Thursday, 21 October 2021

The Dover Beach Expanded Universe

 Having finally finished 'Titus Alone' and completed the Gormenghast cycle, what sticks out?


I read Gormenghast ages ago, the whole trilogy, turns out I remembered almost nothing about Titus Alone and HAD FORGOTTEN THE ENTIRE LAST BIT OF GORMENGHST!

Flay dies! Steepikes insane cockerel dance! This is maybe one of the best parts in the whole book, simultaneously ridiculous, chilling, manic, incoherent yet perfectly and entirely RIGHT as the madness which has been building inside Steepike all this time finally breaks out and he struts and caws like a fucking maniac around the bodies of the two sisters.

Charles R Stewart

The entire castle floods. Titus' mum goes into overdrive, runs UNINSTALL: AUTISM.EXE and becomes the leader who organises everything and is instrumental in the systemic capture of Steerpike. Everyone moves to the roofs, the Bright Carvers carve wonderous boats for the now-naval castle. Steerpike is cornered! Titus is carried across the rooftops in a palanquin, wasted from exhaustion and picking at a bag of nuts his mind thrums with dreams of vengeance against Steerpike while a whole bunch of guys labour to carry him smoothly across the rooftops of Gormenghast above the still waters of the flood. the Lord of Gormenghast at last.

Titus fights Steerpike in the Ivy! How did I forget this stuff? This book doesn't go off on a dying fall the ending is based as fuck. Also fuck you Peake for killing both 'The Thing' and 'Fuschia' you fucking absolute son of a bitch.


Titus really is intolerable in 'Titus Alone'.

You can tell he's a real member of the upper class because even lost alone, penniless and wearing rags in an alien city, owning only a rock (which he loses fighting a robot), his version of suffering still consists of running between the houses of reasonably well-resourced members of the upper class, being fed and waterd, occasionally banging someone out of his age range, crying about his sorrows, mooning about being edgy and mysterious, then fucking off somewhere else for mysterious reasons.

Truly the ultimate gap year.

Titus is a man in his early 20s, born of wealth and raised by a family of non-evil though often dangerously mad, sorry, "extra-neurodiverse" people. Plus his dad was murdered and sister "committed suicide" and he himself killed a guy in a knife fight before he ran away from home. So him being a flighty self-involved needy tit is pretty accurate, but still not fun to read, especially after a while.


It’s really a sketch of a book, at least compared to 'Titus Groan' and 'Gormenghast', though still pretty good compared to other more-normal books.

Peake always had this slightly stagey element to some of his writing, it came out especially in the first book in the parts about the wetnurse from the outer dwellings who has her own little serious romantic tragedy where people speak quite differently than the highly particular and peculiar individual speech patterns of the castle. They talk like stagey declarative romantic heroes, which was fine there, in that part but now it seeps a little more into everything.

Titus Alone only really gets a good villain in the last half. Cheetah - the Head Scientist  daughter is at least in the same class as Steerpike, if not on the same level.


What the absolute fuck is going on with Cheeta and her "father"? 

"They lead her to a reception room. The ceiling was matted with crimson wires. There was a black glass table of unnatural length, and at the far end of the room the wall was monopolised by an opaque screen like a cods eye.

Eleven men stood in a row while their leader pressed a button.

What's that peculiar smell? said Cheeta.

Top secret,' said the eleventh man.

'Miss Cheeta,' said the twelfth man. 'I am putting you through.'

After a moment or two an enormous face appeared on the opaque screen. It filled the wall.

'Miss Cheeta?' it said.

'Shrivel yourself,' said Cheeta. 'You're too big.'

'Ha, ha, ha!' said the huge face. 'I keep forgetting.

The face contracted, and went on contracting. 'Is this better?' it said.

'More or less,' said Cheeta. 'I must see Father.'

'Your father is at a conference, said the image on the screen. It was still over life-size and a small fly landing on his huge dome of a forehead appeared the size of a grape.

'Do you know who I am?' said Cheeta in her faraway voice.

'But of course... of..'

'Then stir yourself.'

The face disappeared and Cheeta was left alone.

After a moment she wandered to the wall that faced the cod's-eye screen and played delicately across a long row of coloured levers that were as pretty as toys. So innocent they looked that she pressed forward, and at once there was a scream.

