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Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor
Mervyn Peake ~ 1939 ~ Reissued Candlewick Press, 2001
Modernist novelist/poet/artist Mervyn Peake is one of those writers who sounds amazingly cool in theory — he’s often compared to Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Edwin Lear, R. Crumb — but when you get around to trying to read him, well, he’s a little daunting. Or maybe I’m just lame. The furthest I got with Peake was watching about 20 minutes of the Jonathan Rhys Myers-starring BBC miniseries version of his unfinished magnum opus, The Gormenghast Trilogy.
Happily, my husband found a copy of Peake’s long-out-of-print-then-reissued-then-out-of-print-again Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a twisted pirate yarn and fantastical picture book that is much, much shorter than The Gormenghast Trilogy.
As the mother of girls, I don’t have to deal with Pirates of the Caribbean easy-reader books (love Johnny Depp, but come on), but I’m imagining this might be welcome relief for the parents of sword-brandishing, eye-patch-wearing boys.
Captain Slaughterboard (who resembles a buff Tom Waits) is a bloodthirsty pirate presiding over a colorful crew of n’er-do-wells, including Billy Bottle the Bos’n, the effete Timothy Twitch and Peter Poop, the cook who “had a cork nose” (really, he has a cork for a nose—presumably, the original was sliced off in battle). One afternoon, Charlie Choke (who is “covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink”) spies a pink island on the horizon. Turns out that despite his sociopathic inclinations, deep down, Slaughterboard is something of a gentle aesthete, or so it turns out by the end of the story.
“Pink!” shouted the Captain, leaping to his feet. “That’s just the sort I like. Sail me there and hurry up or I’ll chop you all up into mincemeat.”
Once ashore this pink Eden populated with purple creatures (like the “lonely Mousterache who was sensitive and didn’t make friends very easily”), they discover “a creature as bright as butter.”
“Just the sort I’ve been wanting,” yelled Captain Slaughterboard as he charged over the fruit and turtles that covered the ground. “After him, you dogs!”
There’s so much wonderful to say about Peake’s intricate line drawings, the washes of purple, yellow, brown and blue, the delightful hand lettering and whimsical narration, but it’s this throwaway, almost non sequitur-ish detail — “charging over fruit and turtles” — that I love most about this book.
The Yellow Creature (who was described with un-toppable accuracy in a New York Times review as looking like a cross between Bob Dylan and cocker spaniel) is all too happy to leave since he was a social outcast on this purple creature-populated island. Once on board The Black Tiger, Captain Slaughterboard treats him like a king (or, uh, a queen), making the crew wait on him, lodging him in the best , etc.
Every morning the Yellow Creature was placed in front of the ship where he looked lovely against the sparkling blue sea. Captain Slaughterboard would sit upon a barrel of rum, and watch the Yellow Creature for hours on end.
His pirates had to watch the Yellow Creature too, but they got rather tired of it sometimes…
Eventually—well, “one starry night at twenty-three minutes to twelve” to be precise—the Captain heaves up the anchor and sets off on adventures which claim the lives of all of the crew (none of this is shown, of course, it’s a children’s book!), leaving this odd couple alone together at last. They practice pirate dances by moonlight, throw “plums and peaches to a dark speckly fish” and eventually the Captain decides to move back to the pink island. The Yellow Creature, apparently homesick, is so overjoyed he dances “in a wild sort of way shouting, ‘Yo-ho! Yo-ho! Yo-ho!’” (Yo-ho is the only pirate lingo the creature learns, and it became something of a catchphrase around my house. Along with “That’s just the sort I like.”) Slaughterboard is so blissed out by their life of quiet domesticity, he decides to hang up his cutlass and retire with his domestic partner, the Yellow Creature.
Captain Slaughterboard finished up his all his bullets long ago, but they have both become very good with bows and arrows, and can hit things a long way off.
But most of the time they are dreadfully lazy and eat fruit.
My older daughter Dale loved this book from ages two to four, but then abandoned it. Pirates are for boys, she said, to my infinite disappointment. If and when my second daughter forsakes this book — she hasn’t tried it yet — it will migrate to one of the grown-up bookcases. They can always revisit when they’re old enough to understand the subtext. Then again, Dale just saw the book lying open on my desk and is at this moment clamoring for me to read it to her right now. “Why have you abandoned it for more than a year?” I asked her. To which she responded, “Why haven’t read you it to me? I wanted to read it, I just forgot about it.”