On The Nightstand: Titus Groan


Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake is one of those ground breaking books that has undoubtedly spawned entire genres and sub-genres of writing. This, the first part of Peake's epic trilogy which has been categorized by some as fantasy, uses cartoonish hyperbole, humor and a kind of literary chiaroscuro to present a tale of  dysfunctional royalty and their less than loyal subjects. Reading Mervyn Peake invariably conjures the tropes of  German Expressionism in films like Fritz Lang's M, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, or even G.W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera.

There are monstrous craggy edifices alive with dense vine as dark as the tresses of gypsy maids. Gnarled roots like appendages grow from the ancient stones bridging orphaned wings to main branches. Tiny subjects cast Goliath shadows as they skulk from spire to spire whether discharging daily duties or maneuvering through machinations. Peake is a master of atmosphere, mostly dark.

Artist and writer Mervyn Peake
The characters in Titus Groan are reminiscent of those of Charles Dickens or of modern day auteur David Lynch's larger than life caricatures. Lady Fuchsia, daughter of the Earl of Groan, reminds me of the lonely misfit Henry Spencer from Eraserhead with his fetish objects kept on the shelf. He and Fuchsia by comparison are champions of those who prefer oddments and curiosities to convention. Gothic architecture, stark images, devious eccentrics, and sardonic humor fill this book delightfully to the brim. Modern SciFi/Fantasy writers like China Mieville, and Angela Carter, creators of foreign landscapes bearing non-alien denizens in familiar situations, have felt his influence.

Peake's first love was fine art. He was a painter and illustrator most famously for later editions of many of Lewis Carrol's works. He was championed by many of his contemporaries, mainstream British authors like Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess. Unfortunately, Mervyn Peake has never gotten the recognition he truly deserves; either as an artist or as a fantasy writer well ahead of his time.