'No, no, no!' came the voice. 'I want to live'

'But you are very poor and very ill,' said another voice, with the constistency of porridge. 'You're unhappy. You told me so.'

'No, no, no! I want to live. I want to live. Give me a little longer.'

Cheeta switched the lever and sat down at the black table.

As she sat there, very upright, her eyes closed, she did not know that she was being watched. When at last she raised her head she was annoyed to see her mother.

'You!' she said. 'What are you doing here?'

'Its absorbing, you know, said Cheeta's mother. 'Daddy lets me watch.'

'I wondered where you got to every day,' muttered her daughter. 'What on earth do you do here?'

'Fascinating,' said the scientists wife, who never seemed to answer anything."


What the ever-loving fuck. Congratulations Swelter, you may have died in Gormenghast but your spirit lives on I guess. At least the book finally gets a villain in the same league, if not on the same level, as Steerpike.


And really the better character in this book. It should really have been called GORMENGHAST THREE; MUZZLEHATCHES REVENGE!! (THIS TIME.. ITS PERSONAL!!)

Cormorant fishers at the start by the river, Muzzlehatch racing through the city in his insane archaic car, Muzzlehatch racing through the country, stopping in a village to be assessed by old men, stopping to watch a sunset and someone tries to rent him a chair. All of this strikes me as very euro-expat
feels a lot like some kind of expat holed up in a pre-war Chinese city running a zoo or something, living as a half-barbarian.

Muzzlehatch pretty much does everything, rescuing Titus in his alligator car, talking down a camel, rescuing Juno who is rescuing Titus at a ball, getting Titus to safety in the under-river, rescuing Titus from the Concentration Camp Guard in the knife fight as he literally does a fucking batman-drop from the rafters, racing in his car, having Blake-visions of his dead animals, rescuing Titus AGAIN in the gormenghast-masque at the end and revealing "Oh yeah, also I nuked Aushwitz earlier today" before being killed by TWO Robocops (because one wouldn't be enough).

Rodney Matthews. More High fantasy than I was thinking but captures the spirit

Truly, he was a large-faced man. 

(Is the whole thing just Flay vs Swelter/Swelter redux? With Muzzlehatch the neo-Flay and the Scientists Factory a new gigantic Swelter?) 


"Then all at once he halted, for he became aware of something floating beside him, at the height of his shoulders.

It was a sphere no bigger than the clenched fist of a child, and was composed of some transparent substance, so pellucid that it was only visible in certain lights, so that it seemed to come and go.


This time as Titus watched it he could see that it was filled with glittering wires, an incredible filigree like frost on a pane; and then, as a cloud moved over the sun, and a dim, sullen light filled the windowless street, the little hovering globe began to throb with a strange light like a glow worm.


Then, as though restless, it sped, revolving on its axis, to the far end of the street where it turned about immediately and sang its way back to where it hung again five feet from Titus, who, fishing his knuckle of flint from his pocket, slung it at the hovering ball, which broke in a cascade of dazzling splinters, and, as it broke there was a kind of gasp, as though the globe had given up its silvery ghost ... as though it had a sentience of its own, or a state of perfection so acute that it entered, for the split second, the land of the living."


"'Just toys, boy, just toys. They can be simple as an infants rattle, or complex as the brain of man. Toys, toys, toys, to be played with. As for the one you chose to smash, number LKZ00572 ARG 39 576 Aiij9843K2532 if I remember rightly, I have already read about it and how it is reputed to be almost human. Not quite, but _almost_. So THAT is what has happened? You have broken something quite hideously efficient. You have blasphemed against the spirit of the age. You have shattered the very spear-head of advancement. having committed this reactionary crime, you come to me. Me! This being so, let me peer out of the window. It is always well to be watchful. These globes have origins. Somewhere or other there's a backroom boy, his soul working in the primordial dark of a diseased yet sixty horse-power brain.'


'You have only destroyed a miracle,' said Muzzlehatch. 'Who knows how pregnant with possibilities that globe could be? Why, you dunderhead, a thing like that could wipe out half the world. Now, they'll have to start again."`


This feels like the realest thing in the book. Two people, both in some ways the "best" people of their somewhat shitty cultural milieux, both attracted to each other - drawn together, but they know each other too well, have dicked each other around too much (probably that was mainly Muzzlehatch really), are too familiar with each others strangeness and trouble to get on , but still there is this deep, complex, hidden emotion. That felt like the most grown-up thing in the book. Maybe the only fully-developed human relationship.


