Just look at the illustration: you can’t get much more Gothic than Gormenghast!
I discovered Gormenghast through the 2000 BBC mini-series staring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike. It got me reading the first novel, at which point I realised that sculpted cheek bones and brooding good looks were not really in Peake’s original text, but I do owe a dept of gratitude to the casting director for getting me into the series in the first place.
High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood…Limb by limb, it appeared that he was sound enough, but the sum of these several members accrued to an unexpectedly twisted total. His face was pale like clay and save for his eyes, mask-like. These eyes were set very close together, and were small, dark red, and of startling concentration.
Peake took the Gothic setting of an insanely complex castle/city (Gormenghast) and then turned it into a surreal, grotesque nightmare. Unlike traditional Gothic, where the opulent settings provide escapism for the reader, here the never-ending series of room, corridors and towers become a claustrophobic labyrinth evoking the tortured mind of its creator. The castle is crumbling, decrepit, and huge beyond belief; it contains people who never touch the the floor and inhabitants who never leave their proscribed region. Everyone is trapped both physically and emotionally in their ritualised routines and the two characters with the potential to break though these boundaries are the dual protagonists.
1. Titus Groan, heir to the Groan earldom (basically, Gormenghast). The book begins with this birth, so he doesn’t actually do much – besides be a baby – as the eponymous ‘hero’ of volume 1, but he is going to be important. He wants to escape from Gormenghast, anyone would, but he’s the earl so maybe he’ll manage it…
2. Steerpike, one of the great villains in literature. Steerpike begins life as a kitchen boy, but his talent for manipulation sees him move up the Gormenghast hierarchy. He is intelligent, seductive and and ruthless; his torturous mind is a kind of living embodiment of the castle itself.
As for the other characters, they include Fuchsia Groan, Prunesquallor, Speulchrave, Abiatha Swelter, Soudust, Flay and the ‘Thing’. They’re all every bit as nuts as their names suggest. For the first two novels, the story follows Steerpike’s career and rise to power. It’s all horrible and grotesque, imagine the Addams family but with a cast of sociopathic monomaniacs. This is one of the most disturbing Gothic novels I’ve read, because it adds a new layer of bleakness to the horror. As the characters know, it’s very hard to escape from Gormenghast once it has you in its clutches, and it’s a fascinating, fantastical but also inherently repugnant place to inhabit.