A post that’s been in the “drafts” folder for a while now…Speak Out With Your Geek Out week, which I’m late for anyways, seems like a good time to finally finish writing it.
Spoilers will be minimal.
I found a book one day. I must have been sixteen, maybe seventeen years old. The book must have been my dad’s from his high school years. On the cover—we all judge books by their covers, now and then—was a pencil drawing of a girl. She had thick lips, unruly hair, and slightly crazy eyes. On the back: “The author’s drawing of Fuchsia.”
The author was Mervyn Peake. The book was Titus Groan.
Titus Groan remains among the most unusual books I have ever read. It is a book that might be classified as fantasy, but for the fact that it doesn’t involve magic or the supernatural and makes no reference to anything even remotely resembling the usual fantasy tropes. A book whose main character, arguably, is a building, and whose title character barely makes an appearance. I was mesmerized.
I learned there were two more books in the series, but my hometown’s bookstores are lamentable in their selection. On a family trip to the UK, I acquired the rest.
I saved Gormenghast for more than a year to savour over the summer after my first year of university. I started it in the afternoon after my last exam. I stayed up til seven the next morning to finish it.
I loved every bit of the third book, Titus Alone, which apparently no one reads. (Want to argue? I think it was the perfect ending, even though I know Peake meant to write more.)
It took me many more years to find Boy in Darkness—thank who-knows-what-deity for Powell’s Books in Portland—a short story about Titus that never mentions him by name, but that reaches new
heights depths of twisted, macabre fantasy with some sacrilege thrown in.
A synopsis, so we’re all on the same page: Titus Groan is the infant heir to Gormenghast Castle, a massive half-ruined edifice whose ruling family, the Groans, has held the earldom since time immemorial. Titus’ birth is an occasion for rejoicing in the castle because the Groan line, and Gormenghast’s byzantine traditions, will be continued. But as Titus is growing up, a former kitchen boy named Steerpike plots rebellion against the strict tradition that governs life in the castle. He ingratiates himself with Fuchsia, Titus’ sister, and Cora and Clarice, Titus’ twin aunts who resent their brother (Titus’ father) for inheriting the earldom. Meanwhile, Titus himself strains against the destiny that has been chosen for him. And around him, all the other strange denizens of Gormenghast have their own agendas, from the life-and-death rivalry between Flay and Swelter (the earl’s manservant and the head cook) to the awkward romance between Irma—sister to the Groans’ physician—and Titus’ professor.
Peake was an artist before he was a writer and his attention to lighting and colour shows. The books are intensely visual. (I’m cursing the fact that I left my copy at my parents’ house, so I can’t quote anything here.) But his genius in these novels was not just for description but for invention. In SFF you hear a lot of talk about worldbuilding. The Gormenghast books are entirely outside the realm of worldbuilding—they’re flights of pure fantasy. Imagination for its own sake—an entire chapter is devoted to describing a heron rookery in an abandoned room, which no character ever sees, which is not even a plot point, and which never shows up again in the entire series. And the names. The names: Sepulchrave. Steerpike. Muzzlehatch. Prunesquallor. Gormenghast.
The characters are almost impossible, often grotesque caricatures; collections of exaggerated features and nervous tics. They frequently lurch into high comedy—but just as they do, they suddenly become the subjects of intense pathos. There are villains and victims, but no heroes; just as we start cheering for Steerpike’s rebellion against the castle’s iron law we also realize his deep hatefulness. (Burning someone’s library is never cool.)
When we learn in Titus Alone that there is a world outside Gormenghast, it is a brutal shock, even more so because it’s a world we dimly recognize. But it’s still a world populated by fantastically outrageous people and landscaped with impossible scenes.
Peake stopped writing after these three books because of the onset of Parkinson’s disease. He had planned a much longer series. I don’t want to speculate on the unknowable here, but I do think that they would have been awesome, and would have taken Titus is unexpected, and unimaginable, directions.
In some ways, I started reading Titus Groan because no one else I knew had ever read it, or even heard of it. (My dad didn’t remember anything about it, and when I made him re-read it, he hated it.) Thanks to the internet I know I’m not alone in my Peake fandom. But Gormenghast fans don’t seem inclined to speak up. Every subtle reference by another author is like a secret handshake. (Do I detect a flicker of Steerpike’s rooftop kingdom in Lyra’s Jordan College, in Bran Stark’s Winterfell?) In-group signals/hipster cred is great and all, but seriously, why are there more fans of Twilight than of Titus Groan? Why aren’t there more people freaking out over the recently discovered fourth book, mostly written by Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s wife? And, seriously, why isn’t there more Gormenghast cosplay?
So, to anyone who has ever asked me to recommend a book: read the Gormenghast trilogy. I don’t know if you will like it, because it’s probably not like any other book you’ve ever read. But this, I think, is the best reason to read it.