Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake

Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake “To the reader who has followed Titus through the two earlier books Titus Alone administers a profound jolt, and many have not liked it,” writes Malcolm Yorke in My Eyes Mint Gold, his biography of Mervyn Peake. It was warnings such as this that put me off reading the third of Peake’s Titus books back when I read the first two, and which prepared me, on finally getting round to it, not to be disappointed by it not being a Gormenghast book. But, as it is a Titus book, it is at least haunted by Gormenghast, even if the world Titus moves through, and the prose style we get to experience it through, aren’t Gormenghastian, but something less grandiose and Gothic, less solid, and of that much less character, too. At times, it reads like a sort of mannered absurdism, full of details that ought to add up to character and style but without any of the substance that would make them work.

Perhaps the trouble is that Titus, though the figure around whom the whole series revolves, isn’t one of Peake’s more interesting characters. He exists, at first, to be oppressed by Gormenghast, then to defy it and escape from it. But because his identity is so tied up with that vast shadow-haunted castle, once he’s away from it, what is he? This is something Titus himself has to confront, as he finds himself, in Titus Alone, so far from his home that no-one has ever heard of it, and most don’t believe such a place even exists:

“Did you run away, young man?”

“I rode away,” said Titus.

“From… Gormenghast?”

“Yes, your Worship.”

“Leaving your mother…?”


“And your father…?”

“No, not my father…”

“Ah… is he dead, my boy?”

“Yes, your Worship. He was eaten by owls.”

The Magistrate raised an eyebrow and began to write upon a piece of paper.

Finding himself in a very un-Gormenghastian land of motorcars and helicopters, tall glass buildings and needle-like aeroplanes, Titus is arrested for having no identity. “So my papers are out of order, are they?” he says. “So is my brain and heart.”

MuzzlehatchUnfortunately, this lack of identity makes for him being a very weak character to hang a novel on. In the Gormenghast books, relief would be found in other characters, or in Gormenghast itself, but here there’s not much weight to the world Titus finds himself in, and we only get a small handful of characters who have any real character at all. Perhaps there’s only one. And that would be fine, because the whole of “Boy in Darkness” is sustained by the eerie presence of the Lamb alone, but here the one new character of interest, Muzzlehatch, exists mainly to stride in and out of the plot at key points, rescuing Titus when Titus needs rescuing, then to disappear, because Muzzlehatch, “Barbaric to the eye, his silhouette more like something of ropes and bones,” a man “so ragged and yet, at the same time, so like a king”, whose “every movement was a kind of stab in the bosom of the orthodox world” is a kind of hero of indifference, a hero of individuality and self-containment, something Titus aspires to, but fails to achieve until the very final paragraph of the novel. Till then, Muzzlehatch must exist as a heroic example, but one who therefore can’t take centre place in a novel which is all about the attempt to solve the problem Muzzlehatch has already solved — the problem of knowing who you are, of being self-contained — not what Titus is, a ghost of his own past, simultaneously longing for, and trying to deny his need for, Gormenghast. “Give me some proof of me!” Titus cries, at one point. Yet Gormenghast, his once-home, is the only proof of Titus.

I said in my Mewsings on the second Titus book that it didn’t hit its stride, and really get back into the immersive feel of the first book, till about 250 pages in. This is excusable in a book with another 250 pages to go. For me, Titus Alone didn’t hit its stride till the 200 page mark, which might sound like an improvement till you realise Titus Alone is only 260 pages long, leading me to think it might have been better as a novella like “Boy in Darkness” — short, but focused on a single episode. And, if it weren’t for the need to build up the characters that feature in that final episode, it would surely be possible to read just those final 60 pages on their own, because they comprise the only real set-piece of any weight in the book, and almost all of its meaning.

Peake’s at his best with set pieces. His style is all about elaboration, about building up his characters from quirky little cartoons to full-blown human beings, and building up his settings in all their Gothic cobwebbed glory, and then bringing it all together in grand, climactic moments. In Titus Alone, there’s nothing for his elaborations to adhere to till the final scene, where Cheeta, the scientist’s daughter who’s intent on ruining Titus’s mind, builds a mockery of Gormenghast and brings him to it, to parade in front of him grotesque creations meant to represent his mother, his dead sister, his dead father, and the other inhabitants of a world she has only heard about through Titus’s mutterings whilst in a fever.

