Gormenghast of the Mind

After the BBC’s disastrous television production of Gormenghast, the trilogy of novels by Mervyn Peake, they are now making amends with a splendid radio adaptation. It’s impossible to translate that Gothic creation of arcane, stultifying rituals and trapped flights of fancy, all captured within a seemingly endless maze of stone corridors, towers and parapets, in a flat visual plane. All the television production did is recreate a gallery of grotesques, rendered ridiculous by too literal images. Gormenghast needs the infinitely liberating power of the imagination, something radio does perfectly.

I remember falling into the novels and knowing nothing of ordinary reality until I emerged, dazed at the end.  A superb fantasy, so grounded in detail that its world seemed as solid as real life.  If anything, real life seemed a bit gray and tenuous for a while afterwards. I fell in love with Fuschia Groan, hating the upstart Steerpike for his cynical pursuit of her, while being forced to admire his ambition and determination to overthrow the Groan dynasty.

So here it is, starting with the first of six episodes, and available for about four weeks.


Best of all, though, is to read the novels. Here’s the opening paragraph of Titus Groan, first novel in the trilogy.

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. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

Television Review: A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – The New Taste for Blood (1/3)

A Very British MurderBBC4 Website: A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley’s Website

Huzzah! Dr Worsley has a new documentary on the British fascination with gory murders and the culture in which the fascination flourished. She gives us three real murder cases from the first half of the 19th century. The first are the 1811 Ratcliff Highway Murders in Wapping, London, with seven victims. Then in 1827, the Red Barn Murder in Polstead, Suffolk, where Maria Marten was foully done to death by her lover. Finally, in 1849, the splendidly named Bermondsey Horror, in which Maria Manning murdered her wealthy lover, double-crossed her complicit husband, and ran off with the stolen loot.

Other television presenters orate while striding across iconic landscapes, or strike thoughtful academic attitudes against the sky. You know they’re posing and it looks silly. Not Lucy Worsley. She dives into the material and gets involved in the nitty-gritty. And how. She visits the crime scenes, handles the artefacts (the skin off the back of a murderer’s head), investigates exactly how the murderers were executed, and makes you feel like a privileged fly on the wall of a morgue.

In this episode she also took the part of Maria Marten in a recreation of a contemporary melodrama, operated and voiced her killer in the marionette theatre version, sang a folk song about the dreadful crime, and acted out the trial of Maria Manning as the lawyers, judge, and of course, Maria Manning herself. Yes, all of them.

If that was all, it would be brilliant entertainment, but there’s much more. She explores the social context of the murders and the shock they created. In 1810 there were only 15 murder convictions, and no real police force. Public anger at the ineffectiveness of the authorities led to reform, so that by 1849 there were uniformed police and a handful of detectives. The police used the new-fangled telegraph to send descriptions of the Mannings to Edinburgh and Jersey, which led to their arrest.

But main story is the development of murder as a gripping morality tale for the edification and entertainment of an increasingly literate population. Thomas De Quincey was the first respectable observer (opium, indeed all drugs, were legal then) to notice the phenomenom and its effects. Villagers in Grasmere, where he lived at Dove Cottage, went to extraordinary lengths to safeguard their homes after hearing about the slaughter of the Marr family in Wapping. Despite the fact that it’s 300 miles away. De Quincey wrote a satire on the public’s fascination, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, in 1827.

Apart from De Quincey, ballads and broadsides, puppet shows and melodramas, carried the news to avid ears, creating huge public interest in the trials and executions of the murderers. John Williams, suspect in the Ratcliff Highway murders, hanged himself in jail. Thwarted of a spectacle, the authorities carried his body by cart to the Marr’s house, where someone wrenched his head around so it was looking at the scene of his putative crime.

The executions of William Corder (Maria Marten’s killer) and the Mannings were both public, as was usual for the time. But they really pushed out the boat for the Mannings, carrying out the execution on the roof of the jail, so everyone could see. Charles Dickens booked a room with a view and held a party, while still lecturing the hoi polloi for their gloating enthusiasm.

The delicious frisson that earned the Mannings their 5 star execution may well have been due to Maria’s demonstration that a woman could be every bit as ruthless and devious as a man.

This episode was the groundwork, so to speak. The next one looks at how crime, science, and detection affected the culture of homicide in the Victorian Age. This is classic Worsley, and I am in Seventh Heaven.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is out. It sounds so mouthwateringly good that I might even buy a copy new, rather than wait for it to show up in my local charity shop.

The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas, is a literary and publishing centre in Melbourne, where he recently gave a talk and read from the book. I like this Wheeler Centre, and I like the interviewer, a woman with the fetching name of Alicia Sometimes. It’s an Antipodean TED, only much more interesting because of the Australian attitude. TED tends toward the bland and corporate. I might dump the occasional TED Talks feature in favour of the Wheeler Centre videos.

And here’s Neil.


If you like cats, animation, and murder mysteries, then meet Francis. He’s the feline hero of Akif Pirincci’s 1989 novel, Felidae, the first in a trilogy, and the only one made into a film. Francis is a cat detective, investigating the murders of other cats. If cute brings you out in hives, fear not, for the murders are horrible and Francis wouldn’t be seen dead in a Youtube video. Except this one, of course.

I read and loved Felidae, but not the two sequels, and I haven’t seen the film either. Sadly, the books are out of print, and I no longer have my copy.

