Thursday, December 27, 2007


TYBS #13 (FEB 2007)
If you’ve ever set foot inside an old church, university or building that has more than a century under its belt and have felt dwarfed by the immensity, age and history of the place then you’ve touched a vestige of the Gormenghast experience.

Gormenghast is the second novel in the trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Published around the late 1960s, some critics have hailed Peake as an even finer poet than Edgar Allan Poe, though they conveniently make no analogy to HP Lovecraft. Maybe accountant-looking HP’s works were too zany even for Peake’s devotees.

The premise of Peake’s novel is simple: Gormenghast Castle has stood for millennia under the rule of the Groan descendants, but now the 77th earl, the heir to the throne Titus Groan, is coming of age and with it the seed of his wish to escape the yoke of duty. Parallel to this, Steerpike, the ambitious young apprentice of the Master of Ritual, begins to execute his plans to seize the throne before Titus can ascend. In the wake of his praxis seizure follow murder, deceit and treachery.

While those are the two major plotlines that the novel tracks it is interspersed by a literal cast of hundreds that pass in and out of the novel like a great ensemble. Still, Gormenghast is not so much a novel of characters as it is a novel of place. The main protagonist is the castle itself.

Vast, ancient and derelict in places Gormenghast is like a hoary old beast that was, at his peak, the stuff of legend, but now his glory days are behind him. Nobody knows when he should have died, now only ceaseless ritual is his sign of life -- like the shallow breath of the comatose.

That the castle has a haunted air would be to understate the heavy and oppressive mood of the corridors, endless and serpentine, some of them with dust undisturbed for decades. This gloom exerts its own pressure on the characters and makes them react in different ways. Titus chafes under this and makes him question his birthright while Steerpike sees that the only way to success is to seize whatever remains of Gormensghast’s magnificence.

I have dreamt of the castle in sporadic, lucid moments of REM sleep. In a sense Gormenghast is like Dhalgren, Samuel De Laney’s post-apocalypse city with its shifting tarot sky. If Dhalgren is a gigantic urban animal then Gormenghast is its undying heart. Like Jackson’s House on the Hill x 100.

Gormenghast is in every old structure, mansion and great house that reeks of the ancient and of symbol. It is in Malacanang, the Kremlin, the White House, Intramuros, Vlad Dracul’s Hunaedora abode, all those ancestral houses forbidding and inescapable for its children. They are all part of Gormenghast and vice versa. You can wander the corridors til your hair turns white and never once retrace your step. Some rooms are locked, others are not. Some of the locked rooms have no keys.

Peake has created an obra of mood and place that comes through despite the prose that’s so purple it occasionally stumbles on its own feet. The morass of descriptions sometimes trip the pace and action. Though the tone is certainly gothic and some of the characters uniquely grotesque, the plot never descends into mere macabre frolic.

Curiously enough Robert Smith of The Cure was one of Peake’s fans. He even penned the song "The Drowning Man" in 1980 about Titus Groan’s sister who accidentally drowns herself. Yeah, it’s complicated. "Fuschia was my dream. This idea of the infinite, of the unreal, of the inocence dying," Smith was quoted in a press interview in 2003.

At times ghoulish, perverse, circumlocutious, playful and comic, Gormenghast is as enjoyable a read about old places as they come. I can’t wait to get the first and third novels and step back into the castle’s embrace. Too bad Peake died before he could complete the fourth book, so it remains a fragment.


Peter said...

Gormenghast was first published in 1950; Peake lived on to complete Titus Alone, the third book about Titus Groan, which was published in 1959. Peake died in 1968.

karl de mesa said...

Hey Peter,

Thanks for the correction. Apparently, I misread the Wiki entries about the fragmentary fourth novel. Will correct it as soon as stubborn blogspot obeys my editing commands.