Horny Goth Novel Craft Study Part 1: TITUS GROAN (Gormenghast #1) by Mervyn Peake (1946)

After finishing my revision and resubmission, I needed to take a step back from barreling through writing novel after novel, inhaling every release, not really learning anything new, and getting my soul crushed in query trenches. The step I’m taking to recover from the intensity of writing-to-publish, I’ve decided to make a reading list to help me develop in pretty specific ways. While a craft study might not make any difference in my outcomes in the traditional publishing trenches, I’m having a great time learning and studying, improving my craft while I wait for responses. This series is me writing about the books I’m reading to learn how to write a “horny goth” novel because that’s the type of book I want to write next.

I’m kicking off the Horny Goth Novel Craft Study series with Titus Groan, the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake.

Buy link: Bookshop | Unabridged | Libro.fm

Why I decided to read this one

  • Considered a classic
  • Notorious for dense language and a sprawling decaying manor
  • Distinct characters with their own quirks

Review and Learnings

Content warnings: violence against animals (a cat), arson, death by immolation, death by suicide, blood, PTSD, death of a newborn (mentioned)

This book is an essential read for fans of gothic dark fantasy novels. It tells the story of Castle Gormenghast and its inhabitants. Its next earl, Titus Groan, has been born, but something crawls literally from the kitchens to wreak havoc and possibly take over the castle himself by ingratiating himself with the Groans’ inner circle of servants and relatives.

This book slaps. It takes a while to get started, and I mean, a while. The first thing resembling a plot beat starts at page 180 (out of a 400-page book). Everything leading up to that point is introducing the setting, the rituals, the characters, and general atmosphere of this miles-long castle. No stone is left unturned and while, at first, the description seems superfluous, it does help the reader understand this strange world Peake builds. The circumstance informs the pomp, informing the attention-to-detail with incredible vocabulary that never feels pretentious.

Though Peake certainly takes his time getting to “things happens,” when plot happens, it hits hard. Peake uses repetition and synonyms to navigate interiority, generate unease, and lay on the atmosphere. He manipulates synonyms like a magician, reinforcing imagery and depiction while never feeling repetitive. He also smoothly navigates his way around his characters.

In addition to the astonishing density of the language, Peake really has a knack for characterization. The names are crunchy, from Prunesquallor to Fuchsia to Sourdust to Flay. There’s a precision in the sounds and consonants that works really well. But moreover, for each character introduction, Peake pairs the most antagonistic characters in a room together. Not necessarily in the sense of villain and hero, but someone soft-spoken with someone who punctuates his sentences with “ha!” like a Soulsborne NPC. Or, a pairing that morphs into something like a friendship, the senile Nannie Slagg and the teenaged Fuchsia. It helps with learning the cast, but also makes them that much more memorable as their roles evolve.

What’s also interesting in reading a book this old is recognizing the branches of the genre family tree, in this case, dark fantasy. Elements and characters of Titus Groan feel familiar, but almost in reverse. I see where the subgenre gets it from. While I’m excited to study more of this series, I’m more hype to see further intrigue and conspiracies are afoot.

One thought on “Horny Goth Novel Craft Study Part 1: TITUS GROAN (Gormenghast #1) by Mervyn Peake (1946)

  1. Pingback: October 2022 Reading Recap | Jo Writes Fantasy

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