Titus Alone, by Mervyn PeakeThe thing that makes the world of Titus Alone most different from that of Gormenghast is that, whilst Gormenghast seemed at most to be a post-World War II world, and that only as a distant echo, Titus Alone is resolutely in the atomic age. Cheeta’s father, described in the book as “the greatest scientist in the world” was in fact, in Peake’s original manuscript (according to John Batchelor’s book on Peake), described as “the greatest deathray scientist in the world” — something which makes a lot more sense of why his factory, and his daughter, should be the focus for the book’s idea of evil. Scientists in Titus Alone are purveyors of death, and inventors of devices for mass killing, and the world of Titus Alone, though slightly futuristic with its tall glass buildings and needle-like aircraft (and its over-leisured middle classes who spend so much time at over-crowded cocktail parties), is a diminished world:

“Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms: and coral reefs and sands as white as milk. What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart? Filth, squalor, and a world of little men.”

Titus Alone isn’t in the same league as the two Gormenghast books, or even the much shorter “Boy in Darkness”, and for most of it, I found myself wondering if I’d get anything out of the reading at all. But the final 60 pages were good — not quite Gormenghast good, but certainly good enough, and unlike the early parts of the book, they tied in enough with the story of Titus’s leaving Gormenghast to make them seem a worthwhile continuation, completing the arc of Titus’s development into manhood that began, in the second book, with the sudden death of “the Thing”, then his decision to leave Gormenghast, to the moment in the final paragraph of Titus Alone where he finds, finally, the link to his past that properly enables him to absorb it, and escape it.


Why I like… Clark Ashton Smith


The first Clark Ashton Smith story I read was “The Empire of the Necromancers“. A friend, not wanting to actually lend me his precious copy of Lost Worlds Volume 1 (the Panther paperback edition with the Bruce Pennington cover), let me read it for the half hour it took him to take a quick trip up to town. I chose to read “The Empire of the Necromancers” because, besides being the first story in the book, it was short enough that I was likely to finish it before he returned and took the book back.

I was instantly — not hooked, but bewildered. I had never read anything like it. I was 16 or 17 at the time, and I think I only managed to retain my readerly equilibrium by telling myself the story’s strangeness must be due to its being written in the 1930s. Having since read a good deal of old & classic fantasy, I still find Clark Ashton Smith’s writing irredeemably strange, and now know it’s not because he belonged to another age, but because he was that timeless, ageless thing, an individual with a genuinely unique imagination — a rare thing, even among what should be the most imaginative group of writers, fantasists. It’s only among the likes of Mervyn Peake and E R Eddison that Clark Ashton Smith really meets his match.

CAS_LW1_frontThe strangeness is all there in “The Empire of the Necromancers”. The story opens in the desert, as we follow two sorcerers, Mmatmuor and Sodosma, as they are exiled from the city of Tinarath for the practice of necromancy. Used to reading sword and sorcery tales in which the sorcerers are the villains, it was strange enough to follow this peculiar pair as if they were the tale’s heroes, but this was merely the first of many strangenesses in Smith’s story. Heading south, the necromancers encounter the skeleton of a horse and its rider, and set about reviving the dead mount to carry one of them. (Such practical use of nefarious power!) Then they continue to Yethlyreom, a vast, dead city, in which centuries of mummified nobility are waiting to be brought back to life to serve Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and to people their undead empire.

(Such names as Tinarath and Yethlyreom, I’d soon learn, were due to the influence of Lord Dunsany, not just on Clark Ashton Smith, but on the entire fantasy field, and only absent from my then-current fantasy reading because it had already become passé to imitate Dunsany’s long, poetic-sounding names. Dunsany, like Poe, was obviously an influence on Smith, but even Dunsany would never have created a necromancer called Sodosma.)

CAS_TalesofZothiqueOnce the two necromancers have their empire up and running, Smith’s story takes an abrupt turn. So far, the necromancers have been the protagonists. Now, we are introduced to a far more Smithian hero, in the shape of Illerio, the last Emperor of Cincor (of which Yethlyreom was the capital). Illerio is an even more surprising hero than the necromancers, because he is dead. Undead, in fact. Raised from oblivion by Mmatmuor and Sodosma, he is just beginning to resent the fact, in his slow-minded way. In snatches, Illerio plots with Hestaiyon, his eldest ancestor among the throngs of reanimatees. A formidable sorcerer in his own day, Hestaiyon remembers a dark secret in the depths of the palace, a door that opens upon a set of steps that descend into an ever deeper darkness. It is through this doorway that the undead emperors of Cincor descend to their second, final, irrevocable death from which no necromancer can recall them — but not before slicing up Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and enchanting their sundered body parts with a magical immortality to ensure they suffer properly for the indignity to which they put the emperors of Cincor.

