Dark Souls & Gormenghast (review of sorts)

It’s a sort of an end of an era for me recently since I finished the Gormenghast book trilogy and, almost in parallel, the video game Dark Souls 1.

Both works are difficult to navigate, but richly rewarding. Their worlds are uncanny and gothic, but distinct; the eerie characters and their fates as you live through them are intense – that is, if you find within yourself the patience and motivation to finish these difficult masterpieces. I did, and against all odds, I lived to tell you about it.

View from the upper part of fabled Anor Londo, the abandoned city of the gods
Dark Souls (videogame)

That’s because Dark Souls is one big incredible suffer fest journey of an action/adventure/roleplay videogame. Hated and loved universally for its incredible but somehow fair difficulty, it demands the utmost in concentration and in willingness to try, die, learn, and try again (the PC version is aptly named “Prepare to Die Edition”). It is so intense that at times, it feels like what you are doing is learning an area and its enemies’ moves by heart, and only when you have really internalised them will you succeed.

Nevertheless, this is for some reason fun; probably not least because of the genius level design and the incredible feeling of accomplishment upon finally mastering previously unthinkably difficult sections or boss fights (the other day, I actually dreamt reading an article online about the Gaping Dragon unanimously being seen as the objectively hardest boss. That was probably my brain justifying my endless fight with it).

Also, I admit I am a competitive person at times, and I don’t accept defeat. So this explains the 1 1/2 painful but intense years I spent with this game!

I absolutely love the dark atmosphere of ever-shifting mystery shrouding the world; I love the feel of the almost Gormenghast-ishly bizarre inhabitants and of your character’s own cryptic story and part to play in the world. You only ever get bits and pieces of stories to be puzzled together from seldom interactions with in-game characters, events, and item descriptions. I am a detective, I like that.

The overpriced weirdo merchant with the incredible accent; in Oolacile
The verdict

If you appreciate a challenge and are not easily frustrated (and do not have too much stress going on in your life outside the game already), you definitely need to play this classic game – or Bloodborne, which is equally difficult + rewarding, but set in a gorgeous Victorian / Lovecraftian horror setting (there’s actually a great article on the peculiar horror of Bloodborne at The Ontological Geek.)

Gormenghast (book trilogy)

Gormenghast – what an incredible place, and what a wondrous journey of a book trilogy (written 1946, 1950, and 1959).

The books are textbook examples for portraying  surreal characters. In time, the vast Gormenghast castle itself comes to feel like a character with a life entirely of its own – its personality consisting of immemorial, weird rituals meticulously observed by its inhabitants; its physical shape consisting of an unending, untraceable net of tracts, buildings, corridors, and rooms, one more ancient than the next; all of it labyrinthine and most of it long forgotten.

The plot of the first two books follows the madness, ambitions, hopes, and dreams of several inhabitants:

The old depressed Lord Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan, whose only escape from the demands of his office is his library. His son, the 77th Earl Titus Groan who is born into Gormenghast and but an infant for the entire length of the first book, and whose yearning for freedom from the life written for him is a major driver for changes; along with the ambition of Steerpike, the kitchen boy of unknown origin;  Sepulchrave’s loyal servant Mr Flay whose coming is ever accompanied by the persistent cracking of his joints and who takes marvellous pride in his profession; his nemesis, the horroresque cook Swelter; the hopelessly romantic, touchingly impulsive, artistic melancholy sister of Titus, Lady Fuchsia Groan, whose intense childhood and youth we follow; the uncannily mad but eerily ambitious twin sisters of Sepulchrave, Cora and Clarice; the inquisitive Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor and his annoying, vain sister Irma who is in dire need of love; the ever-fussy Nannie Slag; Sourdust, the ancient master of ritual, and his son Barquentine, the school professor Bellgrove, the Bright Carvers, The Thing, Kedra

Fuchsia Groan, as seen by Mervyn Peake himself

The first two books follow the castle inhabitants over several years through many events and developments: the library is burned, central characters die, others fall in love, and out of love; the castle is flooded, some characters manipulate others, some follow their hopes, others kill, yet others find a new life; some meet tragic ends; and Gormenghast castle is always in the background… many things happen, but the book takes its sweet time for them. I think comparisons with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are not entirely misplaced.

(For me, the third book in the trilogy felt rather odd and off. We leave Gormenghast behind and enter a world that is even stranger and more unpredictable. Maybe that is an accurate depiction of what it feels like to have grown up within the castle and then leave it. Also, the additional layer of Mervyn Peake’s alleged dwindling mental faculties during its writing makes the oddness of the book all the more eerie.)

The verdict

I loved these first two books for their very own distinctive feel – not always smooth or easy to read, but richly rewarding, and always one-of-a-kind. You do need a lot of patience and time to let the picture these books paint develop, and flow, though. Suffice it to say that Mervyn Peake’s trilogy is a grand piece of olde English literature (and that I have probably learnt more new English words from it than during the whole previous year, although I would hazard a guess that Peake’s favourite word might just be “undulating”).

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