He did not let go of his strange, unconventional muse but followed her over hollow lands and hilly lands, even though it caused him sorrow--he gave the gift but clearly often felt that it was not received. Then he died in 1968 of a rare degenerative neurological and psychiatric disease. It's hard not to think that the mad figures of Gormenghast were a kind of prefiguring of his own early degeneration. I have seen what it is like to be with someone dying by inches of such a thing--my father died of a dreadful neurological disease--and the pain of slow slippage, the ability to interact and to do the work one is meant to do draining away into nothingness.
My mother gave me the books when I was in high school . . . But it wasn't until I was nineteen that I discovered more of Peake's illustrations and fell in love with the marvelous Alice drawings. It wasn't so easy, back then, to see the scope of an artist's work.
In the BBC Bookmark film, it's recounted that he once sat on the bed of a dying girl, drawing her face and abruptly feeling astonished at his own ability to do so, to bear it, to be calm in the face of what he was seeing and doing . . . Hasn't every writer or artist felt the same, that the curious, examining, describing part of the brain was guilty of looking at people in a wrong, blameworthy way? And yet his imagination could never get over that visit to Bergen-Belsen, could never forget what his eyes saw.
He became ill; he saw the end of all his dreams, and his work had not become beloved--as it would be shortly after his death. It's as sad as any story of a Melville or a Bruno Schulz. Today he is an artist and writer treasured for his singular way of seeing and making, but the change and popularity came too late for him to have its sweet reward. He left us such magical gifts. When in the world's madhouses and still able to know himself, he ended his longing, loving letters home to artist Maeve Gilmore and their three children with "God bless you all."