Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?

16 Apr

After three years living in Tuscaloosa, I’m beginning to despair that I’m the only person in the state of Alabama who’s read anything by Mervyn Peake.  If I get that Lifestyles columnist gig on the campus paper, the first thing I’m doing is plugging Titus Groan and Gormenghast like crazy.  Mervyn Peake is the grandfather of steampunk, the dedicatee of Perdido Street Station, and the forerunner of PKD’s psychological madness.  In sum:

Why aren’t we reading him in the States?


I realize this is an indie speculative fiction blog, but Mervyn Peake is so little-known in this dear city (and state… and country) of mine that I’m going to give him a well-deserved blog post–for in truth, he deserves a blog of his own.  One that deals in Literature with a capital L.

So, a little background:

Mervyn Peake was a brilliant, badass English artist, illustrator, poet, and writer–today, he’s best-known for his Titus books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and, in a few short months, the posthumous Titus Awakes).  He was the child of medical missionaries in China, a soldier in WWII, a war artist, an author and, tragically, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’m no fan of C.S. Lewis in general (he reminds me of a smug, Modernist Thomas More), but I can agree with him on this: “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Mystical-sounding?  Definitely.  But it’s about as good a description of Mervyn Peake’s writing as anyone could give.  Peake’s poetry and the Gormenghast books are less about plot, shall I say?, than effect.  It’s often categorized as fantasy, but Peake doesn’t write about elves or magic.  His writing is surrealist, gothic, and something of a social comedy.  And threading through the themes of stagnant tradition and freedom and oppression, there’s that element of madness.  Gormenghast is grotesque, gory, ghastly, mystical, lyrical, monstrous, mind-bending, and inarticulably beautiful.  His characters are strange, sympathetic, and Machiavellian by turn, and he names them with Dickensian flair (Steerpike, Flay, Fuchia and Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan).

I had Titus Groan on my bookshelf since I was eight.  Didn’t pick it up until I was eighteen, of course, but that’s another story.  This story, in fact (hey, you clicked on the link; you get the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical book reviews):

A very long time ago, my dear beloved mother took me to a used book store.  I wandered around the disorderly stacks of books, sneezing, because unlike many people who love the smell of musty old books (the same people, I might add, who sniff haughtily and turn away when they see my Kindle 2 with the Dharma Initiative decal) stale, yellowing paper just makes my eyes water.  Unless it’s part of a 19th-century historical manuscript collection–then it’s cool.  Anyway–

Seriously--wouldnt this give you nightmares when you were eight?

I came to a straight-backed wooden chair piled with books.  Sliding down the side was a book with a brightly-colored cover, Titus Groan.  My mother was at the check-out, so I grabbed the book, ran back to her, and smiled, as always quite pleased with myself, when she purchased it without a second glance as the clerk bagged up her nth copy of Jane Eyre.  For better or worse, she let me read whatever I wanted from the moment I could.

Of course, when we got home and I looked more closely at the cover, I was a little disturbed.  And the title was a bit frightening too.  So I hid it at the back of the bookshelf and trained my eyes to slide over it every time I looked up there.

Ten years later, college freshman me was packing boxes to ship to the University of Alabama, surreptitiously taking books from the family cache and slipping them into my suitcase with the justification that having read them more than my sisters, they were “mine.”  But Titus Groan really was mine, and I read it my first semester, and praised Palgolak that serendipity had led me to the best series I’d ever (and still have ever) read.

The book shortly fell apart, and is currently held together with scotch tape.  My copy was thirty years old when I got it, and I’ve never worried about breaking spines.

Neither was Steerpike… but that’s another story too.  And how about, instead of me boring you, you read it yourself?  This has the Scattering’s eternal seal of approval.

Here’s the link to Titus Groan on Amazon

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One Response to “Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?”

  1. Severian September 24, 2011 at 1:06 am #

    Those are my favorite series too. The story, characters and setting are amazing but what really got me was his writing style. The way he described a beam of light entering a dark room or how the years and seasons pass. I never red any book that could match the poetic style of Peake, not in English or Dutch.

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