If one were to compare writer/artist Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy to an actual painting, one might choose the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch for its painstaking detail and mesmerizing story. The Gormenghast Trilogy, consisting of Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone is without a doubt the most painterly novel I’ve ever read. Peake’s use of language is beautiful as well as visual. The character of Steerpike (which Sting desired to play and, in fact, named his production company after) escapes from the confines of the sweltering kitchen into the upper rooms of the Castle. Through his insinuations (and a few murders) he becomes so malignantly evil, at some points I could only read short bits at a time. And the operative word is “becomes”. Peake draws Steerpike not merely as a one dimensional character, but allows you to see his mental and physical disintegration over time.
In the movie you’re led to believe that Steerpike does have some feeling for the passionate yet slightly unbalanced Princess Fushia. Not in the book. He becomes one of the most calculating, Machiavellian characters ever created. Most of the characters in Peake’s beautifully grotesque world are unforgettably drawn. The book is rife with light and dark humor as well, poking fun at courtship, British Headmasters, and a hilarious luncheon scene which simply goes around the table letting the reader into the minds of the various characters who are so solemnly and quietly assembled. The movie was a very good recreation, but not entirely faithful to the book. I found myself so upset about what happens to Fushia, and so annoyed at Titus for, well, I don’t want to reveal a spoiler, one would think these people existed.
I sloughed my way through Titus Alone, based upon the strength of the two prior novels. Peake still writes well, but one would have to say that he does so almost in a vacume, because the novel is so-so, to say the least. There are intriguing scenes, but I found myself guiltily skimming for them, which is something I wouldn’t dream of doing in the other two. The last novel is just not as tight plot-wise as the other two but in all fairness to the author, he was showing unmistakable early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease at the time, so it cannot really be fairly compared.