Monday, 5 July 2021

The Worship of Stone and Time - a review of Titus Groan


Holy fucking shit the prose is amazing.


Like sunlight on clouds.

The sheer scale of invention and the beauty of the embroidery of word and concept, it reads like someone had painted full-scale paintings of each scene and moment and then had a poet write their impressions of them. 

"She rose to her feet, 'God shrive my soul, for it'll need it!' she boomed, as the wings fluttered about her and little claws shifted for balance. 'God shrive it when I find the evil thing! For absolution, or no absolution - there'll be satisfaction found.' She gathered some cake crumbs from a nearby crate, and placed them between her lips. At the trotting sound of her tongue a warbler pecked from her mouth, but her eyes had remained half closed, and what could be seen of her iris was as hard and glittering as wet flint.

'Satisfaction', she repeated huskily, with something purr-like in the heavy-sounding syllables. 'In Titus it's all centred. Stone and mountain - the Blood and the observance. Let them touch him. For every hair that's hurt I'll stop a heart. if grace I have when turbulence is over - so be it; and if not - what then?"


Every image and moment is clear, as if it were held before you, but each image and moment is also near-verse in its rhythmic and syllabic construction, and in its music. But almost every image or moment is also a touch sly. It is a book without clichés, at least in prose. YET - and this is the really difficult part, it is also a book without awkward inventions or interventions of humour;

"..He was only just in time, for the circle, like a golden plate, was balancing upon its rim on the point of the northernmost of the main crags of Gormenghast Mountain. The sky above was old-rose, translucent as alabaster, yet sumptuous as flesh. And mature. Mature as soft skin or heavy fruit, for this was no callow experiment in zoneless splendour - this impalpable sundown was consummate and the child of all the globes archaic sundown’s since first the red eye winked."

It reeks of paracosm, of a world and of scenes imagined so totally, in such detail yet with such precision and economy, reading more like multiple great acts of sub-creation than one, as if the castle were already there in Peakes mind, full and complete, the produce of many long years of imagining and detailing, as if it already lived, an internal stage and then he populated it with characters, and then placed them in each individual scene and - seeing that so totally in his mind, he simply looks at it, as one might look at a painting in a gallery.

No actually not as just anyone might look at a painting, but as a painter/poet might, someone who understands both the craft of painting, the arrangements of light and form but also the joint, weight and fixture of words. He works as well with sound and aural timber as with light and lens.

I'm going to go to a random page and pick out the first line that stands out to me;

"Where have you been since then? said Lady Groan, suddenly addressing her sisters-in-law and staring at them one after the other. her dark-red hair was beginning to come loose over her neck, and the bird had scarred with its feet the soft inky-black pile of her velvet dress so that it looked ragged and grey at her shoulder..


Gormenghast has no actual agricultural land around it, and no religion, (apart from the Countess in the quote above where she says God shrive it, though in the end she swears 'Stone and Mountain - by the blood and the observance', which if anything is the true religion of Gormenghast. Blood and stone.)

So far there is not even a road.

So it is a castle in a dream, which synthesises neatly with the social world of the people inside; they, strange introverted apolitical (in terms of the larger world) nobles, their immediate servants and the grey, quantum, serving classes who no doubt are descendants of Mallorys quantum squires. Their social and mental world is entirely within the castle, so its ok for the story and everything it means to be entirely within and about the castle.

But, there is an Outside.

There are poets and historians, a library full of them, until it is burned down. One character, Keda, goes quite some distance outside, and she gets work, so there are at least farms and rivers out there, and there is an immediate outside, the twisted woods, the mountain and the moors.

It feels very like a place visited in a dream or almost like an elfin palace in a story. There is a strange kind of slumbering half-magic, the countess and her near-unearthly abilities with cats and birds, the hugeness of Swelter, the arid slenderness of Flay, a strangeness bordering on dream. 

Leave Gormenghast a travel to the hills as you will find a monastery with William of Baskeville venturing the mysteries of the Aedificium. Go through a door and you enter the Halls in Clarkes Piranesi, the Addams Family are next-door-but-one, Edward Gorey lives down the street, at the turning to Cumbria or the Pennines or Wuthering Heights or Jamacia Inn. You would not have to step far off the path from any of these places to reach Gormenghast.

"Where is Gormenghast!" seems like the kind of imponderable, unsolvable, eternal question which might drive mad one of the residents of Gormenghast.

So what are they doing, this magical, ritual, impossible family? What do the rituals do?

The book itself is in two minds. There is a Kafkaesque horror to Gormeghast, at the core of which is that the rituals do nothing, that all of this, this great accumulation and sustainment, is dedicated to nothing and absolutely nothing, that it is a mad prison for everyone involved. It starts with terrible horror - the wonderful carvings, works of burning majesty, abandoned and ignored, forgotten, but, as the book goes on, it either reveals slender slices of an already-considered meaning. or falls more in love with the feelings of its cast. The ancient blood of the Groans, the continuance of the rituals.

The Countess Gertrude certainly believes in them, and she is strong.

Where did she come from? Who are her kin?

This is in the last lines;

"And then, as he stood quite still, his hands clasped about the handle of the feather duster, the air about him quickened, and there was another change, another presence in the atmosphere. Somewhere, something had been shattered - something heavy as a great globe and brittle like glass; and it had been shattered, for the air swam freely and the tense, aching weight of the emptiness with its insistent drumming had lifted. he had heard nothing but he knew that he was no longer alone 
The Castle was breathing, and far below the Hall of the Bright Carvings all that was Gormenghast revolved."


