I was fortunate to be selected as a panel participant (and moderator!) at Chicon 8 on the first volume of Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast series, “Titus Groan“. We had a great time, the audience enjoyed it, and we all learned interesting things. It was great to revisit what is now recognized as a genre classic and confirm that the Suck Fairy has not visited.
The Full Story. I have been a big fan of Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast series for many decades.
I purchased the first two volumes, used, in the early 1970s. These were from the 1968 Ballantine paperback editions, “Titus Groan” (Volume 1) and “Gormenghast” (Volume 2).
I read them and loved them, reading them several times. I read “Titus Alone“, the last of the original 3 volumes, in the 1970s from the library and was underwhelmed (looking around, I was not the only one). I would guess I last read the trilogy while I was in college in the late 1970s.
I found out that Chicon 8 (the 80th World Science Fiction Convention) would have a “Titus Groan” panel for their 1946 Project. The 1946 Project was their plan to celebrate 1946 and all things speculative fiction with panel discussions instead of doing a 1947 Retro Hugo.
I applied to be on the panel, telling the Programming Team with substantial fannish enthusiasm how great “Titus Groan” was, how I was prepared to answer the question of whether it was genre or not, and what I was prepared to do to get ready for a panel.
For unknown reasons, they selected me for the panel and made me the moderator. I did not have a problem with this; I thought I could do a great job. I had never been on any SF convention panels before. I thought I could do all of that, but I redoubled my preparations.
I finished rereading “Titus Groan”. I was joyful that it was still a great book and that the Suck Fairy had not been to visit. We all have experience with that when rereading books we loved a long time ago as much younger people. I had suspected it would still be great, but I was quite relieved. I was expecting it would be grim, dark and horrific, and it was. I was surprised by how funny it was as well.
Before I continue, I need to be clear that I have focused substantially on “Titus Groan”. I did not really focus on the author Mervyn Peake or the overall trilogy of Gormenghast books released during his lifetime, or “Titus Awakes” completed by his widow after he died, or the “Boy in Darkness” novella.
Also, I have used the terms “Gormenghast series” and “Gormenghast trilogy” somewhat interchangeably. I know that there is really a fourth book, “Titus Awakes”, that was completed by his widow from his notes and fragments. I know there was also a novella, “Boy in Darkness”, which is part of it also. I know that “Gormenghast series” and “Gormenghast trilogy” are not the same thing. However, when I think of Gormenghast, I am mostly thinking of the trilogy of books released during his lifetime.
I have not done substantial research into Mr. Peake or read any biographies if they exist. I do know he was a talented illustrator and painter, hence the great illustrations he did which are included in my 1968 “Titus Groan” (see below) and “Gormenghast” books. He was also known for being a poet. He certainly wrote more than the “Gormenghast” books.
Some publication history and background: I researched and summarized the publication history of “Titus Groan”. I don’t really remember knowing any of this before. While I don’t think it is completely bizarre, there were some aspects of it that were somewhat unusual and which helped give insight on how it was received and how it’s popularity and stature changed over time.
I took a look at Newspapers.com and was able to find a number of reviews of “Titus Groan” from 1946 for release in both the UK and the US. The first UK review I found was in March 1946, and I am guessing that it it was released in January or February by the UK publisher Eyre & Spottiswoode.
The first US review I found was in November 17 1946 (by August Derleth, in the Chicago Tribune!), so I similarly guess a US release in September or October by the US publisher Reynal & Hitchcock. These reviews were interesting and helpful, especially how the different reviewers talked about it. Certainly it was reviewed by more than one or two newspapers. It is also interesting that the US dustcover by Reynal & Hitchcock had the subtitle “A Gothic Novel” which was not present on the UK edition.
The reviews varied. It is fun to see the different approaches and opinions. None of them were in the “This is the worst book ever. Run away.” category, but there were a lot of “If this suits your taste” or “This is a very unusual book and we’re not sure what to make of it”.
There is a very helpful Book Poll by a rather young but very accomplished and busy SF fan named Joe Kennedy. This appeared in the 1946-47 Fantasy Review fanzine, dated January 1947. My thanks to David Ritter and Dan Ritter of the First Fandom Experience, fully involved in organizing 1946 Project programs, for bringing this excellent and informative resource to our attention.
There is no mention of “Titus Groan” in the Book Poll (page 20) in that 1946-47 Fantasy Review, in the “Fantasy Books of the Year” discussion starting on page 21, or in the “New Fantasy Books from England” starting on page 34. This either meant that Joe Kennedy and those answering the poll did not know anything about “Titus Groan”, or that none of them thought it was genre. Given the breadth of books discussed especially in the two articles, I suspect that they just did not know about it.
