Mervyn Peake,
Titus Groan
(Ballantine, 1973;
Overlook, 1991)

The Groan Family has ruled the land of Gormenghast for over 70 generations. Gormenghast consists of an enormous castle, home to the Groan Family; the Mud Dwellers who live around the outside of the castle; and wilderness. The story starts with the birth of a new Groan heir, Titus, and ends shortly after his first birthday is described.

The royal family of Gormenghast, and all the inhabitants of the royal castle, adhere to rituals as if they were the food and oxygen upon which they are sustained, and almost everyone strives for a following of tradition that has become crystallized and has spawned a horror and abhorrence of change. But, an element of change has crept into their world of almost-rock-solid sameness, and that element is not named "Titus," as Titus is all set to be groomed as the Prime Maintainor of Tradition. The element of change is named Steerpike.

Steerpike is a very strange character, as he is both villain and hero. He is clever, ambitious, ruthless and charming. He starts as a kitchen boy and is destined to always be a kitchen servant. But Steerpike is the Enemy of Destiny, as he refuses to accept the narrow path upon which he has been told to walk. While everyone else in Gormenghast strives to fulfill his or her rigid role to perfection, Steerpike steps off that path, takes cuts, trips people, charms people, manipulates everyone and accomplishes two amazing things: he rises above his Station in Life, and he breathes life into everyone, challenges them to try to out-think him and creates that true horror called Something New.

This book is extremely hard to classify into a genre. There are strong elements of fantasy, as Gormenghast was created in the mind of Mervyn Peake, but there is nothing magical, otherworldly (as in alien) or supernatural here. There are small, quiet, slothlike elements of creeping terror and suspense, but it is not a true horror novel. It is a high, slow, semi-farcical drama, playing out in an unreal land populated by unreal characters who show elements of all-too-real flaws that we all know in small amounts.

Peake's writing style stands alone, but I think it has some kinship with that of Herman Melville. Titus Groan is an incredibly detailed book that can take pages to describe a scene that could be described in one-quarter of the words used. The pace can be arduously slow. Tangents and side-stories abound. These factors could be the ingredients for a truly awful book, and Peake tiptoed along the edge of that, but he never stepped over the edge. While this book is an incredible chore to read, one other thing is equally true: Once you start, you feel compelled to keep going, no matter how challenging, and how daunting, that might be.

Actually, I think that the closest author to Peake, in style and topic, is Gene Wolfe. Titus Groan and Wolfe's long, interconnected series (The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun) share a love of detail, a penchant for tangents, complex characters and nearly-poetic prose.

I will proceed to the next Gormenghast book with a mixture of trepidation and eagerness. I expect to survive the ordeal, happy but not unscathed.

P.S.: Let yourself admire Steerpike, but trust him not!

by Chris McCallister
26 August 2006

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