''Gormenghast'' delivers hope for all ''Lord of the Rings'' fans, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated July 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Gormenghast: Jack English

How TV unlocked a Goth/fantasy masterpiece

As a teenager, I was hooked for a good year or three on the literary fantasy genre. As with so many other readers, the bait on the hook was ”The Hobbit,” followed by Tolkien’s comparatively grown-up ”Lord of the Rings.” But the massive popularity of those books prompted paperback publishers to dust off similar works by British and American writers of the early 20th century, and I ingested them all: E.R. Eddison’s ”The Worm Ouroboros,” William Hope Hodgson’s ”The Night Land,” C.S. Lewis’ ”Narnia Chronicles” (again), the collected works of good old twisted H.P. Lovecraft.

By far the strangest of them all was Mervyn Peake’s ”Gormenghast Trilogy.” The three books in the series are ”Titus Groan” (1946), ”Gormenghast” (1950), and ”Titus Alone” (1959), and they read like nothing so much as Charles Dickens on acid.

Imagine an immense fantasy set not in a world of misty, elf-ridden mountains but within the confines of a castle that runs literally for miles and miles, with forgotten wings that no one has seen for centuries. Imagine a hero — Titus, the 76th Earl of Groan — who is an infant for the entire first book and is surrounded by a demented royal family and Machievellan castle servants with names like Prunesquallor, Swelter, Flay, and Steerpike. Imagine this tale told with attention to detail that borders on the monomaniacal and is saved only by the author’s extremely dry wit and the sense that the whole thing might in fact be a parody of England’s own royals.

Now imagine how the hell anyone could make a TV miniseries of this beguiling monstrosity. Imagine no more: The four-hour, BBC-produced ”Gormenghast” hits PBS on June 27 and 28.

It is, of course, a shell of Mervyn Peake’s grand folly, with gaping chunks of plot left on the operating room floor. It also only covers the first two books, which is actually a good thing, since ”Titus Alone” is, by general consensus, the weakest of the three. There are nods to TV-style sentiment that Peake would rightly have scoffed at, and the humor is more camp than crafty. But damned if the thing doesn’t work overall — and if it doesn’t successfully position ”The Gormenghast Trilogy” as the missing link between Gothic and Goth.

You heard me right. Peake (whose main career was as an illustrator) was consciously working in the dark, shadowy tones of classic Gothic literature — he just amped it up to surreal proportions. And his taste for evil antiheroes like the ”diabolically clever little monster” Steerpike and neurasthenic princesses like Titus’ sister Fuschia — not to mention a penchant for overripe prose descriptions of decay — put him squarely in the paint-it-black nihilist tradition of modern pop-cult Goth.

As such, ”Gormenghast” is TV of a sort that simply couldn’t have existed a decade ago. Partially that’s because the CGI effects now exist to put across the endless nightmare architecture of the castle itself, but, really, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen in Hallmark fantasy specials like ”Alice in Wonderland” and ”Merlin” (and like those shows, ”Gormenghast” feels a little visually constricted, as if the green screen were poised to pounce just outside the frame).

More to the point, the BBC-PBS ”Gormenghast” has the freedom to enjoy its own innate perversity — or as one character says about baby Titus, ”I like him better now that he’s ugly.” As Steerpike, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (”Velvet Goldmine”) preens and sneers and schemes like Marilyn Manson without the makeup. As the Earl’s dithering, conspiratorial twin sisters, Lynsey Baxter and Zoë Wanamaker suggest grown versions of those two midget women from ”Mothra” as costumed by Peter Greenaway for a death-metal video. And then there’s Neve McIntosh as Lady Fuschia: a misguided Ophelia for the MTV generation. The whole underlying concept of a corrupt, hermetic universe ruled by senseless ritual and on the verge of entropic collapse kind of makes sense too, at least for anyone who remembers high school.

As truncated as it is, ”Gormenghast” manages to both honor Mervyn Peake’s eccentric vision and play as part of the cultural here and now. It gives me hope that Peter Jackson’s heavily hyped live action ”Lord of the Rings” may in fact sidestep the decades of hippie/D&D reverence that has choked off a real appreciation for Tolkien’s work. And it makes me think that Peake’s work may at last find an American readership. Poor guy — he just had to wait for it to be born.