The US publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock, had published “Mary Poppins”, “The Little Prince”, and the like, but it’s not at all clear to me that there was any connection to the speculative fiction community in the US.
Subsequent to Chicon 8, I spent some time looking in the fan publication website http://www.fanac.org. I found a Spring 1948 Fantasy Commentator advertisement that includes “Titus Groan” for sale from “House of Stone”. In the same year, the 1948 Fantasy Annual by Forrest J. Ackerman and others was meant to continue the now defunct Fantasy Annuals (Fantasy Review 1945-56 and 1946-47) by Joe Kennedy. There were extensive discussion of books including English books and a poll not strictly about 1948 or 1947, but still no mention of “Titus Groan”.
I do find it rather telling that “Titus Groan” was not mentioned in either the Fantasy Review 1946-47 or the 1948 Fantasy Annual fan yearbooks, neither in the polls, the text or in any ads. While I saw a 1948 ad for “Titus Groan”, it clearly did not have substantial impact or penetration in the US in 1948.
There is a January 1949 Shangri-LA fanzine (Los Angles Science Fantasy Society, AKA LASFS, perhaps?), with Forrest J. Ackerman recounting a humorous speech he gave shortly before where he referred to a Martian coming to Earth as “Titus Groan” several times. I doubt he was being literal, this was humorous, but clearly Ackerman and other fans were aware of the book.
The first fan review I found, not in ISFDB but in Fanac, was in the August 1949 Leer with a David H. Keller MD (science fiction writer and fan) item on “Titus Groan”, almost 4 pages, which was very positive. There could have been earlier mentions in fanzines, but I did not find them, nor in any book reviews in speculative fiction magazines of the time.
There was a statement by PBS online for their Gormenghast miniseries with the BBC, “Titus Groan was published in 1946 to ecstatic reviews.” From the structure of that webpage, this statement may have been from Michael Moorcock but it’s not clear when or from where. My best guess is perhaps it is from Moorcock’s introduction to the 1992 Folio Society edition of “Titus Groan”, which I have not seen. I respect Moorcock as a writer and love some of his work. It is clear that “Titus Groan” and Gormenghast had a substantial influence on Moorcock. However, I do think “ecstatic reviews” is delusional.
“Gormenghast” (Volume 2 of the trilogy) was issued in the UK by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1950. “Titus Alone” (Volume 3 of the trilogy) was issued in the UK by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1959.
The 1956 novella “Boy in Darkness” by Mervyn Peake is commonly identified as part of the Gormenghast universe. This was issued as part of a very interesting anthology by Eyre & Spottiswoode in the UK, the 1956 “Sometimes, Never“, containing also “Envoy Extraordinary” by William Golding (“Lord of the Flies”, 1954) and “Consider Her Ways” by John Wyndham (a time travel and gender/identity role classic!). It was also released in the US by Ballantine in 1957. Interestingly enough, I see no genre reviews of “Sometime, Never” in ISFDB. There are reviews at Newspapers.com; in one of them a “boy Duke” is referenced, which makes sense, but none of the three I looked at make any reference to “Titus Groan”, “Gormenghast”, etc. I had borrowed “Sometime, Never” from the library to read the Wyndham, but returned it. I wish I had read and remembered what it said in the Introduction, if there was one. Regardless, I think we can conclude that no one at the time at Eyre & Spottiswoode or Ballantine thought it a good idea to associate “Boy in Darkness” with “Titus Groan” or Gormenghast.
After the UK release of both “Gormenghast” and “Titus Alone”, I found the 1960 fanzine Xero #1 by fans and author Richard A. Lupoff and Pat Lupoff. Probably triggered by the recent 1959 UK release of “Titus Alone”, there is a very extensive discussion of “Titus Alone”, the Gormenghast trilogy, and “Boy in Darkness”. Lupoff also lists information on where you can obtain copies of the Eyre & Spottiswoode editions from the British Book Centre in NYC. Clearly the Gormenghast books were all available in the US if you knew where to look.
I see all of this as a mixed bag. On the one hand, Eyre & Spottiswoode clearly had faith in Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast books and “Boy in Darkness” to keep publishing them. At the same time, I see no need or hurry by them to reissue the books in the UK until 1968, and no one picked up publication of “Gormenghast” and “Titus Alone” in the US until 1967.
Interestingly enough, there was a resurgence of interest in Mervyn Peake and the “Gormenghast” books in the mid 1960s. I found information relating to a Baird Searles dramatic reading of some of the Gormenghast material, and some kind of art show.
Weybright & Talley issued all 3 volumes of the Gormenghast trilogy in 1967 in the US. This was the first reissue of “Titus Groan”, and the first US publication of either “Gormenghast” or “Titus Alone”. Interestingly enough, only “Titus Alone” from Weybright & Talley is in ISFDB. Please note that I did not discover the 1967 Weybright & Talley reissue of “Titus Groan” or “Gormenghast” until after Chicon 8, so that information was not part of the panel discussion. I do not think it really changes much.
