A Peake at a Master of Fantasy
The Gormenghast Novels
I first discovered the works of Mervyn Peake in 1969 or 1970. The thanks for this, as with so many of the other authors that I have profiled on my website at www.nightfallbooks.com, go entirely to the effort by Ballantine Books in the late 60s and early 70s to reprint classic works of fantasy fiction, often long out of print and forgotten. I was perusing the fiction racks at the Cal State Fullerton bookstore one afternoon when the wonderful Bob Pepper cover art on the Ballantine edition of Gormenghast caught my eye. Intrigued by the comments on the cover and inside the book, I purchased the trilogy and read the first two volumes back to back. I have not been the same since. No books I have ever read have had the intense impact on me that these two have. They are now, and I’m certain will forever remain, my favorite works of literature.
Set in a rambling, crumbling castle as large as a city, in an unknown time on an unnamed world, the first two novels of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy are among the most astonishing works of fiction ever written. The first book, Titus Groan, chronicles the birth and first year of life of its titular hero, Titus, heir to the throne of Gormenghast, his ancestral home. His father is Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of the House of Gormenghast. Brooding, distant, and introspective, he is uninterested in all aspects of his life and family, living only for the endless series of monotonous rituals that punctuate each day, and for the time he spends alone in his great library each night. Titus’s mother is Gertrude, Countess of Groan, a huge mountain of a woman who, like her estranged husband, lives isolated in a world of her own, a world filled with countless wild birds and an army of white cats. His only sibling is his sister Fuchsia, already a young teenager when he is born. Like her parents, Fuchsia lives virtually alone, estranged from them both, attended only by her old and long suffering nurse, Nannie Slagg. Their world is the great castle Gormenghast, and it is within its walls, surrounded by a sea of servants and retainers, that they play out their sad and empty lives. We meet key figures in the life of the castle, and of Titus, including the Earl’s faithful servant Flay, the ancient Master of Ritual Sourdust and his elderly son Barquentine, the enormous and repellent head chef Swelter, Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor and his sister Irma, and the dark youth Steerpike.
The second novel, Gormenghast, continues Titus’s story. Years have passed, and he is now a young boy of eight. The story grows along with him, introducing many new characters and covering more years as he grows into a young man. This time around though, the typically dark and tragic storyline is punctuated by surprising and often hilarious episodes, most notably perhaps being those involving the Professors in the castle school. Despite these moments of lightness however, the monumental events and intrigues begun in the first novel deepen and darken further as Titus’s world and his life change forever, and the story builds to an unforgettable climax.
The World of Gormenghast
The world Peake creates in the first two novels is unique in my literary experience. Most singularly, it is a world completely out of place and time. Peake makes no reference anywhere in the books to the setting: no country names are mentioned, no cities or towns, no oceans or continents. The time is likewise ignored, and (with one exception only) there is no way to place the story in time, because Peake completely eschews technology of any kind. There are no electric lights, no machines or motors, no radios or telephones. Even more than this, seemingly the only humans in this bleak world are the inhabitants of the castle and those of a poor village that nestles against its outer walls. It is difficult to describe this, how it reads, but I can tell you that it nevers matters, and I did not even notice it until I was well into the story. In fact, this isolation from “reality” makes the world that much more real intrinsically, and completely absorbing and believable.
Dark, brooding, oppressive, and strange beyond words, Titus Groan and Gormenghast will haunt you forever with their bizarre and tragic characters, disconcerting images, and unrelenting strangeness. For fans of speculative fiction literature, these two books, along with their much less effective counterpart Titus Alone, are not to be missed at any cost. Once read, they will never leave you, and I am certain that, like me, you will read them again and again over the years, always marvelling at the world Mr. Peake has created.
Editions in Print
Thanks to the good folks at Overlook Press, you can buy these wonderful novels in separate hard cover or paperback editions, or an omnibus edition.