Scientists are evil. Policemen are robots. Titus kills an A.I. with a rock. Muzzlehatch blows up Belsen/Monsanto. Clearly the 20th century has not turned out as hoped for. 

Further than that, is Peake having a breakdown about the nature/content of his own Imagination? Gormenghast is real/unreal, a figment, a distant hope, an undiscovered space. Gormenghast is the gritty, cruel but extremely based ancien' regime rising up to battle the horrors of the future. Gormenghast was a waste of time - see the author in the Under-River sleeping on and being carted around with stacks of his great 'Epic' which he dumped his life into but which nobody read. Gormenghast is a fantasy you need to get over. Gormenghast is hope.


Titus has clearly been going for a long time before the story starts, and he's been chased by the Robocop Policemen things for a while. They are more like Harold-Pinter robocops - fleshless immutable avatars of some unknown authority. Is there some story we didn't get because Peake was very sick? Or was he just like; nope - cold open, lost in wilderness, chased by police.

Eventually he makes it downriver to the city. What do we know about the city and its world? 

It has poorish areas like a Victorian warren. Its middle-class or ruling class areas are very late 20th century high-modernist, with wide Corbusier-style boulevards, large empty desolate spaces and lots of glass and steel. In these places there are parties - heaving upper middle class cocktail parties full of stretched sweating people going on beneath glass roofs, like parties from Ballard.

And it has cars and motorways. Highways, and these seem to have the same kind of urban desolation that ours have, cars swooshing past indifferent, beggars hiding in the verges. It has villas for the rich - Juno has one and the Chief Scientist has one, and the chief scientist has grounds or a zone of some sort in which he has enough space for a park, a nice lake and fucking Belsen crossed with the Apple Compound for all your genocide-plus-eugenics-plus-hey-lets-improvise-with-people needs.

It has an underworld - a tunnel or series of tunnels under the river where the poor and refugees go, and there are lots of places to be refugees from. Something called the "Iron Shore" where I think there are salt mines, "Camps" of some kind, the man Titus tries to fight comes from one of those, he was a guard, and there are enough poor, not just poor but non-state actors, people the authorities would actively hunt, that they can fill the Under-River.

And it has "unexplored" areas, or areas that are not known well, in which sometimes there are ruins - the last part of the book takes place in a ruin deep in this forest in which people don't know the area that well, but they know about the ruin from explorations, yet clearly never felt the need to go back there.
And, as we find out in the last scene of the book - it has Gormenghast, a place which is real, though to find it, Titus has to take a jet plane or helicopter a very long way, then jump out in a parachute, then walk for aaages, and then he can just about see the tops of its towers.

Now it sort-of exists in a world, and has other places to compare it to, Gormeghast has gone from being absolutely horrific, in the early descriptions of the first book, to not that bad actually, in the later parts of the second book, especially when Steerpike is trying to bring it down, to actually pretty great in Titus Alone, especially when you compare it to the City, the Chief Scientists Factory and the Under-River. Scrubbing floors like your dad did doesn't look so bad now does it! 

(This just lends credence to the Gormenghast-Is-Britain theory strand.)

So what is this world, if it were real?. 

It’s not much like the "Empire of Gormenghast" that I imagined at the start. The thing it most reminds me of is the Post-Post-Apocalypse lands of YA fiction, we have gotten past the mad max bits and rebuilt society in a funny new shape, "ever since the Event...", in which the signs and symbols of the current age are scrambled re-mixed and sometimes literalised. There is enough tech for people to do tech things but the planetary society which removes easy wilderness has died back, so now there is room for mystery adventure and discovery.

It’s also reminds me of vague memories of 60's British black and white "symbolic" sci fi. Like how bits of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett are technically sci-fi-ish or could be read so. I think that’s more appropriate and also less boring than thinking about post apocalypse YA fiction more than I already have.

The Pinter/Beckett/Peake/Better Early-Dr-Who (plus throw in some Ballard) expanded black-and-white universe sounds more interesting. More about people having guarded conversations in rooms about terrible events, (which they never mention directly).

Everyone has early 20th century Anglo manners. "It is a little grim with those metal fellows. Not.. not of course that I have anything against them myself. Live and let live, that’s what I always say", the anguished psychic of the turning point of the 2th century, with Aushwitz in the rear mirror, and the Gagarin, the moonshot and the Cold War in the forward screen. Computers made up of blinking lights, "Fiendishly clever you know, these things." Tech but few of the later "appearance" of tech - robots are either very obvious metal-faced men who don't do much or just an ordinary person you know who either admits or accepts "You know Winstanley I do rather think I might be an automata." [smokes pipe]. There's a governing A.I. "The Big Machine", but it doesn't text you, or send drones, but a boy on a bicycle with a telegram; "Blue paper mister Winstanley! Is it from them upstairs? Quite an event round here Sir.' 'Yes yes, that’s enough lad, back on your rounds young man and keep your nose clean."

There is a "wilderness" where the psychic wash of the Central European Bloodlands/Post-Nuclear Wasteland lies, but almost nothing is set there, instead everything is in these small rooms or very tense parties.

(When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs is another good tonal match)

Scenes of cliché masqued balls where robots pretend to be humans dressed as wizards while Wasteland "Gammas" serve drinks (Brave New World would be another influence). 

There are terrible events or terrible possibilities, but we never see them on-screen or play them out in action, instead a light goes on, or an alarm or bleeping noise plays and a name is printed out or a civilised fellow in a neat suit comes out and calls your name - and then you "have to go"

And everyone has mid 20th Century Anglo manners so they do actually go without kicking up too much of a fuss "Oh dear, oh dear, I knew it had to happen but I am a bit surprised its me. Well there it is I suppose."

Apart from one character who is common/foreign/northern and freaks out when the light goes off "No! No no no! I won't! There TEARING THEM APART IN THERE! THERE TEAR.." [falls unconscious to discreetly administered needle, other characters wince sympathetically at each other, maybe roll their eyes].


  1. I picked up the Gormenghast novels after reading your blog, read the first one so far, excited to get to the second soon.

    The novels are not easy to read, but very beautiful and VERY painterly. Thick with MANNERS

  2. The Event is like Jaws. It's never seen, barely talked about, always in the periphery, and it is all the more terrible and fearsome for it.

  3. Harold Pinter-robocops is a phrase I must put to use somewhere.

    Nadsat-spouting protagonist and memetic reputation aside, the background of A Clockwork Orange probably sits in the Dover Beach Expanded Universe. (Published 1962, rather out of the ordinary line for Burgess).

    The 2010s radio adaptation of Gormenghast (The History of Titus Groan) got as far as Titus Alone. Muzzlehatch was played in sardonic, glowering mood by Gerard Murphy.

    There is of course the shining Barbican modernist future, but apparently Cheeta et al can lay their hands on an ancient mouldering barn for the final masquerade. So there's some tattered remnant of rural life reserved for the elites?

    1. The ruin is waay off in the wildernss and even Cheeta has to dig up one of the explorers who originally found it. Seems since that discovery the people of the city simply didn't care about it at all, which fits a bit more with post-apoc or maybe post cultural revolution situation

    2. I didn’t think about this until now, but if Gormenghast the Medieval Kingdom exists in the same world as the pseudo-modern sci-fi culture Titus walks to, and they are simply separated by such incredibly vast distances of wilderness that only a lone madman can make the trek from one to the other……. clearly I have to add the trilogy to my list of Dreamland books

  4. You still need to read Titus Awakes by Mervyn Peake and Maeve Gilmore, shurely?

    1. Not too interested in doing so

      "In 1992 Overlook Press, the American publishers of the Gormenghast series, printed at the end of Titus Alone the existing coherent portions of Mervyn Peake's Titus Awakes, with a brief introduction by John Watney.[1] They consist of three pages from which it is clear that, although Titus has left Gormenghast, the castle remains active in his memory and important in the story. Although Peake wrote further passages, the editors were unable to decipher them.[3]"

      Seems like Titus Awakes is largely his wifes work,

  5. (But otherwise, lovely insightful commentary.)

  6. Very much enjoyed reading this, and now want to go back to the books, and finally get around to finishing Titus Alone.

    Oddly enough, despite all of the incredibly vivid and singular aspects to the Gormenghast books, one of the main things I remember whenever I think of them is "that's where I learned (along with Titus) what the word 'isthmus' means". Odd things, brains.