Normally, I wouldn’t recount the full plot of a story I like so much, as I wouldn’t want to take the pleasure of discovering it from a new reader. But this doesn’t apply to Clark Ashton Smith stories. Once you get to know Smith, you realise that almost all his tales end in the same way: everyone meets their doom. The dead, if resurrected, long to return to death; the living, meanwhile, achieve a frequently arcane, and generally ironic demise. In a sense, there is no story. A Clark Ashton Smith tale starts with a note of doom and continues ever downwards.

Again and again, in story after story, the dead and the living mix, briefly, in their macabre way, then join one another in oblivion. The poetry of his tales — and it is as poetry they are best appreciated — most often lies, macabrely enough, in the manner of that final death. A willing descent into the abyss for Illerio and his ancestors; a drowning in jewels for the greedy Avoosl Wuthoqquan; Christophe Morand returning to the embrace of a life-draining lamia from whom he has just been saved. (Love and death, in Clark Ashton Smith’s world, are frequently inseparable.) There are exceptions — for instance, the alienated human poet Theophilus Alvor finding love in the (five) arms of an equally alienated princess from another planet in “The Monster of the Prophecy” — but most often it is as Fritz Leiber puts it: “I can hardly think of a Smith story, the principal theme of which is not death.”

young_CASEvery writer needs a defining anecdote that sums up their uniqueness. With Smith, it is the fact that he withdrew himself from school and set about educating himself, primarily by reading an unabdridged dictionary all the way through several times, paying particular attention to the etymologies of the words.

Somehow, he remembered it all. Smith’s primary aim was to be a poet. Wilfully anachronistic, he not only set about making a name for himself as a lyric poet in an age that was about to embrace the modernism of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound — and doing so at the boy-genius age of 19 — but also set about making himself a Decadent poet, remotely tagging himself onto the already dying Decadent scene in San Francisco, when European Decadence, as a literary movement, had ceased to be fashionable about twenty years before.

WT_Apr1938And as if being a Decadent poet wasn’t showing enough disdain for the Modern Age, when Smith wrote for the pulps (which he did, prolifically, for about a decade) he wrote what must surely be some of the most uncommercial fiction in the most uncommercial, archaic style, but still managed to become one of Weird Tales‘s most popular regulars, through, I can only conclude, the sheer strangeness of his imagination.

And then, at the height of his success, finding that he didn’t need the money from pulp-writing anymore (he’d had to support his ageing parents, and now both of them were dead), he stopped writing fiction and turned to his new love of rock-carving, producing weird little primitive-looking statuettes with names like “Antehuman Grotesque”, “Lemurian Ghost”, and “Sorcerer Undergoing a Bestial Change”.

And, of course, he returned to poetry.

CAS_LOSmith wrote what is, for me, the greatest of all fantasy poems, the stupendous blank-verse “The Hashish Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil”, with its torrent of dream-visions building to a crescendo of horror, and an ending borrowed from Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. There’s also “Nero“, a monologue in which the insane pyromaniac Roman Emperor, watching his city burn, regrets he can’t do the same to the universe itself. Among his shorter lyrics, “Lunar Mystery” has a particularly beautiful word-music, and “Nyctalops” is a good example of Smith’s use of fantasy/horror imagery to achieve an effect of enchanting, unsettling strangeness.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I think it is strangeness that is the key to Clark Ashton Smith. He felt a kinship with his fellow pulp-writer H P Lovecraft (with whom he corresponded from 1922 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937) in the need to capture, whether in fiction, poetry, sculpture or painting (Smith painted weird little scenes of alien plant-life) a glimpse of something utterly otherworldly. But, although he wrote a few Lovecraftian horror tales, and did desire at times to unsettle his readers, Smith was never as bleak in his outlook as the Gent from Providence. For Lovecraft, the otherworldly was terrifying, because it proved the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence. Smith may have been disdainful of the petty endeavours of his own age, but found great beauty and meaning in the strangeness of the otherworldly, in the freedom of his imagination from the merely mundane. He felt:

