Gormenghast: Excruciating, nail-biting tension

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Mervyn Peake GormenghastGormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books are a difficult series to categorize in terms of genre, as they really are in a league of their own. Whenever the subject of Peake has arisen in conversation and I’ve been called upon to describe them to the uninitiated, my efforts are always rewarded with baffled looks. The books defy most attempts at classification; and although they’re usually put in the “fantasy” section of libraries and bookstores, the trilogy is bereft of the usual Tolkienesque fantasy trappings (mystical creatures, heroic journeys, magical quests). There are however, a few throwbacks to fairytales: a youthful hero who grows into manhood, a distressed — and sexually frustrated — damsel, a series of helpful or hindering secondary characters, and an insidious villain who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

But ultimately the books have more in common with the likes of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte, what with their grotesque, shrewd characterizations of weird and horrible people, and the way in which these characters go about their lives (which is basically making themselves and everyone around them miserable). They are a rich, dark, Gothic rendering of a world without any discernable reference point in terms of the time period, and it’s all told in dense prose that’s simply exhaustive to read. They’re crammed full of detail (all of it beautiful, most of it superfluous) in a style that makes it feel as though you’re wading through words, and which often meanders off to visit places and stage dialogues that have no bearing on the central plot at all.

And yet somehow Peake makes all of this fascinating. Gormenghast has a hypnotic effect on a patient reader, and I was utterly intoxicated throughout my reading. As I’m sure is the case with most people, overlong descriptions irritate me, but I’m willing to put up with a lot as long as there’s eventually a payoff to such ramblings. And in Peake’s case: there is. In droves! In fact, the time he takes in setting a scene has the advantage of ratcheting up and drawing out the anticipation in the climactic moments. When Titus, Flay and Prunesquallor track Steerpike through an abandoned wing of the castle to regions unknown, or when a frightened Fuchsia tiptoes through the darkened halls to a secret rendezvous, Peake’s slow pacing lends the book an excruciating, nail-biting tension.

The title refers to the stronghold of Gormenghast, the setting of both this and the previous book, Titus Groan. It is a sprawling household that is large enough to act as a self-sustaining city, and in turn, it is the entire world of those who live there. The inhabitants live and die within its walls, with no interest whatsoever in what might lie beyond the peak of Gormenghast Mountain and the surrounding forests. Described in minute detail, the rooftops and quadrangles, corridors and secret passageways are gloomy, claustrophobic and labyrinthine. Here is where readers might get frustrated at the excessive detail that Peake pours into his rendering of Gormenghast, and yet this too serves a purpose in the narrative, for the physical clutter of the place is matched only by its spiritual despondency. The house is ruled by custom and ritual, so ancient that they have lost all meaning. Alongside the longing to leave such a stifling environment is the desire to stay and delve deeper into its depths.

Into this world is born Titus Groan, the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast. The previous novel, named after this infant protagonist, recounted his birth, childhood and unfolding destiny. Obviously the fact that he was a baby for the length of the novel meant that the action focused on other characters: his morose father Sepulchrave, his mother Gertrude (a force of nature which sleeps most of the time, but is devastating when it wakes), his loveless, scatter-brained sister Fuchsia, and a plethora of servants. Predominant amongst these servants is Steerpike, who along with Titus himself is an element of change in this static world. The most engaging character in the book, Steerpike has dragged himself up from his life as a kitchen boy, and is still steadily climbing the social ladder with only his cunning, wits, and sheer ambition to drive him on. In comparison to this tour de force, Titus is a much more sedate character; not uninteresting, but certainly not as interesting as the malevolent Steerpike. The plot, such as it is, revolves around these two polar opposites: the young Earl who rejects his power, and the displaced kitchen boy who craves it and will do anything to get it: spying, arson, manipulation, blackmail, and murder of the most Machiavellian kind.

In many ways the trilogy is a coming of age story, in which Titus, dreading his own life as the overseer of dreary ritual, begins to rebel against the destiny laid out before him and attempt to understand the world beyond Gormenghast’s borders. Likewise, it is an exploration of class relations and the dissolution of social structures that was occurring at the time of publication (the loyal Flay is superseded by the fluctuating Steerpike; the family dynasty of the Groans is undermined by the freedom of an outcast) and the journey of evil which by the story’s end has taken on Biblical proportions. From an abusive and pitying childhood, Steerpike is the embodiment of pride, arrogance, vanity and viciousness, leading inevitably to isolation, madness and depravity. Peake describes the height (or should I say the depth) of Steerpike’s evil thus:

He no longer wanted to kill his foe in darkness and in silence. His lust was to stand naked upon the moonlit stage, with his arms stretched high, and his fingers spread, and with the warm blood that soaked them sliding down his wrists, spiraling his arms and steaming in the cold night air — to suddenly drop his hands like talons to his breast and tear it open to expose a heart like a black vegetable — and then, upon the crest of self-exposure, and the sweet glory of wickedness, to create some gesture of supreme defiance, lewd and rare, and then with the towers of Gormenghast around him, cheat the castle of its jealous right and die of his own evil in the moonbeams.

Wow. They don’t write `em like that anymore.

Surrounding Steerpike and Titus are a range of characters such as Doctor Prunesquallor (my own favourite!) and his spinster sister Irma, a range of school professors led by the self-important Bellgrove, and a range of servants such as the exiled Flay and the long-suffering Nannie Slagg, some of which only act on the periphery of the action. However, they are given plenty of attention, particularly concerning Irma’s extensive search for a husband amongst the professors. And yet, at the height of his power Peake is a undisputed master of storytelling: there’s an Old Testament-like flood that forces the inhabitants into higher and higher levels of the castle; schoolboys that play a daring game which involves flinging themselves out of a high window, flipping on a branch and diving back in through the window and onto a wax-covered floorboard; and Titus’s hours-long crawl through a secret passage into the frightening freedom of the countryside beyond Gormenghast’s walls. All these things strike a chord in the imagination, and will stay with you for a very long time.

The “trilogy” is only one by default considering that Peake had planned a seven-book series that chronicled Titus’s entire lifespan, a project that was sadly cut short by Peake’s death. It’s difficult for fans not to long for what could have been, but for those that have yet to discover Gormenghast, the premature ending of the series shouldn’t deter them from reading the first two installments. I have yet to read the third book: Titus Alone, but the combined Titus Groan and Gormenghast make a satisfying, self-contained novel. Although it ends on a promise of more stories to come, it brings Steerpike’s tale to a satisfying conclusion and provides a fitting, though open-ended, finish for the protagonist.


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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One comment

  1. Excellent review. Made me want to go back and re-read these. Maybe this summer. You captured the essence of the book very well I thought.

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