Review: Titus Groan

This is the least fantastic book that has ever been shelved with the fantasy.

I confess out the outset that TITUS GROAN is decidedly not to my taste, but I will try manfully to give an honest picture of its merit to anyone whose tastes differ from mine.

The book describes the lives and foibles, follies and vices, crimes and deaths of the ugly dwellers in the monstrously oversized castle Gormenghast, a Gothic pile that is crumbling, ancient, dark and vast beyond all measure.

There is nothing, aside from the sheer astonishing size and age of the castle, which involves any element of the fantastic, otherworldly, or ultramundane. Everything else in terms of plot, character, setting, style and theme is mundane in each sense of the word, or less than mundane. Far less.

The events in the book (I almost wrote the word “plot”) concern an assistant cook and sociopath named Steerpike who conspires to elevate his station in life.

He escapes from the grossly overweight and sadistic cook Swelter, climbs the endless walls for hours, and finds his way into a deserted attic. He seduces first a bratty and ugly teenaged aristo girl Fuchsia, and later tricks into his cause the two addle-headed, overweight, half-paralyzed and epileptic twin sisters who are members of the aristocratic family of Groan. At his urging, the sisters Cora and Clarice, for motives of sheer malign spite, burn the ancient an irreplaceable library of the current Lord Groan, Sepulchrave, which is his only source of pleasure in life. Steerpike arranges to rescue the family from the flames in order to appear heroic and elevate his stature.

Lord Sepulchrave goes mad after the loss of his precious library, and is eaten by owls.

Steerpike fools the sisters by donning a sheet a pretending to be a ghost in order to terrify them into silence over their role in setting the fire, but later locks the idiot, half-paralyzed sisters in an abandoned chamber, where they starve to death. Or perhaps that happens in the second volume.

Fuchsia Groan is killed when she slips from a high window where she climbs to contemplate suicide.

Other events also occur, but since none seems connected to any others, I cannot recollect in what order they occurred, or in which book. I will recount them as best I can.

Flay and Swelter are the valet and cook in the castle, and they set about to murder each other. Flay is banished from the castle when he throws one of the Countess’s cats at Steerpike, but returns in secret to haunt its many empty rooms and deserted galleries, seeking the traitor he suspects is within.

Eventually Flay and Swelter fight with sword and meat cleaver in the Hall of Spiders, pausing only for the insane Lord Sepulchrave to walk by, muttering. No cause for the quarrel is given. I forget which one kills the other.

Other characters include persons as charming as any to be found in an asylum for the criminally insane. Irma Prunesquallor, the doctor’s sister is ugly but vain. Nannie Slagg is unintelligent and self pitying. Barquentine the son of the Master of Rituals is a dirty and lame misanthrope. The countess is an immense woman who lives in isolation, surrounded by pet cats and birds, showing no affection for, nor interest in, the child she bore. The boy is given to a wet nurse, Keda, who later commits suicide.

The finale scene of the first volume culminate with the lavish ceremony meant to invest the now one year old child Titus with the earldom. The ceremony is held on a lake. The child is handed a branch and a stone as symbols of his new authority, which he promptly and thoughtlessly tosses in the water.

This book is 338 pages, and the events go on for two more books of like size.

As for the setting, certainly the idea of a cyclopean and massive castle, crumbling with age, isolated, gigantic, with endless miles of chambers, galleries, dark passages, moldering squares and weathered towers is a striking image.

However, in this book, the role of the vast backdrop is to make the characters in the foreground appear smaller than they are. Nothing really comes of all this vastness, and it is never explained.

The castle rests in a valley surrounded on all sides by impassible barriers cutting it off from the outside world. Outside the castle is a single village of mud huts, who regard the Castle-dwellers (who remain always inside, except on ritual occasions) with awe.

The work is not fantasy. It is quite clearly meant to be taken as a work of grotesque humor mocking the ritual-bound pretensions of the useless aristocracy haunting Britain in the days of Mr. Peake’s youth, rattling around in their oversized mansions, ennobled neither by honest labor nor valor in war.

To make his point, he made the castle absurdly big and its dwellers absurdly petty.

