In a vast castle, an heir is born to the ruling family. The baby, Titus Groan, has violet eyes. But the dynasty and its time-honored rituals are threatened by the charming and evil Steerpike, determined to leave his menial position as kitchen boy.
The butler Flay and the grotesquely fat chef Swelter argue in the kitchens. Steerpike makes his bid for freedom, following Flay upstairs into the forbidden world beyond.
Titus's mother, Gertrude, shows little interest in the baby after he is born, leaving him in the care of the ancient family nursemaid, Nannie Slagg. Gertrude cares more for cats and birds, particularly an albino rook, Master Chalk.
The Bright Carvers, who live outside the castle walls, send Keda as wet nurse to the infant Titus.
Flay locks Steerpike in a remote tower. But Steerpike escapes across the roofs, ending up in the private quarters of Fuchsia, Titus's teenage sister.
Titus is christened in an iron bowl filled with water from the moat, in the first of the rituals that dominate his life.
Steerpike charms Fuchsia, appealing to her adolescent fantasy, and soon works his way into a job with the castle physician, Doctor Prunesquallor. From this toehold of power, he becomes confidant to Titus's twin aunts, Clarice and Cora.
He plays on the twins' greed and vanity, and manipulates them into setting fire to the library of Lord Groan, the melancholy earl, while the rest of the family are gathered there.
Steerpike assures his place in the castle by stage-managing the rescue of the family from the burning library. They believe he is the hero.
Lord Groan has been driven mad by the loss of his precious books. He sits in the woods, stacking pinecones as if they are books, and tells his daughter, Fuchsia, that he is an owl.
Flay is banished by Gertrude, after being provoked by Steerpike into throwing one of her cats at him.
The wet nurse, Keda, tells the baby Titus that she will give birth to his sister, then leaves the castle in a thunderstorm.
Amid the first heavy rain, Swelter sharpens a kitchen cleaver and makes his way upstairs to settle his argument with Flay, before the old retainer leaves.
They fight messily and bloodily through spiders' webs. Flay cuts off the chef's ear. Swelter flies out through an open window, to die in a puddle in the courtyard.
Lord Groan pulls the corpse up to the top of a tower. He releases a trap-door, and owls swarm over him and the giant body of the chef.
Nobody knows where Lord Groan has gone, but Steerpike improves his position, first taking command of the search, then being brought in by Barquentine, the master of the ritual, to help prepare the 'Earling' ceremony, once Lord Groan has been given up for dead.
While the infant Titus is 'earled' on a lake, the wet nurse, Keda, gives birth to her daughter. In the silence after the ceremony, Titus stands and cries out on his raft, answered by the thin cry of the baby, his foster-sister, from the bushes.
Steerpike is now working as apprentice to Barquentine in order to learn the castle's innermost secrets. He sets about the seduction of Fuchsia, now grown into a woman.
Irma, Doctor Prunesquallor's sister, becomes increasingly frustrated and insists on throwing a party to find herself a husband.
Titus is a schoolboy, educated by a series of eccentric professors. When the old headmaster dies, Bellgrove replaces him. His first task is to find Titus, who has disappeared on the day of an important ritual.
Titus has escaped through a tunnel. For the first time in his life he is outside the castle walls. He sees a girl who jumps from branch to branch. She is the Wild Thing, the girl who has grown up a feral child in the woods, following the death of her mother, Keda.
Titus is found by the old retainer, Flay, who is living out his exile in a cave. Flay reminds him of his lordly duties, and warns him to keep away from the Wild Thing, who is not 'of the stones'.
Irma tries to remedy her flat chest on the night of her party by stuffing a hot-water bottle down her ball-gown. She sets her sights on Bellgrove, the headmaster, and the two fall instantly in love.
Steerpike poisons Nannie Slagg.
Titus, now seventeen, is reminded of his lordly duties by Gertrude, but he has no taste for the life of the castle.
Flay returns to the castle to live in secrecy in the deserted east wing. He shadows Steerpike, who continues his seduction of Fuchsia.
Steerpike kills Barquentine, but he is left badly disfigured by burns.
There is a battle of wills between the adolescent and headstrong Titus, and the arrogant and confident Steerpike. Titus confronts him over the onerous rituals which for Titus are empty of significance.
In a long-forgotten room, Flay and Titus find Steerpike gloating in madness over the skeletons of Clarice and Cora, whom he has left to starve to death. Steerpike kills Flay and makes his escape.
There is a giant thunderstorm, a deluge which floods the whole castle, turning over the social order as the waters rise. Steerpike begins a killing spree, using stones fired from a catapult.
Titus runs out through the tunnel, and encounters the Wild Thing in a cave, first quietening her, then kissing her. Their lovemaking is interrupted by Fuchsia, who runs into the cave to seek shelter from the rain.
The Wild Thing runs from the cave and is struck by lightning.
Fuchsia kills herself, drowning in the water.
Titus at last finds courage, and kills Steerpike. But, as the rains stop and the flood waters recede, Titus turns his back on duty and the empty rituals of the stones, leaving Gormenghast for ever.
Story synopsis courtesy of HarperCollins Entertainment/The Art of Gormenghast by Estelle Daniel, 2000.
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