It’s 1989. I’m in my second year of High School. Clive Barker, HP Lovecraft, and a highly-underrated writer named William Kotzwinkle (See Doctor Rat especially) are my favourite authors. Mr. Barker’s most recent book is The Great and Secret Show; William Kotzwinkle has just published The Hot Jazz Trio collection; and HP Lovecraft is safe and sound in a bunch of yellowing Del Rey paperbacks on my bedroom dresser. There is no Internet, and one of my continual quests for the obscure is to procure Lovecraft’s story The Reanimator, which isn’t in those Del Rey volumes (Fashion sense wasn't the only thing hard to find in 1989).
I’m perfectly content raving on and on about Books of Blood, Weaveworlds, Lurking Fears and Colours from Outer Space, when the High School library throws a book sale. It’s probably September or October— it’s always gray skies and dead leaves swirling in “Library Stories.”
On a long table where Great Gatsbys, My Antonias, Giants in the Earths and many worn copies of Deaths of Salesmen lie like cadavers unworthy of autopsy, I see two strange words and immediately know I must understand them. Like they're honest-to-god magic runes.
The words are:
It’s printed in florid white lettering upon a 1960’s paperback. It’s thick, bulging out from the stressed spine as if an entire world is trapped inside and looking for a Chosen One to open the covers, let it burst out to change the order of the universe forever. The edges of the pages are red, except for a few cream-colored leaves in roughly the middle of the book. These are fantastic character illustrations drawn by the author himself, who was obviously an accomplished visual artist. I see it’s the first book in a trilogy . . . Why haven't I heard of this before?
By Mervyn Peake. Of course, who else could have written Titus Groan? I didn’t know anything about him, but it was obvious that Mervyn Peake was the perfect name for the author of this undoubtedly sacred tome.
When I open the book, carefully (oops, a little bit of the back cover already drifted to the floor), I turn to the first page of chapter one (The Hall of Bright Carvings) and read the first word in the first sentence. That word is:
Mervyn Peake has me from that single utterance: GORMENGHAST. The words following go on to describe the castle-world I’m about to enter, with gorgeous, passionate, precise, treasure-revelatory power. But I already knew it would have a Tower of Flints and clusters of huts teeming outside its titanic walls, and rooftops of gray sky the size of deserts; I already knew there was an entire world in here from the single word GORMENGHAST. That word is awesome. It is an evocative, poetic word yet instantly defines a very definite ancient, overly mammoth, rusty-belled, dark-arched, ghost-echoed, stone-throated, umbrageous universe. I’ve never seen another word like it since . . . I mean, this is as close to a true magical word as you can get.
But wait, where’s Titus Groan? What? Oh, sorry . . . a quarter? OK here I have two dimes and a nickel. Thanks . . . I find an empty corner in the library (not difficult) and hold this massive place gently in my hands so as not to inflict apocalypse. I somehow get past the wonder of the word GORMENGHAST to the rest of the sentence it begins, and then on those that follow beneath vertiginous archways, sinewy-shadowed blocks of sphinx-lipped granite, basalt . . . Titus is a baby. But who is Swelter the cook? Why does he have it in for Steerpike? He has designs, he's crafty . . . Steerpike—him I want to know more about. I don’t trust him. But I think I like him. As one likes Satan best in Paradise Lost. Flay, taciturn manservant with cracking knees . . . a morose king, going mad, turning owl . . . what this? A room of white cats? A tree branch, growing out of the castle walls, and large enough for a tea party? Yes just pass through the room of roots, the twins Cora and Clarice can take you there. Fuchsia-- what a strange girl. That Steerpike is pretending to be an ape, I see. No wait-- a doctor's assistant-- why is this Countess Groan so impersonal, monolithic? Wait, what the hell is this anyway? Where am I? I am lost and happy to be lost in this unique world. It is beautiful, terrifying, funny, nonsensical, Kafka without bureaucracy or cold , bleak language. There is birth, death, intrigue, sadness, isolation . . . it all takes place in a castle yet has not one touch of the gothic about it. It is sort of like a fantasy, but not exactly. A twisted fairy tale? No there is more to it than that. It's an eruption of some kind. I'm wonderfully lost. Reading this book, I gain time . . .
A few pages in, that's when I know. Truly know. I must follow-through and become a writer. I must create my own GORMENGHAST. I know it will take a lifetime of hard work, insomnia, challenging economic times, and many socially awkward misunderstandings, but it will be worth it. I will die trying.
Erik T. Johnson's work has appeared or is forthcoming in fine periodicals such as Space & Time Magazine, Tales of the Unanticipated, Polluto, Electric Velocipede, Structo, Morpheus Tales, Sein und Werden, and Shimmer; and anthologies including Chiral Mad, Chiral Mad 2, The Shadow of the Unknown, Box of Delights, Dead but Dreaming 2, WTF?!, and Best New Zombie Tales 3. A complete and regularly updated bibliography, blog, scrawling and doodles, and reviews of his work can be found by visiting YES TRESPASSING
Mervyn Peake's gothic masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy, begins with the superlative Titus Groan, a darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the first two years in the life of the heir to an ancient, rambling castle. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle's decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story. Peake's command of language and unique style set the tone and shape of an intricate, slow-moving world of ritual and stasis:The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with gray slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers'.... On every day of the year from three hours before daybreak until about eleven o'clock, when the scaffolding and ladders became a hindrance to the cooks, the Grey Scrubbers fulfilled their hereditary calling.Peake has been compared to Dickens, Tolkien, and Peacock, but Titus Groan is truly unique. Unforgettable characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor make their way through an architecturally stifling world, with lots of dark corners around to dampen any whimsy that might arise.
This true classic is a feast of words unlike anything else in the world of fantasy. Those who explore Gormenghast castle will be richly rewarded. --Therese Littleton
THE CHAPMAN BOOKS
It's dangerous to be a doctor... ...Or a member of the Chapman family in this collection of three loosely tied together tales of the macabre by authors Aaron J. French, Erik T. Johnson, and Adam P. Lewis. Aaron J. French starts this weird progression with "The Chapman Stain," a kind of horrorized version of the nature vs. nurture debate. Is it genetics or is it demonic possession? The story moves quickly, with hints of both A Christmas Carol and The Exorcist lending touchstones to the proceedings. The story's end is a heady blend of spiritualism and gore. Erik T. Johnson's "The Chapman Delirium" is a euphoric, phantasmagoric trippy trip through the world of a patent medicine called Etcetracaine. Johnson's writing is, as always, mind-bendingly good, with passages you will read, stop, read again, then curse yourself for not having written. And finally, the Chapman Family's bad luck runs its course in Adam P. Lewis' "The Chapman Remains," a horrific tale of revenant corpses and life-draining ghouls. Lewis manages a shivery Fall of the House of Usher feeling throughout, which gives this tale of grave disturbance and...well...grave disturbances a nice depth. "Interesting to see what three talented authors can do with a shared-world theme, The tales are different enough to hold your interest completely, but tethered enough to each other that they lend some deeper, more twisted meaning to their companion pieces. Highly recommended!" --- John F.D. Taff, author of Little Deaths
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