It is hard to say exactly what the genre is. Surreal fabulism? Fantasy without the unicorns and magic? But as you read, you keep seeing the setting in terms of Edward Gorey drawings, or Tim Burton animations.
Gormenghast is a remote and reclusive earldom dominated by the huge Castle Gormenghast at its center, and ruled by the noble family of Groan since time immemorial. The kingdom derives its name from Gormenghast Mountain, and is isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on each side of it. It is hard to pin down the era, but there are no cars, no electricity, and no indoor sanitation facilities. There must be indoor water, because there are numerous mentions of baths, but never of anyone toting water for them, so I’m thinking indoor pipes.
Gormenghast Castle is vast, and much of it in ruins. At one point, where three characters are talking in the South wing, a couple of others are conversing “700 feet below and a mile away”. Some digs, wouldn’t you say?
It has hundreds of workers in the castle, and a poor population in mud huts huddled against the outer walls of the castle.
The daily life of the inhabitants, and particularly of the Earl, is minutely dictated by ancient traditions and rituals that absorb quite a bit of the day. There is even an ancient relic of a man whose sole career has been the caretaking and studying of the books of ritual for his entire life. Every morning at breakfast, he briefs the Earl on what duties and rituals must be performed that day.
There are a couple of characters which stand out just a bit from the others, but really, it is an ensemble cast. Perhaps, as has been said, the real principle is the Castle Gormenghast itself, as its size, and layout and demands dominate the lives of everyone living there.
The real genius about this book, for me, are the names. They are absolutely wonderful. The 76th Earl is Sepulchrave, and his wife, one of the few with a ‘normal’ name, Lady Gertrude. Their teenage daughter is Fuchsia, and her newly born brother, Titus, who is destined to be th 77 Earl of Gormenghast. We have Mr. Flay, long, skelton-like, given to one-word sentences, who is the principle servant to Lord Groan. Rottcodd is the curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings, where no one ever goes; Sourdust is the old guy in charge of the rituals, and we cannot forget Dr. Prunesquallor, not ‘of the blood’, but definitely of the castle. Mr. Flay is in deep enmity with the head chef, Abiatha Swelter, huge and vicious, a Pillsbury doughboy run amok, and we ca’t leave out one of the more vibrant characters, Steerpike, a 17-year-old run-away from the slavery of the kitchens.
There is Pentecost, head gardener, Flycrake and Wrenpatch, kitchen apprentices, along with their fellows Springers, Wrattle and Spurter. Oh, and I almost forgot Nanny Slagg, a diminutive ancient old thing now called upon to take up the full care of baby Titus, whose parents are totally uninterested in seeing. And I don’t want to leave out Spogfrawn, the erstwhile suitor of the sister of Dr. Prunesquallor.
See what I mean? Pure genius in the names.
The story is powered in this first volume by the efforts of young Steerpike get out of the kitchen, and get ahead and achieve a position of prominence in the vast network of relations. Titus is an infant in this entire volume, and events swirl around him but he is not the agent for them yet. We’ll see what happens in volume two, titled Gormenghast.
The writing is just beautiful, the characters fully and colorfully drawn, the conversations mesmerizing. Now this is fantasy that I can dig!