David Donachie's Website

Skip Navigation

Tales of the Castle : Seacliff

One of the formative novels of my childhood (one of many) was Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake's masterpiece of gothic fantasy (though I believe he didn't really think of it as a fantasy).

Gormenghast cast a shadow over my writing, a shadow made up of twisted towers, ruined halls, dusty carvings, hallucinatory narratives, and redolantly named characters. I read it around the age of fourteen — a similar age to the equally influentual but harder to immitate Dune — and it changed my writing, probably in ways I wasn't even aware of. It certainly wasn't the only source of the strong themes of dilapidation and unexplained mystery that run through my writing, but it was one of them!

Not long after reading Gormenghast I wrote a story as a present for my Grandmother Jessie, I think it was a Birthday present. I called it "Tales of the Castle", and it was set in a place that reads a lot like a dream version of Gormenghast. I wrote it longhand, made a booklet out of it, gave it to her, and then forgot all about it.

Twenty-Five years later my Dad found the story in a box of Jessie's belongings that he's had in storage for two decades, and gave it back to me. I had no memory of it, but when I read it through I was amazed at how much it resonated with the writing I've been doing over the last couple of years. It could be part of a series with The Night Alphabet.

I transcribed it, then re-wrote it, and here it is.

This story has its origins in a present I made for my Grandmother when I was 17, a long-hand version of this story in cardboard covers. The story stayed with her till her death, and then went to my Dad in a box of belongings, and didn't see the light of day till 2019, when he found it and gave it to me. This is a re-write from the ground up.

Seacliff

Midway through my life, I found myself in the grip of melancholy. I could think of no event that had brought this about. I was not jilted in love, or unsuccessful in work, or suffering ill health — but all these things seemed lifeless and grey, and I could find no joy in them.

Eventually, I travelled, but each new place was as drab and pointless as the last. Shunning the company I’d once craved, I came to a desolate coast where a crumbling inn overlooked a restless sea. It was a tired and dismal place — long halls of dark wood, dirty panes of coloured glass, oil paintings in heavy frames, a glasshouse overgrown and tangled — endlessly battered by rain that swept up from the sea.

There was music laid on, I think, a dreary string quartet in a drawing room of faded blue, but I took no delight in it. Instead, I took a room that overlooked the garden — and beyond it the sea — and shut myself inside, watching the walls shudder in the wind.

After a while, I slept.

I dreamt.

* * *

I dream that I'm on a beach, trying to pull something from the water. Every time I reach for it the waves pull it away, then throw it back. When I try to grab it again I end up with an armful of shells instead, oysters, and mussels, and white top-shells. Then the shells in my arms are falling apart. Everything is falling apart!

More dreams, forgotten.

I awake in a dark hallway.

I am lying on my back, with my left shoulder pressed against a wall. Above me are a row of stained glass windows, thick with dust. Pale sunlight washes through them, casting a series of faint coloured squares across my body. In the nearest window a figure, apostolic but not saintly, stands poised on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea; a giant mountain of castle rises behind him. The bottom pane bears a legend, but it is broken, stuffed with scraps of bird nest and tendrils of dead ivy.

The floor is comfortable, warm. The first time I’ve felt warm in ages. I could lie here forever, but I don’t know where I am, so I push myself up. The hall is tall and narrow, like a cathedral — windows on the left, bare stone on the right, dappled with spots of dancing light. Are there mirrors outside? Trees? I am sure that there are trees, dancing in a wind I cannot feel or hear; it is perfectly silent in the hall.

The floor is thick with layers of gloomy varnish. It runs a great distance both ways, ending at closed doors. Shrouded furniture crowds the space in between. I can see carved chair legs and faded green upholstery under the white sheets. Dust is stacked up under them in mountains, even though the floor has been polished till it glimmers.

As I stand, looking, the door ahead of me opens, and a man steps through. He is tall and thin, like the hall, and wears a dark suit, starched and stiff like a butler’s uniform. He leaves the door open and approaches, but my eyes are fixed on his reflection in the polished floor, which follows him in odd spasmodic jerks as if struggling to keep up.

The man stops a little distance away and gestures for me to follow him; it is a long-armed gesture, like the raised foreleg of a spider. Then he turns and hurries back to the door, his reflected limbs flailing. I hurry too, trying to catch him up, but he is faster than he appears. He dashes through the open door. On the other side is a flight of stairs, stone, with a stone balustrade around a narrow central gap, like the stairway of a tower. Narrow windows on my right probably provide glimpses of the outside world, but I have no time to look, it's all I can do to keep up with the man, who is always one flight ahead, his long arms fluttering on the walls like a moth at a window.

