Horny Goth Novel Craft Study Part 2: GORMENGHAST (Gormenghast #2) by Mervyn Peake (1946)

Reading Gormenghast is interesting for me. It’s very slow story, that really takes its time establishing its themes, tone, and characters before absolutely going at max speed for the last third or so. It took me a while, amid travel woes, personal and professional upheaval, but it’s finally here: Part 2 of the Horny Goth Novel Crafty Study in which I talk about Gormenghast, the second entry of the eponymous trilogy

Buy link: Bookshop | Unabridged | Libro.fm

Why I decided to read this one

  • Considered a classic
  • I liked book 1 enough to continue on with these characters in their sprawling decaying manor hellbent on maintaining its own rituals at the expense of sense
  • Also super interested in Titus as a character now that he isn’t a literal infant

Review and Learnings

Content warnings: violence against animals (a monkey), arson, suicidal ideation, depression, grief, suicide, parental abuse, death by immolation and drowning, blood, PTSD, death of a newborn (mentioned), scarring, starving to death

In this second entry into the Gormenghast trilogy, the castle is functionally without a lord, as its current should-be lord is a child name Titus and the master of ceremonies is training the anti-hero Steerpike, who still has grand ambitions to take over. Much like Titus Groan, it is slow going for the first half of it. Peake lays out his thesis of “ritual for ritual’s sake made at the expense of human performers is not worth upholding” with meticulous detail. Few stones get unturned in the depiction, and all the drama and plot lie with the characters at its center. The characterization goes as hard as the physical descriptions and the easy-to-understand-but-require-intense-parsing-long-ass sentences.

One of the things I didn’t expect is just how the concept of unwanted legacy infiltrates the overall mood. Conceptually, as it interrogates longevity and undeath, it’s very gothic. This theme, however, also doesn’t become salient until about halfway through the book, when Titus interacts with the exiled Mr. Flay from the previous book. This is a fantasy of manners, so a lot of the plot beats match the pace and tension of the character interactions. Whenever Titus talks to his family, there’s a sense of constructed distance that’s not aided at all by the monstrous architecture they inhabit. There’s a lot of emotional neglect for both Titus and Fuchsia, the latter of which I will speak on a bit more later, despite how much page time individuals spend together. There’s a marriage of something like convenience that at first, amused, but becomes so sad put into the context of the dreary loneliness permeating all of Castle Gormenghast, despite how occupied and seemingly inhabited it is.

Continuing on that thread, the aspect that I enjoyed the most and made me absolutely feral is the exploration of depression and isolation, both literal and psychological. It’s most salient in the tragedy of Fuchsia Groan. There is so much distance between Fuchsia and everyone she considers beloved, made even more permanent with several major character deaths and betrayals. It’s heart-wrenching, and Peake does not relent on the density of his prose when it comes to the void that is her interior state. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and deftly captures what that despair can be like, made even more intense when those who remain around her point it out as well.

There are literal acts of God that cause some people’s demise, and honestly, Peake makes it work. There’s so much scheming that sometimes the avalanche needs a small tremor in order to really get rolling. The moments when nature wreaks as much havoc as human hubris coincide beautifully when they do. There are thunderstorms that are earth-shattering in several ways, and it’s clear Peake enjoyed bringing those moments together. There’s a reverence for nature and character in a way that I haven’t seen in quite some time.

Once again, the things people love in dark fantasy of the court intrigue gothic variety, are full on display here, complete with natural disasters that feel more like ticking time bombs for the secrets bubbling beneath the surface rather than deus ex machinas.

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