#135: The Castle of Otranto
Initial release: 1764
Author: Horace Walpole
Everything has to start somewhere. Gothic fiction, and indeed horror as a literary genre, very likely owes its existence to an Enlightenment-era Englishman, Horace Walpole, and his tale of a short-tempered fuckboy and a family curse.
Walpole was something of a weird dude who did a lot of seemingly self-contradictory shit; he once published a book anonymously and whipped up controversy over it himself. But his biggest claim to fame is The Castle of Otranto, which he initially claimed was a translation of an older work. In the first edition’s preface, Walpole presents the book as a translated 1529 manuscript, itself based on an incident that could’ve happened anytime from the 11th to 13th centuries. This was all bullshit, of course; Walpole made it all up, and fessed up in the second edition, which he would subtitle the book “A Gothic Story,” thus helping cement the name of the literary genre he more or less invented.
Part of the reason for this deception is largely because society at the time was quite stuffy; by presenting it as fact, or a secret history, it was more likely to be taken seriously, and fiction that was seen as too lurid or whatever was deemed dangerous to society. All the adulation he received changed to condemnation after he revealed the truth, which only further seems to justify his concealing the origins of the book in the first place, but that’s neither here nor there.
In any case, the book was a sensation and inspired pretty much almost 200 years of imitators; even now the book’s influence can be seen in modern-day literature. So what is the book even about, and is it any good? well…
The short version is that it’s about a prince who occupies a castle in Otranto, Italy, who, following the death of his only son by freak accident, seeks to marry his would-be daughter-in-law. A bunch of stuff happens after that, including him menacing her throughout the castle. Manfred (the prince) has a notorious temper and abuses everyone around him; his wife is far more genial, but subservient to a husband who doesn’t even really love her. There’s a bunch of other characters but the important thing is that they’re fairly one-dimensional.
While the book is a little more sparing in the typical features of gothic fiction (namely long, winding soliloquies, though they do pepper the book, and overwrought description, which is almost entirely absent) it’s still a shakily written pile of cliches… but therein lies the point.
The Enlightenment era was one of great cultural upheaval, and many old ideas and cultural notions were being abandoned. This book was a deliberate throwback to the age of chivalry, which is why its characters are little more than archetypes. This is part of the reason why the genre it created is called “Gothic fiction,” as the book seemed to call to mind the old, seemingly barbaric Gothic architecture of pre-Renaissance Europe and the cultures that inhabited and shaped it. (It doesn’t hurt that Walpole literally built a Gothic castle out of a house he bought; he anticipated the popularity of Gothic Revival architecture by a good 50 years or so, causing a stir in architectural circles. To his chagrin, his house became a sort of theme park castle.)
Ultimately, the book is better regarded as a sort of curiousity, a Romanticist reaction to the Enlightenment period. It’s not terribly good, and certainly seemed to be the origin of the rapacious fuckboy that has been the protagonist of many a Gothic novel. But there’s evidence to suggest that this awkward, clumsy writing is deliberate on Walpole’s part. He was explicitly attempting to blend romanticism with newer ideas of realism, and while it’s debatable as to whether he succeeded, it definitely inspired generations of better writers.
So yeah, there’s better novels in Gothic fiction, but few have as interesting a history and purpose surrounding it as this one does. Much like Frankenstein would originate science fiction, this was the book that launched a genre that’s been with us for 250 years.