I mentioned in a prior post how finding the book Realms of Fantasy helped lead me to Mervyn Peake and his wonderful Gormenghast novels, which fundamentally changed my life. This was the late 1980s, and the very first copies of those novels that I was able to find were out of print mass market paperbacks from the defunct Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. Later, I would see Peake's own covers for the novels, and those, for me, have become the definitive covers. Still, I have a tremendous amount of love and nostalgia for the covers to those Ballantine paperbacks. Painted by artist Bob Pepper, they are an absolute delight and an almost perfect encapsulation of the complex, byzantine, grotesque world of Gormenghast. I love everything about these covers, from the font to the design to the incredible garish colors. What I wouldn't give to see the original paintings.
While I lost my original copies in all the moves between college and grad school, I've tracked down new ones and I always look for more in every used bookstore I visit. They are usually fairly inexpensive and are a perfect way of introducing friends to the books. Take a look.
So, take a very close look. This would not be apparent to the first time reader, but after spending some time with the book it is easy to see that Bob Pepper was very familiar with the stories. Up near the top left is a tower with a tree growing out of it. Owls roost in the tree, alluding to the owls in the Tower of Flints and Sepulchrave's eventual demise. This is the tree that grows out of the Room of Roots in the tower where Cora and Clarice Groan, the twin sisters of Sepulchrave, live. The twins can be seen, in purple gowns, on a sort of wooden parapet enjoying their tea while they are spied on from above by Steerpike who is hidden in the branches. To the right of that tree is what I am guessing is the Tower of Flints, shrouded with owls, and hiding what looks like a distraught Sepulchrave. Farther to the right, near the right edge of the cover, there is a small window near the top of another tower with stairs winding about it. I believe this is the Poet with his wedge-shaped head and sonorous voice, delivering his verses into the void of air that surrounds the upper reaches of Gormenghast. I am uncertain of the figure below the poet. The bottom portion of the cover shows a great mass of faces, the Outer Dwellers, who work all their lives on the Bright Carvings that are taken to the castle, judged, and either shut away or burned. One of them, a bearded figure, seems to be carrying a bundle of twigs on his back, perhaps in preparation for the ritual of burning. Above and slightly to the right are more of the main characters of the novel. The hulking figure in the purple vest and chef's hat is the obese Abiatha Swelter, as evidenced by the cleaver clutched in his left hand. Below him is a figure I have always been uncertain about. For some reason, the figure looks youthful and wistful, leading me to think it is Lady Fuchsia. However Fuchsia has dark, perhaps black hair and this figure's red hair might suggest that it is Lady Gertrude Groan. However, there are no cats nearby which calls this into question. I am uncertain what the figure is holding in her hand, although it does not look like one of Lady Groan's birds. To the right of Lady Groan, a slim figure with a sword, is Mr. Flay, the perennial enemy of Swelter. To Mr. Flay's right, stooped and clad in all black, is Nannie Slagg, the dwarf servant who cares for the Groan children. And finally, in the lower right corner, seated and weeping, is a bearded figure that I believe to be Sourdust.
Pepper continues this beautiful exploration in the next cover, for Gormenghast. As a side note, were you aware that the original, working title for Gormenghast was Titus In Umbra? From the top, in the left part of the cover, I am uncertain about the radiant figure with raised arms. Does anyone have any ideas? To the right, in the center of the cover, is Lady Fuchsia plummeting from the tower window into the flood. In the lower left is Steerpike poling his canoe with his hideous monkey on his shoulder. Below his boat are the faces of the drowned castle dwellers. To the right of Steerpike are a small mass of faces representing the professors as well as Lord Titus himself escaping on horseback and, most prominent of all, the half nude Thing, the object of Titus' passions.
The cover for Titus Alone is the simplest and the most enigmatic, perhaps due to the half-finished nature of the text itself. The entire left side of the image represents Gormenghast and looming in the castle's dark entrance are phantom images of Titus' sister Fuchsia, his mother Lady Gertrude Groan, and his father Earl Sepulchrave. To the right are four strange figures. I believe that the now teenaged Titus is the slender figure in the center, with Muzzlehatch to his left (odd since Muzzlehatch was not described as hooded), the disturbing criminal Veil of the Underriver as the winged deathlike apparition above Titus, and Cheeta to the right.
It's strange, but when I think of these books my mind is filled with a chaos of imagery. I always, without fail, imagine Ian Miller's drawings for the castle and the other buildings and towers, Mervyn Peake's own drawings for the characters (his work is simply perfect here) and these covers by Bob Pepper as a kind of container for it all. Strange. But beautiful. Like the books.