The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy

gormenghast trilogy mervyn peake overlook 2011 Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake, 3/5

Possessing the writing style of an orphan love child of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens, Peake sees the world through rotting-salmon colored glasses and creates a gloomy trilogy that is, for all its sprawling imaginativeness, unsettlingly grim and ghastly.  Perhaps readers who are less sensitive to words’ connotations, sounds, and tastes would be less disturbed, but I was continually galled by Peake’s preference for off-putting, unpleasant language.  The opening paragraph alone contains several good examples: the castle of Gormenghast is surrounded by “mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls” and one of its towers, “patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”

So what, you might think, he’s just describing a creepy old castle.  But no, almost everything is treated similarly.  A candelabrum is “like a vast spider suspended by a metal chord,” a character’s teeth are like “two brand new rows of gravestones,” the morning sky is “awakening air quilled with blood,” and a lone cloud is “like a wing ripped from the body of an eagle.”  Almost all of the characters are portrayed repellently and most posses gross names such as Rottcodd, Mr. Flay, Swelter, Steerpike, Nannie Slagg, Doctor Prunesquallor, Lord Sepulchrave Groan, Sourdust…and many more.  It is not often that a reader is presented with so many characters and so few of them likeable.

The first two novels are partly redeemed, in my mind, by their vivid portrayal of many memorable characters and an imaginative setting for a plot that contains several exciting episodes and a few moving ones.  I think the first two books are much stronger without the third, which was disjointed–almost incomprehensible at times–and ended poorly (it is not surprising to learn that it was cobbled together from the manuscripts of a dying author).

My review would not feel complete without mentioning Peake’s skilled illustrations, which were scattered generously throughout the text.  It is so unusual to encounter an author who is capable of drawing what he writes (I always felt sorry for Tolkien in this respect).  Also noteworthy is the author’s prodigious vocabulary.  Between pages 309 and 793 (the trilogy is almost a thousand pages long, but it took me a while to realize that the strange words were going to keep popping up, then even longer to get tired of writing them down), I encountered no fewer than 23 very unusual words, 16 of which I am almost absolutely sure I’ve never seen in print before.  For the curious, here are the 16 words with links to definitions: liana, canalized, spilth’d, daedal, abactina, lacuna, umbrageous, anile, cruddled, gracile, marcid, oriflamme, purdah, titivating, humus and mulcted.

[Why I read it: I enjoyed the BBC miniseries based on the first two books.]

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