REVIEW: Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

As the novel opens, Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave, has just been born. He stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle. Meanwhile, far away and in the kitchen, a servant named Steerpike escapes his drudgework and begins an auspicious ascent to power.Inside of Gormenghast, all events are predetermined by complex rituals, the origins of which are lost in time. The castle is peopled by dark characters in half-lit corridors. Dreamlike and macabre, Peake’s extraordinary novel is one of the most astonishing and fantastic works in modern fiction.

Warnings: Violence, Suicide, Mentions of sexual assault, Some racist language

Category: M/F

The Gormenghast Trilogy is made up of three very lush and sprawling gothic fantasy novels including Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone. Originally intended to be a longer series, the author unfortunately passed away before completing them, leaving us with these haunting instalments in the fantasy canon.

The Gormenghast books feature some of the most unique prose I have ever read. It’s very descriptive, very luscious and atmospheric, and really pulls you deep into its story, setting, and characters. Some of the most poetic prose I have ever read, and it mires you in a sense of the age of the place and the history of its walls. This is one of those sorts of reading experiences that is more about the atmosphere than the story, which is more nebulously about the lives of various people living in or around the castle of Gormenghast through books 1 and 2 or the people who live elsewhere when Titus leaves in book 3. There’s a kind of thematic thread weaving its way through the three books about the nature of tradition and ritual and history, the inertia that we catch ourselves in when society refuses to change or progress, as the lives of the people in Gormenghast are caught up in the immemorially ancient traditions of their pasts. Everyone and everything feels old in a timeless sort of way, as though Gormenghast and its denizens sprang into existence fully formed and already old and crumbling, as though it has always been as ancient as it is. Titus Groan is born as heir to the Earldom of Gormenghast in book 1, comes of age in book 2, and leaves entirely in book 3. And yet, despite the ways in which the books feel dreamlike and at times stagnant, they are punctuated by moments of extreme violence as the inertia is shaken up, giving the narrative moments of excitement to counteract its softness.

Gormenghast is less about people and characters and more about its setting and concepts. I will try to save talking too much about its setting for the worldbuilding portion of the review, but suffice to say that since this is after all a gothic novel, the setting of Gormenghast is as much a character and a presence within the story as any of the actual characters are. You don’t grow to be overly attached emotionally to any individual character, not even Titus who might loosely be considered to be the “main” character- it is a very omniscient narrator top-down sort of view. However you do feel awash in the decay of Gormenghast, the workings of its systems, the coldness of its halls. You feel like a part of the world, and you feel drawn to it in a way that engages the emotions and leaves you aching for and repelled by this place all at once. Gormenghast is an experience, and one that will have you ruminating on the concepts of age and mortality, religion and ritual, and our place in the flow of time.

It is unclear if Gormenghast is meant as a kind of literal place and world or if it exists as a symbolic representation of a portion of Titus’s life. Gormengahst castle is surreal, a series of events or non-events that exist into infinitum and seem designed as a kind of perpetual motion machine. All of the characters have strange, symbolic sounding names that bring to mind death and decay and deterioration, from the Lord Sepulchrave, to his manservant Flay, to the Master of Ritual Sourdust. The people are less individuals as they seem to be aspects of the house itself, the monumental and imposing world of Gormenghast. This is a books series that is absolutely more about “vibes” that it is about narrative, and feels almost anti-allegorical. Perhaps it is about the loss of innocence, perhaps it is about abandoning religion, perhaps it is about progress versus tradition. But all throughout you will feel pulled into the hollow halls of its setting, deeply entrenched it is stones and its mortar.

Through books 1 and 2 we see no sex scenes, although there is some romance present within the texts. Book 3 however does explore Titus coming into his own as an adult and all that that brings with it, including a few different relationships of a sexual nature. It is interesting that this aspect of Titus is only explored, indeed seems it can only be explored, after he has left Gormenghast behind. The book’s approaches to sexuality seems to be interacting with the concept as though sex were a chaotic force of nature, a kind of unpredictable thing that sweeps unbidden through Titus. It’s also interesting to note the antagonistic relationship that Titus seems to have to his own sexual desires and romantic feelings- he falls for women, he lusts for women, but he also seems to resent the ways that these feelings threaten to tie him down, or rob him of his perception of freedom. He therefore avoids women especially when it is apparent that they would ask or require of him anything more than sex itself. The earlier books’s dabblings with sexuality and romance explore it a little more from the feminine perspective, and display sex as a destructive force in the lives of these characters.

Altogether some of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Not light reading at all, but very interesting, atmospheric, foreboding, and dark in ways that really clings to you long after you’ve read it. I highly recommend these for a change of pace, and if you want something with a little bit more prose to chew on and ideas to consider.

Have you read the Gormenghast books? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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