Ballantine issued the “Fellowship of the Ring”, “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King” (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) by J. R. R. Tolkien in a legal paperback edition in the US in late 1965, followed by many, many other editions. Ballantine clearly saw this epic fantasy was doing very well and was looking for other fantasy to market.
In October 1968, Ballantine issued the Gormenghast trilogy both in the US as a paperback boxed set and as single volumes. In the UK in October 1968, Penguin Books issued “Titus Groan” in paperback and Eyre & Spottiswoode issued it in hardcover.
From my perspective, the 1968 Ballantine editions were put out there and perhaps promoted/advertised/positioned as “fantasy adjacent”. The Ballantine covers were certainly trying do to that, with some stylistic resemblance to the Ballantine Lord of the Rings covers from 1965 on. My 1968 Ballantine copy of “Titus Groan” notes “Volume 1 of the Gormenghast Trilogy”. The rear cover notes “Volume 1 of an Epic Trilogy”. There are a number of quotes on both the cover and inside front which do not explicitly say “fantasy” but are kind of walking around it.
I do see one quote on the back of the 1968 “Titus Groan” Ballantine edition that is from the 1946 (London) Observer review. There is also a quote on the back from Elizabeth Bowen that appears to be from a 1947 Tatler item I have not found. Finally, there is a quote on the back from Baird Searles, who produced dramatic readings from the Gormenghast trilogy in 1967.
Mervyn Peake died in November 1968, after suffering the accelerating impacts of dementia since perhaps 1956.
Penguin issued “Gormenghast” in paperback in the UK in 1969. I suspect that Eyre & Spottiswoode might have also issued “Gormenghast” in the UK in 1969, but have no proof. Penguin issued “Titus Alone” in UK paperback in 1970. Eyre & Spottiswoode issued “Titus Alone” in hardback in the UK in 1970, in a version edited by Langdon Jones that is claimed to be more coherent and true to the vision and intent of Mervyn Peake. (I need to find and read this revised version. I have always wondered if the version I read was the older, less coherent version).
Once the 1968 editions were issued, with subsequent reissues and general success, “Titus Groan” and the other 2 volumes of the trilogy have generally remained in print and are quite well known to this day.
I do need to mention that there is also fourth “Gormenghast” book, “Titus Awakes”. A version of the Mervyn Peake completed portion was issued in 1995 by Tusk Books/The Overlook Press. A version that was completed by Peake’s wife Maeve Gilmore was issued in 2011 by Vintage Books. I have not read this and don’t plan to.
Also, thanks to Travis Creason for his help and information. Travis and I met because we were both possible panelists for Titus Groan, and we both commented on a Chicon 8 Titus Groan post on Facebook. Among other things, Travis introduced me to the 2000 BBC/PBS “Gormenghast” miniseries. I did not know anything about this; I still need to watch it. It sounds interesting, as the BBC decided that it should be influenced by Peake’s early life in China. This miniseries covered the first two books, “Titus Groan” and “Gormenghast”. I have also heard that Neil Giaman may be doing a new “Titus Groan” adaptation. I would welcome that. We’ll see.
Finally, the panel: Our panel was titled “Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946): Genre or Not?” and occurred at Friday, 4 PM, September 2, 2022. The panel members were:
- Dave Hook, moderator, and a longtime SFF reader and recently active fan.
- Brendan Detzner, Chicago area author in a variety of genres and formats, who also runs the Bad Grammar Theater reading series.
- Rebecca Campbell, a Canadian writer of weird stories about climate change and ghosts. Sturgeon and Sunburst award winner.
- Travis Creason, longtime SFF reader and somewhat more recent active fan.
This was the first convention panel I had ever moderated. Chicon 8 was good enough to give us a Moderation Guide, which was very helpful. I knew that I needed to be organized and have my shit together for this to be fun and succeed for me.
We shared thoughts and information before the panel via email, including ideas about how to structure the panel “agenda”. I appreciated the panel members helping me on that. I did not view this as anything rigid, but more of a general outline of things that I knew we wanted to discuss.
I am going to shoehorn the summary of the panel into the subject outline. In reality our conversation was more fluid and wandered back and forth, although we did get to these things and more, and had fun discussing questions from the audience.
I was pretty focused on moderating (doing something new for me here) well and also at being a good panel member. From my perspective, things went pretty well; I could have missed things. However, I was not even remotely thinking about taking notes. I moved onto my next thing right after, so I did not take any notes then. We’re now 10 days later, time has gone on. What I state below is a combination of a) what I wanted to have us discuss with b) what I remember we might have discussed.