We are running now, full tilt, barrelling down the stairs. I’m gaining; he’s just a few steps ahead. Then, suddenly, the stairs are done and the man is vanishing through a door five feet ahead of me. I’m so close behind that his hand is barely gone from the doorknob before I’m bursting through.

I skid to a halt in the middle of a large room. The man is gone, and there is nowhere he might have gone. There are doors, curtains, but everything is far away — the place is huge, and I was right behind him. Impossible!

I catch my breath and look again, searching the room with my eyes. It is square and blue, with a floor of smooth marble and walls that have faded to the shade of a robin's egg. High above, the junction of wall and ceiling is festooned with plants, and stones, and cherubs, all made from plaster, but the plaster is dull and broken, so that chunks have fallen away. The door I have entered by is placed low in one corner, with a pair of headless angels above it, and windows to the right. The only other entrances are two pairs of double doors, one to my left, one on the far wall, both too far away for the man to have reached, even at a run.

I make my way to the windows instead. There are four of them, towering ceiling-high, with vast red curtains billowing around them like sails. In all this place they are the first thing to make a sound, a flutter and a snap like a ship running before the wind. Hesitantly I raise a hand to the tattered silk, letting it wrap around me. It is like being at sea, and for a moment I reach for a memory, a piece of childhood, a thing I have lost and in losing come here …

Before I can grasp the memory the far doors open and a woman enters. She is dressed in a wide-bustled skirt of green, shrouded with black. Behind her, the doors swing closed again with an audible click. Without a glance in my direction she paces towards the second door, trailed by her own shadow. I hurry towards her, afraid that she will ignore me, but she stops and turns to face me before I reach her. Her face is small and oval, her eyes are blue, and her hair is black.

I bow to her awkwardly. She is quite the most beautiful woman I can recall seeing. She says nothing, but I feel that she is asking a question.

“I followed a thin man here,” I say. “I don’t know where he went.”

She favours me with half a smile. “That is Cobweb; he is for following.” She glances around and then lets her gaze return to me. “Welcome, Mister Reed, to castle Seacliff.”

“You know my name,” I venture, “but I don’t know yours.”

“I am Countess Lila.”

I wait, expecting her to continue, but she does not. I say: “Why am I here?”

This warrants a full smile. “Ahh now, there’s the question.” She steps forward and lays a gloved finger on my lips. The touch thrills me; paralyses me. “Perhaps you’ll find out.”

She turns, skirts whispering on the marble floor, and whisks towards the doors. The movement catches me off guard, and I hesitate just long enough for her to make her escape. Someone opens the doors from the other side, then closes them behind her. I take two steps forward, intending to follow her, but the door opens again — just a crack — and a grey hand reaches through, plucks the key from the lock, and then closes the door again. From the other side, there is the clunk of the lock being turned.

I let my hands drop, and stand still. The curtains have stopped moving. The room is silent.

The other pair of doors opens and Cobweb enters. He carries a silver tray loaded with table-wear. Ignoring me, he moves to a certain point on the floor and sets out jug, bowls, cups, and cutlery on the cold marble. Then he turns — tray dangling — and leaves by the door through which he has entered. I move to the arrangements and look down; the jug is empty, and so are the bowls. There is dust in the cups.

It’s too much! I don’t know where I am, or how I got here, but I feel like I have been trapped in a giant pantomime, and I’m nobody’s puppet! I stride to the doors, preparing to demand an answer of the ungainly butler, but of course he is not there.

I enter a long and narrow hallway, panelled in dark wood. Frosted mantles are arranged along the right-hand wall, the hiss of the gas loud in the confined space. On the opposite wall is a line of oil paintings framed in ornate gold. They catch my eye, and I’m drawn to them.

The first painting shows a sweep of sparkling ocean. In the middle distance a little boat with a brick-red sail is poised between points of light. There are two crew, one big, one small, like a parent and child, but the sea is too bright to make out any details.

In the second painting, the same boat has sailed into a storm. Black waves as tall as houses mound up towards the frame, threatening to overwhelm the boat. The red sail is straining. Crouched in the stern the large figure — a man — holds the smaller in a protective embrace. I look closer. It is a man and his son, and the sight of them both in the stormy ocean fills me with fear. I have to know if they survive!

I rush to the third picture, desperate for answers, but it shows a middle-aged woman in an entirely different style.

Disgusted, I stride to the heavy oak door that terminates the corridor, yank it open, and step through. On the other side the dark wood has been painted white, but the paint is cracked and peeling and studded with snails.

