Some time ago, I was watching PBS (come to think of it, I used to watch PBS a lot. What happened? It’s not like it went away after our cable got cut) when I saw a trailer for Masterpiece Theater that showed a gothic castle, a creepy looking young man who takes over said castle, even creepier twin spinsters, and a youth trying to take back his birthright. The fact that it was obviously fantasy, on a PBS station no less, intrigued me enough to do a little research at my library. And thus how I learned about Gormenghast and its creator, Mervyn Peake.
Peake was an interesting man. Although he’s best known for the Gormenghast trilogy, he’s also known for his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While his books are ranked up there with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Peake credits Charles Dickens and Robert Lewis Stevenson for his inspiration.
Titus Groan isn’t so much book one of the trilogy as one long prologue. It isn’t about the title character himself (who is a baby throughout all the book) as it is about Steerpike, Titus’s nemesis in the next book. But here, Steerpike is just a lowly kitchen runt, looking for a way out.
This is a dense book. Not that it’s thick—only 396 pages, lightweight fare by fantasy standards. But the writing is so dense, it takes a while to get through one page. Peake’s writing style is so wonderfully florid, from the first page on: [The Tower of Flints], patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. With his heavy prose, you can feel the the claustrophobic weight of Gormenghast press down upon its inhabitants, who are just as eccentric and foreboding. Just listen to the names: Flay, Swelter, Sourdust, Nannie Slagg, Lord Sepulchrave, The Countess Gertrude, Fuschia. You can’t get much more gothic than that.
The thing is, though, it’s almost too florid. I can see this is where purple prose can come from. It’s lovely writing, but it’s really so much of it, a simple scene where a character walks down a hall becomes a musing soliloquy of angst and scheming. Hardly anything can be done straightforward, and after a while, reading the book grows tiring. It’s like eating a gallon of very rich chocolate mousse. After a while, you just can’t get it down, no matter how much you try.
Still, for all dense writing, there is a story here. We see Steerpike as he escape the hot kitchens and charms his way into becoming Dr. Prunesquallor’s assistant (the latter being a weird fellow with an annoying laugh, yet who might be the sanest of the entire bunch). We watch the rivalry between Chef Swelter and the lord’s assistant Flay culminate violently in the Hall of Spiders. We get to see Lord Sepulchrave’s descent into madness after his library, the only bright spot in his life, goes up in flames. And yes, we meet the twins Cora and Clarice, mirror images of each other who may have inspired the trope of creepy twins overall.
The end of the book sets the stage for Gormenghast, and while I do have it on my shelf, I think I need some time to recover from Titus Groan first. Maybe I’ll pick it up again on the first cold rainy day of autumn—I think that’s the best way to appreciate it. This gets three crumbling towers out of five; I don’t believe no one even knows what’s in those other towers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a whole city of owls living in them…