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.|
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.|
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.