Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

[This guest post was done by Margaret, over at Steam Trains and Ghosts.  --CS.]

I remember when I discovered Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.  A friend of my cousin was cleaning out his basement and brought over to our house a big cardboard box of old books.  I mean, old books, who could resist?  I dug through them and found this set of mass-market paperbacks with these weird limited-color-palette paintings on the front.  Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone.  I set them on my shelf and forgot about them for a couple of years, until I started reading them during my high school track meets…

The books are … weird.  First of all, anybody getting into these books needs to know that it’s not really a trilogy.  Titus Groan and Gormenghast form something more like a duology, and then Titus Alone is about Titus going off and having a solo adventure.

The first two books tell the story of a crumbling old castle ruled over by the seventy-sixth Earl of Gormenghast.  Titus Groan is heir to become the seventy-seventh Earl.  And he hates it.  Hates it.  Castle life is so steeped in tradition that it’s drowning in it; people perform rituals without even knowing why they do it anymore.  Titus is very nearly the only sane person in the book.  His mother, the Duchess, spends all her time in seclusion with an army of Persian cats.  His big sister, Lady Fuschia, lives like she’s the heroine of a Brontë novel.  His father thinks he’s an owl.  His aunts, Cora and Clarice, are each paralyzed down an opposite side of their body so they act like two halves of a single individual.  And did I mention that they’re plotting murder?

Into Titus’s messed-up family enters Steerpike, kitchen boy, and the one other sane person in this castle.  He wants power and he knows how to manipulate people to get it.  Soon Titus must decide how far he’s willing to go to defend the home he’s so desperate to escape.

Finally, I must give special note to Peake’s use of language in these books.  It’s not quite like any other book you’re likely to encounter.  Here’s a sample:

“From its heaving expanses arose, as through the chimera of a daydream, a phantasmic gathering of ancient oaks.  Like dappled gods they stood, each in his own preserve, the wide glades of moss flowing between them in swathes of gold and green and away into the clear, dwindling distances.

When his breath came more easily, Titus realized the silence of the picture that hung there before him.  Like a canvas of gold with its hundreds of majestic oaks, their winding branches dividing and subdividing into gilded fingertips – the solid acorns and the deep clusters of the legendary leaves.”

I give it 4/5 stars.

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