Likewise, the work is not science fiction, since a science fiction writer would have troubled to explain where the food and people come from that support the castle, or why they support it, or what they do when they are not performing meaningless rituals. Or where the books in the library came from, or who weaves their clothing.

Indeed, the only labor mentioned at all in the volume is that carvings made by a special caste of hereditary woodworkers from the mud village whose years of painstaking labor go into making small statuettes that are immediately cast into an empty room in the castle and forgotten.

But such a logical question in a work like this would be as inappropriate as asking who bottles the beer or fixes the motorcar in WIND IN THE WILLOWS. These things are merely granted for the sake of the story.

But there is no world building here, no attempt whatsoever to invent a secondary world like the Hyborian Age of Howard or the Narnia of Lewis. Neither is the work set in our world. Not the slightest attempt is made to lull the reader into suspending his disbelief. The first question that enters the reader’s mind: who would build so vast an edifice and for what purpose?  Is not even brushed aside. No smallest figleaf is given to explain it.

That matter is simply never addressed. In effect, the castle is the setting, and the past and the surrounding world are matters of utter indifference. As an experimental literary effect having a story with basically no setting at all may have some merit to it which is invisible to me. I did not get the joke, if joke it were.

As for style, allow me to quote in full a passage which is, as least to some, a favorite paragraph, called a crown jewel of literary craft. The writer is describing the reflections caught in a falling drop of water:

” A bird swept down across the water, brushing it with her breast feathers and leaving a trail as of glow-worms across the still lake. A spilth of water fell from the bird as it climbed through the hot air to clear the lakeside trees, and a drop of lake water clung for a moment to the leaf of an ilex. And as it clung its body was titanic. It burgeoned the vast summer. Leaves, lake and sky reflected. The hanger was stretched across it and the heat swayed in the pendant. Each bough, each leaf – and as the blue quills ran, the motion of minutiae shivered, hanging. Plumply it slid and gathered, and as it lengthened, the distorted reflection of high crumbling acres of masonry beyond them, pocked with nameless windows, and of the ivy that lay across the face of that southern wing like a black hand, trembled in the long pearl as it began to lose its grip of the edge of the ilex leaf.”

If this style of phrasing, as a long pearl of lake water plumply it slides and makes the reflection of high crumbling acres of masonry with nameless windows tremble, where the ivy is likened to a black hand, strikes you as poetical masterwork rather than as a pretentious cacophony inferior to the purple prose of H.P. Lovecraft, then by all means read this book to your full enjoyment with my blessings. I wish you much titanic and pendant burgeoning.

For myself, I will plumply sit in my chair and plumply not read it, and let the slithering, glistering glossolalia of awkward metaphor and jarring conjunctions begin to lose its grip on my interest.

I note that, for such a long description, nothing is actually described. Two colors are mentioned, the blue of quills and the black of ivy, but no shapes, sounds, smells. The air is said to be hot and the summer held inside the titanic waterdrop said to be vast. Perhaps these words in this order conjures some sort of visual picture in your mind, dear reader. Not in mine.

The only single word I enjoyed in that passage was spilth , which, to me has a delightfully precise savor of an archaic word: material that is spilled.

But no doubt I am a philistine. Let us quote another stylistic tour de force, this one where the two archfoes, the grossly overweight cook and the grossly paranoid valet, meet by the dark in the ruins of an ancient hall, weapons in hand. Their hatred is described thus:

” Swelter’s eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl’s door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred – broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must have surely fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and re-entrenched themselves in startled sockets.”

Humor differs from man to man, and so what some find matter of endless mirth, leaves another cold.

Where others no doubt are smirking with uproarious chortles at the idea of Mars-red yet gristling eyeballs in ever-narrowing gyres sizzling down black hallways in anger, I am pedestrian enough to wonder how they might re-entrench themselves into the startled sockets at the hindpart of the paragraph if flesh, the fibres, and the bones had been conjured away in the forepart.

As Homeric metaphors go, it is somewhat Jamesjoycean.

As for the theme, the single thread running through the book is a grinding, ceaseless, tireless and jeering hatred of ritual, which the author here portrays only as those rites which commemorate nothing, engender no emotion, represent nothing, praise no gods, formalize no solemnities, and, in a word, do nothing and have no meaning.