“…a wild aspiration toward the unknown, the uncharted, the exotic, the utterly strange and ultra-terrestial. And this aspiration, as I know with a fatal foreknowledge, could never be satisfied by anything on earth or in actual life, but only through dream-ventures such as those in my poems, paintings and stories.” [Letter to HPL, 24th Oct 1930]

Smith’s beloved death, and the world of the dead, was just another realm of the imagination, another otherworldly place in which to achieve the ultimate “escape from the human equation”. [Letter to HPL, 16 Nov 1930]

Ambrose Bierce (who disappeared shortly before Smith entered the San Francisco literary scene) once said, “A jest in the death-chamber conquers by surprise.” Smith, who had a very dry, very dark sense of humour, might well have replied, “But of course it is death itself that is the jest.”

If it is, then only the dead are really in on the joke — the dead, and their fantasist-laureate, Clark Ashton Smith.

(The best place to find out more about Clark Ashton Smith is The Eldritch Dark, including a gallery of his paintings and rock-carvings.)


What books do best

I love films. I love music. I love games, comics, paintings, the lot. But most of all I love books, stories told in words. I’m not going to argue that my chosen favourite form of art/entertainment (if only there was one word that meant both and didn’t sound either pretentious or disparaging) is better than the others, because it’s not. They’re all means of telling stories, or saying interesting things, and they all work in different ways. The ones that work best are the ones that use the strengths of their form to the best advantage. In Watchmen, for instance, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore deliberately used one of the advantages of comics to do something which can’t be translated into film — the fact that you can pack a lot of detail into each panel, and the reader can linger, and flip back and forth, to really absorb that detail. That’s why, when watching the recent film of Watchmen, I kept thinking, “But they’ve missed out… And what about… And where’s..?” All the way through.

But what do books do best? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are obvious. Unlike all the other art-forms I listed above, they can only say one thing at a time — worse, they can only build up what they want to say one word at a time, which means you have to put a lot of work in just to get to the first thing they want to say. Music can be instantly impressive; the first shot of a film can just grab you; a splash page opening a comic takes you right into its story; but even “Call me Ishmael” has to be read one word at a time.

What are books’ strengths? I’ll take my answer not from a book, but a song:

Book after book
I get hooked
Every time the writer
Talks to me like a friend

— “Spaceball Ricochet“, Marc Bolan

Books talk to you, just like people do. Alright, you don’t see them waving their hands and pulling faces while they’re talking (books are more like telephone conversations, in that way), and they don’t allow you to talk back (or they don’t listen if you do), but although books are the least like our sensory experience of the world (mostly pictures and sounds), they are, I think, the most like our experience of people.

Some books (like some people) talk at you, and expect you to believe what they say because it’s they who say it. Such books are written by Authors, and their Authorship comes from them regarding themselves as Authorities — and that’s a little too close to regarding themselves as what Philip Pullman called The Authority in His Dark Materials, i.e., God. (Books written by Adults for children all too easily fall into this trap. Don’t they, my dearie wittle ones?)

The best books, though, are written by human beings, not Authors. They talk to you as an equal, as another human being, and don’t try to be clever or sophisticated or loud, or to put on airs:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.

Don Quixote, Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Ever since people started reading books silently (Saint Ambrose is recorded as the first to engage in this peculiar practice), when books speak, they do so inside your head. In this way, they can seem not so much to be speaking to you, as to be the result of your eavesdropping on someone else’s thoughts, their own interior monologue raised to the clarity of complete and artistically ordered sentences.

What goes on in other people’s heads is, of course, one of the great mysteries of life. We can be reasonably sure that if I see a red penguin and you see a red penguin then the sensory impression received by our eyes is roughly the same thing, but the thoughts that go through our separate heads (“A red penguin? Am I insane?!” and “Ah, the Red Penguin returns…”) can be as different as, well, two books on a shelf.

But it’s in books that we have the solution to this mystery. Books allow the most intimate contact with the inside of another person’s head, because the writer doesn’t have to talk to us like a friend, they can go one better, and talk to us as they would to themselves, either about themselves, or (if they’re pure narrator) about the story, situation or picture they see:

The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore.

A good book opens up a world and surrounds you in it. Because it starts inside your head, if read right, it replaces your senses and becomes your world, while you read it. One word at a time you go into all the strangeness, wonder, fear and peculiarity of being another human being. Which, you of course find, is just like being yourself. Only, with the furniture moved about a bit.