I enter a maze of ruined rooms. The rooves are gone but the walls remain, so that for the first time I can see the sky, which is the same egg-shell blue as the room where I met the Countess. The air, suddenly, is sweet, filled with the scent of leaves, and loam, and plants after rain — as if I am standing in the middle of a vast garden that I cannot see. Only a few brave tendrils of jasmine and the Virginia Creeper reach over the tops of the walls, spiral through the gaps of boarded-up windows, and venture out across vast expanses of china sinks and wooden draining boards.

There are endless kitchens; rooms heaped with the rusting iron of mangles and washing boards; mounds of pots, and cauldrons, and meat grinders; spits and jelly moulds swept up against the walls by indifferent time.

Overhead the sun mounts to the zenith, and beats down upon me, filling the broken chambers with convoluted shadows and blinding reflections. It is summer hot, but no birds sing. In fact, there is not even the buzz of an insect to break the silence, only my own footsteps on the flagstone floor. There is no sign of Cobweb, or the Countess, or anyone living, and I feel desperately alone.

After some time I enter a new area. The rooms are no less abandoned, but they are less derelict. They have ceilings, and walls, and doors, as real rooms do — better still, they are not silent. Faintly, from up ahead, there is a whisper of music. First the slightest cough and scrape of a tuning violin, three notes, no more, and then — suddenly — the plaintive soaring trill of an oboe, breathless and clear.

I catch my breath at that first note, and hold it till the last, beating time with my heart. Something in that tune lifts and pulls at me, dragging me forward. I yank open doors and dash across rooms, desperate to find it. The more I run, the stronger the tune becomes, swelling and pouring around me, first from one side, and then another. I recognise the notes of a violin now, a cello, and a viola. With every turn I expect to find the musicians before me, but the corridors twist and diverge unpredictably, rooms do not have doors where I would expect them, or doors are locked against me.

Dimly I realise that I am skirting some large room or space where the music is.

Then I am in a passage whose left-hand wall is a row of arches overlooking the vast room where the musicians play. There are four of them, seated in the centre of the room, and one more, dressed in green and black, with the oboe raised to her lips. The cellist and the violinists sway back and forward with the action of their bows, with the sunlight trembling golden and brown in the varnish of their instruments, and I feel, almost, as if I am amongst them, as if I am playing the music. I cannot stop. I must get closer. I must reach them!

I find a door and beyond a stair. Each descending footfall is a note, my heartbeat a crescendo that reaches its peak the very instant I put my hand on the handle of the door and fling it open …

The room is empty and silent. Only a tremor of sunlight gleams on the polished floor.

I run to the middle of the room and cry out. Where did they go? Why did they vanish? My heart is still trembling to the vanished music, but all I can see are a blur of windows and doors. With dismay, I realise that I am surrounded by any number of identical doors, just like the one through which I entered. All but one is locked, and the unlocked one is not my own.

On the other side of the final door a flight of old worn stairs descends into the darkness. It appears to be the only way out of the music room, but I hesitate on the threshold. The music was so beautiful that, just for a moment, I … Nothing. I head downstairs.

At the bottom of the stairs are cellars, all bare brick and worn flagstones. Everything is dark, except where a scattering of holes in the ceiling creates pools of light. I dash from one to the next, from circle to circle, like a moth chasing a lamp.

The cellars are like a maze. Rooms and passages intersect at random angles, twisting and turning back on each other. I am lost in no time, though time is something I can’t measure down here. Somewhere along the way I lose track of the skylights as well and am reduced to feeling my way along by touch alone. The walls are rough under my finger-tips, lined with iron pipes wrapped in cloth. Grouts and fronds of it dangle down, like the beards of old men, or moss on trees, or the shreds of a sail destroyed by a storm.

I wander for hours, days, everything is the same. I have slowed to an agonising pace, every step a stumble or a slip. The air is hot and thick with steam. Sweat gathers on my arms and back and does not cool me. My eyes play tricks on me — I believe that the darkness is lifting, only to find that the light I see is simply a phantasm, a drifting shape that vanishes when I look at it.

I curse the musicians. I curse Cobweb. I curse the Countess. My heart is hammering again, but from anger now, and fear, not exhilaration. This place! Why have I come here? Why did I stay? I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d never chased that music, or come down these stairs. For the first time since I came to Seacliff, I remember that this might be a dream and I try to wish myself back to my bed, but nothing happens. To my shame, I cry.