Panelists introduce themselves and state why they wanted to be on the panel.
This happened and it was just fine.
Questions for the audience
1. How many of you have read Titus Groan? Almost all had; this was helpful.
2. How many of you have seen the BBC/PBS miniseries? Perhaps 5 people had.
Mervyn Peake and his influences
We discussed his childhood in China, his time in WW2 serving in the British military (rather checkered per Wikipedia), his career as an illustrator and painter, and his poetry. Major influences mentioned were Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. He did start writing “Titus Groan” during WW2.
Rebecca Campbell had a great discussion of the machine-like, unescapable society at Gormenghast Castle, where life is very set and ritualistic, and there is no escape or veering from one’s set path. This was perceived as being very much in keeping with British society in many ways. This provided a wonderful perspective on “Titus Groan”.
Is “Titus Groan” genre or not? If so, what genre?
There was broad agreement that it was genre. There was not agreement on which genre, and that it was probably not a critical question. It was still fun to discuss this.
I don’t see any overtly fantastic or supernatural elements, so not fantasy. The brown man/brown father may or may not be a fantastic element; I can’t tell. There are elements not of our consensus reality, such as the giant, exorbitant castle with no apparent connection to the outside world, the Mud Dwellers sudden aging at the end of childhood, and a line of 77 Dukes. With features not of our reality but not overtly fantastic or supernatural, I conclude this is science fiction of a very odd and unique nature. Certainly sui generis.
You could equally argue that it is fantasy because it’s not a highly technological society and yet not of our consensus reality.
“Gothic romance” has also been used as a descriptor.
How was “Titus Groan” received in 1946?
As noted above, it was definitely a mixed bag. Eyre & Spottiswoode felt positive enough to keep publishing the next two volumes of the series in the UK, “Gormenghast” (1950) and “Titus Alone” (1959). His American publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, did not (Reynal & Hitchcock were absorbed by Harcourt, Brace in 1948, but it’s impossible to know if that affected the decision or not). There were no American editions until 1967 for the next two volumes. There were reviews in both the UK and US in 1946, but they were mixed; not necessarily negative, but often a bit cautionary. The US fans in the 1946-47 Fantasy Review did not mention “Titus Groan”. I did not find any US fan writing about it until 1949. The 2000 PBS TV miniseries noted “ecstatic reviews”, but that seems delusional to me.
What is your favorite feature/aspect of “Titus Groan”?
This is another area where I really don’t remember everything that was discussed. One thing that really jumped out for me was the duality of the darkness and horrific nature of life at Gormenghast and the amazing humor. It was really funny at times, which I did not remember.
I also thought the characters were extraordinary. They did have greater and lesser roles, with varying time in the narrative focus, but most of them had real depth and presence. Rottcodd, the curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings, appears solely in the first chapter, “The Hall of the Bright Carvings” and in the last chapter, “Mr Rottcodd Again”. He appears to live a somewhat pointless life, curating a carving gallery that no one ever visits, but he is fully wrought and part of the story in an interesting way and his gallery is part of the ritualistic life at Gormenghast Castle.
Steerpike: Evil or not?
I’d say that our consensus opinion was that Steerpike is an antihero and rebel who we admire for not accepting his place and role in life. He is really the only one who refuses to accept the massed weight of 77 Dukes and perhaps thousands of years of this social machine and his obvious place as a low status assistant in Swelter’s kitchen.
At the same time, he does horrific things and is not able to even envision the idea of just escaping. He appears to be obsessed with winning and dominating when he certainly could have left, even though that is never presented as a choice he considers.
Other characters or aspects of “Titus Groan” that need to be mentioned?
I know that I found the dangerous and almost fatal journey by Steerpike across 1.5 miles of the Gormenghast Castle roof, to escape his fate as a lowlevel kitchen staffer, to be just amazing.
What works or authors has “Titus Groan” and Gormenghast influenced?
Some suggestions by the panel included J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, China Mieville, “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke, and Neil Gaiman.
Rebecca Campbell had this to say about “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter” by Angela Carter, “Carter’s story takes place in a small, isolated village in a place that’s almost our world, but has more common with fairy tales. The insular villagers are utterly grotesque (like, parasites and bodily distortions), and driven by this obsession with incest. It’s genuinely gross, but it pushes the absurdity to such an extent that it becomes very darkly funny (in places— the ending is horror). That’s what made me think of Peake: the funny-dark satire of it, the absurdity, the way she borrowed from fairy tale conventions to tell a new kind of story. And I think just the inventiveness of it, too, maybe? That she’s skilled enough to tell a story I can’t imagine anyone else telling. That’s how I feel about Peake, too: only he could write Gormenghast.”
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