiar lying out of sight.
Next week, I will be reading “The Colomber” by Dino Buzzati (1966).