Then, at last, I do see light! A pale glow growing stronger as I run towards it. I emerge, at a run, into a giant glasshouse. Red evening sunlight glows through an endless arch of glass and ironwork, flickering between the fronds of palm trees and spreading ferns as tall as I am.

There is a terracotta path beneath my feet, the tiles beaded and glittering with moisture. It curves away and joins another path, and then another, just as much of a maze as the cellars or the passages. I’m done with mazes, with tricks, with highs and lows, and yet — despite myself — I cannot help but be taken in by the beauty of the place. The air is heady with the scent of flowers and heavy with heat. In the distance the setting sun transforms the wet glass into a wall of fire and old gold. Even as I watch, the red shades into purple, then blue, then indigo.

Suddenly I glimpse two figures through the greenery. I see fragments of rich brocade and sparkling jewellery. A mask is framed by leaves, a delicate silver domino marked with stars — the Countess is wearing it.

“Wait!”

I throw myself through the undergrowth, shielding my eyes from the branches. I lose sight of them only for a moment — long enough for them to run away from me, but not long enough to escape. The swaying vegetation shows me where they have gone — along a path and round a corner.

Round the corner is a pair of wooden doors, green and peeling, leading out of the glasshouse. One of the doors is still swinging back and forth as I reach it.

Beyond the doors, where one might expect a garden, there is a vestibule. Its walls are red silk; a stair descends from the left; a corridor enters from the far side. To the right of the stairs are a set of double doors through which the corner of a brocaded dress is vanishing. A trick! A trap! But I must follow.

I enter the room beyond the doors. It is the blue hall in which I first met the Countess. The dusty dishes have been removed, the curtains drawn back, and the immense windows opened. Beyond them is darkness, filled with lights — a garden hung with lamps, and enclosed by walls and buildings just visible as shadows against the dying shades of the sky.

The two figures wait for me by the window, accepting glasses of wine from a masked and bowing servant. The woman — the Countess — gestures at me, then they turn and enter the garden. I follow.

The garden is an orchard. Bunches of lanterns hang from the trees in place of fruit — yellow like amber washed up by the sea. Signs and symbols are painted on the glass. I want to pluck them down and drink in the light, but I must reach the Countess, I must demand answers, explanations, restitution!

There is a field of jewels ahead of me — a hundred inhabitants, costumed for a masquerade, lit by lanterns and stars and sparkling dew. They dance and talk beneath the trees, the murmur of their conversation drawing me forth, but the Countess and her companion stop short and — finally — wait for me.

I don’t hold back. “Why have you done this to me!?”

“Done what?” The Countess hands her glass to her companion — Cobweb perhaps — and steps closer. There is a smile on her rosebud lips, but I don’t let it stop me.

“Brought me to this place! Subjected me to this torture!”

“What torture?”

I almost choke on the words. “This beauty! This music! This temptation! You have shown me wonder, only to snatch it away.” I have to draw a breath, shaking. “This dream will end, end, and I will wake. Back to the grey, to the grief, to the lifeless days, and it will be worse! Worse because I have seen this place and felt these things.”

The Countess takes another step, she is close enough that I can smell the scent of her. She smells of sea air, and ocean rain, and things I had forgotten.

“And is it really so fine, here? Is it not broken, and pointless, run down and tortuous? Have we not led you astray? Run you ragged? Inflicted agony, loss, pain? Are we not cruel?”

I realise that everything she says is true. Seacliff is a ruin, drab, and dusty, and broken — lifeless, grey, and yet … and yet …

“Do you truly see beauty in this ruin?”

“Yes!”

For the first time since I chased her, Lila smiles. “Then our work here is done.” Before I can react she leans forward and places a single kiss on my cheek.

At once a wave of exhaustion pours over me. My head spins, my eyes grow heavy, and I know that will sleep, and wake, and be gone.

“Wait …” I stammer, “will I come here again?”

She leans her head against mine and whispers in my ear, her breath as warm as sunlight on my skin, “You are already here.”

I sleep. I dream.

* * *

I awoke in my bedroom. The wind still howled, and the rain still fell, but early morning light shone down through curtains that belled and flapped like the sails of a ship running before the wind. Above my head were friezes of plants, and stones, and cherubs, carved into the head-post of the bed; in the dark I had not seen them, or perhaps I had simply seen nothing.

I rose and went to the window, and laid my face against the glass. Outside the wind tossed the branches of trees hung with lanterns, and a silver domino mask lay discarded on the wet grass, but my eyes were on the sea beyond, where a little boat with a brick-red sail skipped before the wind towards the promise of the horizon.

Tagged: