As a writer, I read in many genres, but SFF is closer to my heart than, say, the Romance genre. I’ve read more widely in SFF than in many others so when there’s a fantasy classic that I haven’t read sitting on a used-bookstore shelf, I will usually grab it without hesitation.
I was expecting the book to be ponderous and impenetrable, but I was surprised. It’s not impenetrable in the least. Unlike Lovecraft, who often laced his work with archaic or unusual language in an attempt to heighten the effect, Peake wrote in language perfectly modern for his day and age (1946), which makes the book much more of a pleasure for modern readers.
Of course, it’s still ponderous. It’s ponderous in a way that few other novels would ever dare to be. Peake was apparently convinced that you should never describe a person in one paragraph where four chapters would do the job just as well.
It’s hard to get used to but, to be fair, it’s this dogged insistence on creating mountains of words that gives the book its texture and which has established it as one of the genre’s classic works even without its having been widely read. You get used to the pacing after a while, and what action there is is decisive enough that the story is also a satisfying read if you can stick with the pace.
Once you close that back cover on the completed book, you’ll find that the world around Gormenghast mountain is alive in your head and you miss it. You might not immediately want to seek out the two sequels, but you certainly have a sense that, eventually, you will.
But that’s not what struck me most about the books, however. What struck me most is that they’re not strictly fantasy. If not for the fact that Gormenghast has never existed anywhere, Peake might easily have been writing about a lost kingdom in central Europe in the 19th Century, The Prisoner of Zenda isolated from the rest of civilization. There is no science fictional explanation for the castle’s presence, and the only magic is a premonitory dream which might, or might not have been an actual premonition.
The literary world has classified it as fantasy, though I’m not sure whether Peake himself would agree with that assessment (I still need to read Gormenghast and Titus Alone, so they might clarify the situation). He just needed a place where his characters could play out… and where it made sense to write seventeen pages describing the moss on a stone wall.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories from places that aren’t usually represented in genre fiction–from African gorges to South American ghosts–entitled Off the Beaten Path. You can check it out here.