I had been reading heaps of glowing stuff about Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy for a few months, and as a fiend for genre stuff that works to elevate itself, Titus Groan quickly topped my must-read lists. And I'm so glad I did. Titus Groan is a gritty, gothic tale told in evocative, sometimes whimsical, sometimes darkly surreal language that teeters on being filmic. That is, the words on the page so swiftly and perfectly render a scene, one can envisage the cinematographic images in the mind’s eye. Taking the words on the page coupled with some of Peake’s own illustrations, sprinkled sparingly throughout the book, the novel is sublimely effective in creating and living within the moods of a dark fantasy. Dingy and grimy, rotting away and dripping with niter, Peake’s writing is as if Edgar Allan Poe had melded with Dickens to become a fantasy novelist. If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what possibly could.
Peake fleshes out characters here that are astounding and equal parts loathable and lovable. Take for instance young Fuschia Groan—a girl who, because of the Law, can never become Earl of Gormenghast, and has to live a kind of solitary life with only her nanny as company. The naivety that comes with a girl left to her own wiles, she's complicated, and easily manipulated by the book's villain. That villain, of course, is one of the finest in literature—the coldly calculating, and master manipulator Steerpike guides the narrative of this novel, as we see him pitting Groans against one another in an attempt to rise to power despite his low lot in life. As much political as it is fantastical, Titus Groan is an eminent “page-turner” as Steerpike engineers the climactic fire designed to establish him as a most trustworthy and necessary hand to the royal family, simultaneously eroding trust within their own ranks.
Beyond the characters of a typical sense, Peake's ability to make the castle a character in its own right is crucial to what makes this book work so well—from the shadowy, candle-lit halls, to the dirty and abandoned stretches, to the secluded and secret spots where people can live and work for years without contact from anyone else, it's just a fun environment to picture and inhabit. Surreal, dark, grimy, fetid, but some how quick and not at all taxing or overbearing nor overwrought, Titus Groan is a ripe contender to be adapted for TV or film, especially in these political times.
All around, a really pleasurable book to live in for a while. And a story I hope to check back in on soon with the second part of the series.