Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: Titus Groan

© 1946 by Mervyn Peake

What a strange book! Hopper is truly baffled.

Is it a gothic horror? Maybe – but it’s not really gothic and it’s not really horror. Is it a fantasy alternative to The Lord of the Rings? Again, maybe – but while it might be considered “fantasy” it’s not even in the same genus, let alone species, of Tolkien.

Well, then, just what was this 400-page behemoth I just read?

The best description I can come up with is: a 60-percent-Dickens, 40-percent-Poe character study of the morbid and morose goings-on in a massive centuries-old castle.

If you are a devoted fan of Charles Dickens, or if you enjoy the wordy 19th-century horror of Edgar Allan Poe, or if you find the morbid and morose goings-on in massive centuries-old castles, then this book, the first of the “Gormenghast Trilogy,” is right up your alley.

Gormenghast is the name of the castle in question, and Titus Groan is the newborn heir, the seventy-seventh heir of Gormenghast. The action – if it can be called that – takes place over the princeling’s first two years. Though there are at least fifteen characters of importance in the novel, we mainly follow the Machiavellian ascendency of Steerpike, a discontented, highly intelligent and highly amoral cook’s apprentice who desperately, and in snowballing fashion, seeks greater and greater power within the castle walls. Because of his ruthless quest (as well as the passions of other characters), tragedy comes to Gormenghast.

Now, to say that events in Titus Groan flow by at a snail’s pace only does the metaphor justice if one sits that snail in a pan of Krazy Glue, deep freezes it in a block of liquid hydrogen, and deposits the poor creature within the singularity of a black hole (where time ceases to flow). That’s how it felt to me. A twenty-sentence paragraph detailing a man drawing a knife; an entire page devoted to a manservant walking dark and dank corridors; a block of twenty pages to describe a dinner ritual among the castle elites. Now, this is partly due to a decision on Peake’s part to bring out the stilted, near-eternal character of Gormenghast. It also forces the dissecting scalpel on the characters of the individuals who populate the novel. And so, in and of itself, the glacial movement of the plot may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t move past it.

However, as a Dickensian enthusiast, I relished the names (Mr. Flay, Mr. Rottcodd, Doctor Prunesquallor), the idiosyncrasies (Fuchsia’s secret rooms, Lady Gertrude and her moving carpet of cats), the tragedies (Flay and Swelter psychological warfare, Keda and the two men who fight to the death to have her, Lord Sepulchrave’s descent into madness), the whole black-and-white Charles Addams visuals of these people. In this regard Peake is indeed a master. And for this angle the book is worth reading, and for exactly this I am glad to have read it.

But I’m going to hold off on the remaining two-thirds of the trilogy.

Grade: B (A for characterization, C for pacing).

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