Last Rituals

Last RitualsLast Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, is an Icelandic-noir crime novel, featuring a particularly gruesome murder, irresistibly combined with sorcery and witchcraft. I learned a great deal about these ancient practices in the course of finding out whodunnit, including a tasty gobbet of information about corpse breeches. I do like to be informed as well as entertained.

The subject matter of the novel is surprising in that Yrsa spent the first seven years of her writing career in children’s fiction, and this 2005 novel was her debut in adult fiction. It’s as if all the sweetness and light just got too much, and she decided to do something completely different. The Scotsman has an interview with the author from 2010.

Last Rituals is a splendid read, a page-turner if ever there was one. I gobbled it up in one day, remarkable because I’m usually a slow reader. Yrsa’s protagonist, Thora Gudmundsdottir, is very much like herself. A professional woman, in this case a lawyer rather than her real day job of civil engineer, 30-something mother of 2 children, living in the up-market suburb of Seltjarnarnes in Reykjavik. Her description even fits the author’s photo.

A post-graduate German student, Harald Guntlieb, studying at the University of Iceland, is found strangled with both eyes removed. One of his drug dealer friends is quickly arrested for the crime, but Thora receives a phone call from the victim’s mother, asking for help in an independent investigation – she does not believe the drug dealer was responsible. She sends the family’s security chief (they own a bank) to Iceland to help. Matthew Reich is a tough, capable ex-detective, and completely out of his cultural depth, so they make a good team as they begin to rub the edges off each other’s preconceptions.

Thora’s sympathetic and appealing character is extremely well-drawn, as are her children Soley (6) and Gylfi (16). It’s through Thora’s eyes that we see Matthew evolve from a martinet to a relaxed, likable man as they get deeper into the investigation.

Much of this investigation revolves around a group of students who had formed a witchcraft and sorcery club with Harald, as well as two of their professors. There’s a lot about drink, drugs, and sex as the lifestyle of young Icelanders, as represented by this group of students. The novel also takes a trip to a remote sorcery and witchcraft museum in Holmavik, NW Iceland. This video shows some of the exhibits the novel talks about.

The novel works on many levels. As a whodunnit, it had me guessing right to the end, but I have to confess that I’m lazy in these matters, less concerned with finding the murderer and more interested in the characters. In this case it’s very rewarding. I was much taken by Thora, her family, and her developing relationship with Matthew. And Harald’s peculiar pychopathology is fascinating. Less interesting are the drinking, drug-taking, and sexual antics of the students he has drawn into his circle – they seem merely stupid.

Then’s there’s the allure of books and scholarship, enough to make me salivate. The novel revolves around a search for a rare copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, a theological justification and user manual for the torture of those suspected of witchcraft. There are many other obscure and fascinating texts woven into the story. How could I resist?

Finally, there’s Iceland, that strange country I want to visit more than ever.

If you like this first outing for Thora, there are 3 more novels with her as protagonist, which I intend to read: My Soul to Take (2009), Ashes to Dust (2010), and The Day Is Dark (2011). Looks like the subject matter hasn’t got any more cheerful, I’m glad to say.

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Smut - Two Unseemly StoriesMrs Donaldson is a youngish 55, not unhappily widowed after an underwhelming marriage, though burdened by a strict daughter who idolized her father. When Mrs Donaldson’s pension proves inadequate, she’s forced to get a part-time job and take in lodgers. The job is acting out symptoms for medical students as part of their training in diagnostic and patient-care skills. (Who knew such a profession existed? Reading fiction is truly an education in itself.) Mrs Donaldson is a star in this particular firmament, and she’s lusted after from afar by the doctor in charge of the training. Her lodgers are drawn from that same pool of students. Despite vague yearnings for a more fulfilling widowhood, all is quite seemly until Andy and Laura find themselves unable to pay the rent. Their suggestion of a creative way to pay it off in lieu is the seed for The Greening of Mrs Donaldson.

In the second story, The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, her in-the-closet son, Graham, breaks his mother’s heart by leaving home and marrying a woman he’s much too good for. But plain Betty does have a lot of money. And a lot of sense, which she’s far too clever to make known to her husband. It’s about secrets, lies, blackmail, and how an apparently dysfunctional family is perfectly sustainable when everyone else has their own secrets, and aren’t particularly bothered by Graham’s.

Alan BennettAlan Bennett’s voice is unique. He has captured a blend of English, middle class respectability that is completely aware of the throbbing veins of desire lurking beneath the skin. And perfectly capable of accommodating those desires in a way that doesn’t disturb the status quo. His sex scenes are exemplary – discreetly explicit, without descending to the vulgarity of a naming of parts, and yet you know exactly what’s going on. And often very funny. We’ve all heard of the Bad Sex Award, where writers of literary fiction are raked over the coals for their purple passages. Alan Bennett would win hands down if there was a Good Sex Award.

I also like his humanity. While some of his characters are veritable monsters, he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re human monsters. Speaking of the dreadful Mrs Forbes, for example:

Monstrous as she was, a tyrant and a snob, Graham’s mother was an ogre of such long-standing that her feelings (though they could often only be guessed at) nevertheless merited respect. Not yet an ancient monument she was a survival and on that score alone her outlook and her armour-plated ignorance merited preservation.

As you can see from this passage, Bennett is tough-minded as he is humane.

These thoroughly smutty tales are a delight. I highly recommend Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.