Thursday, 12 July 2012

Review: The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake

As I've said before, the 1001 Books list tends to be slightly snooty about genre fiction. Because god forbid this exercise should be fun. To give them a little credit, though, it's not a blanket ban. There's The Hobbit, Watchmen, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - and the first two books in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, Titus Groan and Gormenghast.

The Gormenghast trilogy is an oddly-shaped animal. There seems to be a history of slight confusion over whether or not it's actually fantasy. My copy of Titus Groan, a really gnarly '70s paperback, says on its blurb that the book is not only a 'brilliantly sustained flight of the imagination' but 'also a sustained piece of deadly irony' - which might have been the reason why it took me so long to actually pick the book up. A 'sustained piece of deadly irony' sounds to me like a recipe for sustained and deadly boredom.

But take heart! I have now read it, and I can tell you conclusively that the Gormenghast trilogy is a sustained piece of some of the nuttiest fantasy I've ever come across. Sure, there aren't any dragons or battles or people called G'Turk, but it more than conforms to my own personal definition of fantasy fiction, which is: would it make my mother feel confused and distressed at its lack of connection to the real world? And the answer to that can only be yes.

Flay! He is my favourite. Apart from all my other favourites.
Gormenghast is like nothing on this planet. In fact, it is (probably) like nothing in this universe. It would explain a lot if the characters in it were actually not part of the human race. They may be humanoid, but they're creepily far from human - there's a man so fat that he's got his own gravity, a man so thin that his knees crack like guns whenever he moves and a woman so big that staring at her is like looking up at a cliff. The villain (I have to call him that, even though most of the other characters are also villains to a greater or lesser extent) has blood-red eyes, and there's a girl who can float through the air like a flying squirrel. People's ages alter according to convenience (this threw me more than anything else, oddly enough), and they all live in a castle that's a marvel of baroque madness, a little world where none of the rules of rationality apply.

Open one door and you might find yourself in a room with a living carpet of white cats; open another and you'll see a space filled with thousands of living roots painted all the colours of the rainbow. Open a third and there'll be nothing but a room full of spiders; open a fourth and you might find two bodies lying on the carpet. Gormenghast Castle is endless and endlessly varied, but almost everything in it is just a little bit rotten.

Steerpike in the BBC series.Ugh, look at how great he is.
Peake's got a burning imagination and a taste for wild Gothic nastiness, and he subjects his creations to some extremely choice horrors. Sudden and gruesome death is the norm (don't even bother to hope that your favourite will get to the end of the book), and almost everyone wants to bump off almost everyone else.

Having said that, you might be surprised to know that I don't think I can remember when I've liked a group of characters more. They're irrestistably weird and instantly memorable, all so sad, bad and out-and-out insane that they're a delight to know. There are the Twins, who wander around like grown-up versions of the girls in The Shining and speak in unison; Doctor Prunesquallor, a human acid-trip; the Earl of Groan, who at one point just turns into an owl; and Steerpike, one of the most gloriously nasty baddies of all time ever.

The only non-event, sadly enough, is the hero(?) Titus. He suffers from a problem that Rudyard Kipling never anticipated: that if you are the one keeping your head when people all around you are killing each other and turning into wildlife, you will seem quite boring in comparison. Nominally, the story of Titus Groan and Gormenghast (and also of Titus Alone, which I haven't got to yet) follows the birth and life of Titus, 77th Earl of Groan. Really, though, it's all about the twisted and bloody politics of the castle itself and the awful rise to power of Steerpike, the best villain ever. I love Steerpike. By which I mean, I hate him. Or do I? I don't even know. He is a genius creation, the perfect mixture of attractive and repulsive, and I only wish I could make up someone so great. Well played, Mervyn Peake.

The mean and nasty Gothic soul of me was delighted by these books. They're beautifully, excessively, hallucinogenically written, absolutely out of this world in every sense. If you're my mother, don't read them. If you're anyone else, please do.

4.5 stars.


  1. That sounds really good. Like, I'll probably read it and then write some songs about it because it sounds that interesting.

    1. It's gruesome, Amy. I don't think I can over-emphasise how grim it is. But it is SO GOOD! It will freak you out and delight you.