All the victims are monstrous and all the monsters are victims. Flay, who abandons a young man to starve to death in the initial scenes, but who later battles the monster Swelter and who is possibly redeemed. Steerpike, the hero-monster, Prunesqualler the primping tightening performing nightmare doll who it seems has a heart, the mad Count, the possible-witch or Giant Countess.

Who is there who is not wounded? Who is there who has no capacity for terror, or who has not dome something important utterly utterly wrong.

This I will stand by; there is no normal person in Gormenghast. Keda nearly is, but then becomes a tragic heroine.

What this means I know not, but from such an assemblage of performing marionettes and horror masks one would hardly expect humanity, yet they are the most human people imaginable; all mad distortions of psychology and bone, and all with their sympathies and sorrows, secrets and desires


yes because it has scenes but those scenes aren't scenes from a play, or a drama, (largely), also it has these flowing, idly slow-time manga-panel moments;

"A bird swept down across the water, brushing it with her breast-feathers and leaving a trail 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, lakes 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 upon the face of that southern wing like a black hand, trembled in the long pearl as it began to lose its grip on the edge of the ilex leaf."

It is a moment, but what is it? a scene? a painting? It is not the scene from a film, because the literalness of the effects requoted would make it mediocre, and the narrowing of time, the economy of need that a film has would either squeeze it out or make it a foolish frippery. It is a moment from a poem, but poems rarely have maps and a large cast.

It is a scene from an anime I think.

Gormenghast is already half-unreal, it is running on the surface of story under the real air - it must be half-real, almost stylised.

clearly Gormeghast is a well funded, overproduced and high quality anime series that bankrupts the company because not enough people watch it for the budget.


  1. I just finished reading Titus Groan today for the first time, on the strength of your recommendation. You are exactly correct about it. It reminded me of Blood Meridian in the way the tremendous prose and pure vision produce an uncannily vivid setting that is at once iconic and alien.

    I don't know anything about anime, but adjacently, the sword-and-cleaver duel near the end is an issue of Blade of the Immortal.

    1. That sword/cleaver fight is really special. When I read (well, listened to) it, it felt like all the air had gone out of the world for the whole duration. I agree with the anime/manga comparison in the way time seems to dilate. It's not slow-motion per se but the moments are very full.

      Glad you enjoyed this, Patrick. It's funny what you said about it not doing comedy. I listened to a (very good) audiobook of it where the author hammed up the voices a fair bit, and tended to render the characters sort of comically - Fuschia, Nanny Slagg, Prunesqualler and the Twins especially. But I think I see what you mean. Even at their most ridiculous they're all allowed their depth - Peake has an incredible sympathy for them.

  2. > This I will stand by; there is no normal person in Gormenghast
    How do you view Fuchsia in this regard?

    1. Hmm, ok Fuschia is nearly normal as a teenage girl _considering her circumstances_, which are extremely unnormal.

    2. This is my impression as well, that Fuschia is ill-fitting into this kaleidoscope of strange and unique people because she isn't eldritch (for the lack of the much better word) enough.
      But unlike Alice, she cannot stay distant and disinterested either.

  3. I can still remember that confrontation between Swelter and Flay in the Tower with hypnotic clarity, or the retreat of the Lord of Ghormenghast into the Tower of Owls. I envision a deliberate inertia in any cinematic adaptation, perhaps something akin to the near-sensory-deprivation of the early Texhnolyze episodes.

  4. Wonderful review. I'm curious what you thought of Peake's illustrations, and his other visual art.

    1. Some of his illustrations are in my version of the book. They are wonderful BUT, strangely redundant since his visual descriptions are so lucid and beautiful, oddly his skill at visualisation makes the still-good illustrations more of an afterthought than they might otherwise be.

      I don't know much about the rest of his work.

    2. If I recall correctly there's quite a bit of discussion in the criticism on him about how his career as a war artist and later painter and commercial illustrator show themselves in his writing style, which seems credible and kinda resonates with the idea of "Gormenghast as anime."

  5. Interesting to see you compare it to different art forms. I'm not sure anything could ever compare to the written version of the Gormenghast books, but I've tried a few and the one that I found most effective was the stage version at the Lyric theatre about 25 years ago, with that fella from Trainspotting. It's strange to think that something so dense and baroque can be best rendered on a black, featureless stage, but I think that it is so loaded with imagery that any attempt to replicate that is doomed to fail - the BBC TV adaptation, while kinda fun, demonstrates this. Frustrating though it is, those images can only live inside your head, as soon as they're rendered they become dead. (I'm reminded of something M John Harrison once said, along the lines of "if anyone were able to make a film of one of my books, there would have been no point in me writing it")

    I also bizarrely just remembered that I first encountered the word "isthmus" in either Gormenghast or Titus Groan. I really need to reread those books, was a teenager last time I read them. Also interested to hear what you make of Titus Alone - I never got very far into it, and in hindsight I think that's because Castle Gormenghast is infinite yet enclosed, which is something endlessly appealing to kids - the house that you can keep exploring forever - whereas the infinite unenclosed outdoor world is a bit pedestrian by comparison.