, June 2011
Clear distinctions between good and evil are so rare in real life, that it is sometimes comforting to know whether to cheer or hiss at a character before you have heard more than a few lines about them. Gormenghast, the second in a series of three gothic novels by writer Mervyn Peake, draws such a clear line between the righteous and the damned that the listener knows which is which when they hear their names: from the malevolent, power-hungry and cunningly manipulative Steerpike, to Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor, the smart aleck doctor of Castle Gormenghast. Even the name of the castle calls to mind how it is later described: dark, dank, foreboding, with many hidden passageways for hiding wrongdoing. The family who lives here, and the hero of this tale, are aptly named Groan: there is Titus, who is seven when Gormenghast picks up, and is the reluctant heir to the throne; Fuschia, his spoiled sister, who like her name comes off as a bit too garish; and their deceased father Lord Sepulchrave. Gormenghast follows Titus as he comes of age and must decide whether to indulge in his desire to shirk obligation and make a life outside of the castle, or to be the much-needed hero and save this ancient, secretive and frankly weird world from a terrible end.
The listener’s appreciation for the clear demarcation between good and evil is also brought into sharp focus by narrator Rupert Degas’ exceptional reading. Degas displays a wide range of accents, vocalizations, and tones, from somber, when he is describing the foreboding castle, to wild and agitated, such as in the final scenes, which are filled with an appropriate showdown between the forces of good and evil, now evident to all the colorfully-named characters. Many male narrators often have difficulty depicting women, since too high a pitch can sound like mockery, while too low can erase any difference between male and female voices. Degas has no such trouble: his vocalization is so expressive and varied that he is able to actually lower his pitch for a female character, such as the Countess Gertrude, Titus’ mother, who is an imposing but largely reclusive woman until largely disaster requires her assertive leadership; or raise it when depicting the squeaking laughter of Dr. Prunesquallor. Gormenghast is abridged and the second in the series, but its simple themes and straightforward plot meant that these factors did not draw away from this colorful work of fantasy.