Steerpike, the murderous sociopath, is presented as the only character in this book wise enough to be dissatisfied with the utterly meaningless formalities.

In order to create the artistic effect in support of his theme, in the same way that, for example, Ayn Rand portrays all socialists as utterly vacuous hatred-eaten losers, Mr. Peake portrays all rituals as utterly lacking in point or purpose, set in a castle utterly lacking in point or purpose, ruled by an allegedly aristocratic family who apparently has no estates to manage, people to rule, crops to grow, or services to offer any king.

Because no one has any duties or offices aside from utterly meaningless ritual, the truly utter meaninglessness can be placed at the center of all the lives of every character, to emphasize the author’s theme.

The normal duties of family life, normal affection, and so on, are also conveniently whisked offstage for like reasons. No mother is portrayed as enjoying raising a child, for example, nor any boy portrayed as enjoying courting a girl. No loyalty between underling and master is ever portrayed; no affection between husband and wife. Indeed, I am hard put to name any emotion which is portrayed in this long, glacial, cyclopean and Brobdingnagian book which seems human.

If there is some original story to explain that the once-vast castle originally housed a clan of ten thousand, but that a disaster cut off the valley from the world, and all vowed to uphold the now pointless rituals of their lost empire for fear of a peasant revolt, I did not see it. I assume any such explanation would spoil the joke.

In sum, the point being made by the story is that pointless things are pointless.

And the writer makes this point by meticulously avoiding any hint of action in the plot or any hint of any element of any personality development in any character that has any point.

I assume any reader who has secretly suspected all along that life is an ugly freakshow of nauseating grotesquerie, entirely void of love, honor, beauty, truth, or decency will leap like a salmon at the chance to read this book and find all his deepest notions reflected.

The version I read was marred by the ugliest interior illustrations I have ever seen. The illustrations were done by the author, and not by someone who knows how to draw, but mere unskillfulness of the pen cannot explain the dreary vision. The goal is disproportion and aberration. Imagine Gahan Wilson but without his sense of grace, perspective and proportion.

I am told that when the book premiered in 1946, it was met with rave reviews by ravished reviewers. Literary awards were heaped plumply upon it. Famed writers as Michael Moorcock magnify Peake as the unsurpassed paramount of fantastic literature.

To me it is  a puzzlement. Similar praise from similar quarters was heaped with similar heedlessness upon Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy when it came out. There is apparently a large market of fantasy readers who hate reading fantasy.

I trust the generous patience the readers will allow me to quote paragraphs from another book, once which explains both my personal judgment about TITUS GROAN and my suspicion behind the fulsome praises. As part of a psychological process to render him fit to greet and serve a race of demonic beings called Macrobes, young married man is locked in a room were all things are out of proportion and form no patterns, and he turns to look at the pictures adorning the walls.

“Some belonged to a school with which he was familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could feel that hair. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly colored sea beneath a summer sunset. But most of the pictures were not of this kind. He was a little surprised at the predominance of scriptural themes. It was only at the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details. Who was the person standing between the Christ and the Lazarus ? And why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? …

“He understood the whole business now. To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity-the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes [extraterrestrial demons]. Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-nature would doubtless follow: the eating of abominable food, the dabbling in dirt and blood, the ritual performances of calculated obscenities.”

To me it is a mystery why, if a reader was hungering to read a story about mentally and physically defective characters treating each other with unending and immemorial hatred, contempt and ire, trapped in an endless castle of hateful yet unending and immemorial ritual, such a reader would also prefer a meandering and pointless plot; a foolishly jejune and pointless theme; a deliberately empty setting; and a prolix prose style to which the words pointless, pretentious, dull and awkward are the kindest descriptions to pen; not to mention the truly eye-jarring internal illustrations of amateurish ugliness.

I have read comics with equally negative themes penned by Alan Moore, but the plots there were tight, the characterization was crisp, and the draftsmanship was skilled.

I understand the craving for sour, cynical and negative books. But who wants his books, negative or no, to be poorly written and plotted? And who, seeing poor writing and plotting, praises it as genius?

Lin Carter surely did not think that fans of Lord of the Rings would turn from that trilogy to this with anticipation.

I suggest that the phrase “the asceticism of anti-nature” explains the mystery.