It’s been noticeable over recent months how much joy I’ve been getting out of revisiting old favourite books of mine from many years ago. There has, of course, been the Narniathon, which was a real treat; I hadn’t read these books for decades and had almost forgotten how much I love them. Then there was “The Lord of the Rings”; I’d meant to go back to these for some time, but the prompting of the #1954 Club had me re-reading all three, which was a profound and emotional experience. These two sequences of books were pivotal to me in my younger years and are still lodged in my heart. There’s one more sequence which is just as dear to me, if not more so, and that’s the “Gormenghast” books by Mervyn Peake. I’ve written before about how much these books mean to me, and I did in fact spend some time in helping run the Mervyn Peake Society. I revisited the first book, “Titus Groan”, back in 2017 when I stumbled across a nice-looking omnibus edition, and it was a wonderful experience. Somehow, I’ve never picked up the second, “Gormenghast”, since then although it’s been calling to me strongly. But a nudge from a recent, wonderful episode of the Backlisted podcast was all I needed, and I spent a week at the end of June hiding from the horrors of our world in the marvellous creation which is Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast castle – and it was pure heaven.

“Titus Groan” opened with the birth of the titular figure, who is the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, and ended when he was one year old. That book encompassed much change in the castle, including deaths of family members and others, conflict and banishment, and the inexorable rise of the kitchen boy, Steerpike, intent on making his way to a position of power. It was a rich and wonderful book, conjuring a marvellous array of scenes and characters, all vividly portrayed in Peake’s incredible prose. “Gormenghast” takes up the story when Titus has reached the age of seven and covers a longer, ten year, period; during this time, Titus will come of age, lose his boyhood and grow into young adulthood; and Gormenghast itself will be changed forever.

It’s hard to go into plot specifics because not only is the story rich and complex, I also would hate to spoil the joy of anyone reading these books for the first time. However, I’ll pick out some standout elements for me! Firstly, Titus goes to school with the ‘ordinary’ boys of the castle, and the creation of the school and its Professors is just masterly; a ragged and assorted bunch, with the most wonderful names (Perch-Prism, Cutflower (“La!”), Opus Fluke), they provide the story with much humour, something which is not necessarily always associated with Peake’s work.

It was as though Cutflower was so glad to be alive that he had never lived. Every moment was vivid, a coloured thing, a trill or a crackle of words in the air. Who could imagine, while Cutflower was around, that there were such vulgar monsters as death, birth, love, art and pain around the corner? It was too embarrassing to contemplate. If Cutflower knew of them he kept it secret. Over their gaping and sepulchral deeps he skimmed now here, now there, in his private canoe, changing his course with a flick of his paddle when death’s black whale, or the red squid of passions, lifted for a moment its body from the brine.

Bellgrove, the headmaster, is a memorable and often moving character, and his association with the bony Irma Prunesquallor (sister of the castle’s doctor) is full of mirth and pathos. In fact, the Prunesquallors generally are a delight, with ‘Dr. Prune’ showing himself to have much more intelligence and backbone than you might expect as events move on; he’s a character I grew to love as the story progressed.

Then there are Titus and his sister Fuchsia, who move closer together and find a warm sibling connection through the book. Their mother Gertrude, Countess Groan, comes to the fore, and an old friend reappears. I won’t say who the latter is, but his presence in the book and final fate were incredibly moving. But of course, running through the story is the presence of the evil Steerpike, determined to take control, whether it means he has to seduce Fuchsia, take over as Master of Lore or kill anyone in his way. The action builds gradually to a dramatic climax in the midst of a biblical flood where Titus will show his mettle; but will he manage to quash the rebellion in his own spirit?

I would so love to own a first edition…

Revisiting “Gormenghast” was the most wonderful experience, and I spent a week sunk in the book, having the joy of re-encountering old friends and reliving the story, as well as reminding myself just what a completely individual author Mervyn Peake was. He’s a writer who breaks all the rules which would be taught in courses nowadays; paragraphs can be two pages or twenty; he flits from viewpoint to viewpoint; he writes luxuriant and involved descriptions that some idiot taking a writing course would tell you to remove. Oddly, I found myself thinking of Dostoevsky, who I once described as writing in scenes or set pieces, and Peake’s books can be very much like that in places. However, because he breaks all the rules, his books are truly glorious and unique pieces of art which stand alone to my mind – there really *is* nothing like them.

What struck me the most this time round, perhaps (and thanks to Andy Miller on the Backlisted podcast for picking up on this) was the painterly, visual quality of his writing; his chapters are often those set pieces, conjuring a section of his created world, and his words summon vivid images of the vast Gormenghast castle, with its endless corridors and stairs and roofs, in almost an Escher-like fashion, which are unmappable and never end. I have to say that I prefer things undefined when it comes to Gormenghast, and I love the fact that it sprawls on forever and that even those who live in it don’t know its complete extent – even Steerpike, who’s roamed and mapped it widely, can get lost. Gormenghast is a book which conjures endless vistas in the mind and they stay with you; although I was astonished to find on this read (and I’ve read the book a *lot*) that there were scenes I had forgotten! Because the writing and the imagery is so vivid, I find I *live* the book alongside the characters; this is something you inhabit rather than just read. Whilst I was making my way happily through it, the world of Gormenghast was much more real than my own.

As I’ve said, I think Peake is unique; if I had to state any influence it would be Dickens with his love of the grotesque, whether in character or name, and his long, labyrinthine narratives. But the world Peake has created, with it crumbling castle, vivid and often bizarre characters, compelling and haunting narrative, and unforgettable story, is truly individual. Yes, it’s dark – there is real evil present, most particularly in Steerpike (and yet, somehow there is a conflict in the reader, in that although he has done vile things, he has challenged the stagnant status quo so that you still feel a sneaking sympathy for him). His rebellion against the system is different to Titus’s resistance to his inherited role, and yet they are flipsides of the same coin.

…he knew that there would be a difference; and that there could be no other place exactly like his home. It was this difference that he longed for. There would be other rivers; and others mountains; other forests and other skies.

I could go on and on about how brilliant these books are; they basically changed my life when I read them as a 19-year-old, and I will always love them. I accept they’re not for all, but it has been wonderful to see the outpouring of love for them online after the Backlisted episode. If you’ve not read them, I would encourage you to approach them with an open mind and give them a try; you might be surprised! As for me, I have a massive book hangover, and although my impulse is to pick up “Titus Alone” and carry on with the sequence, I’m not going to; that book is very different to the other two and needs a gap before it. In the meantime, I shall let Gormenghast swill around in my head; I’ve seen the place described as a ‘state of mind’ and I totally get that! 😀


I must add a little bit about editions at the end here. I re-read “Titus Groan” in this new omnibus edition which I picked up at a charity shop, thinking it would be easier to handle than my fragile old Penguins. I started to do the same with “Gormenghast”, but was soon discombobulated by several typos which should have been picked up in proofing.

The offending edition…

I got my old edition out and not only were the typos not there, there were also variations in the setting of the book, missing asterisks that divided up some sections and the like. I instantly ditched the omnibus and it will go back to the charity shop, not least for the mistake of having “Gormenghast Trilogy” on the cover. I went back to my original editions and was happy with a 1978 version of “Gormenghast” – there’s a lot to be said for reading your original copies!