Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto (1764)

Review by Justin Tate

The Castle of Otranto was the Blair Witch Project of 1764. Both were game-changers which popularized a new genre. Blair Witch launched the “found footage” horror trope and Otranto inaugurated the “Gothic.”

Interestingly enough, Otranto also employs a “found footage” gimmick with its first edition, pretending that the original manuscript was hundreds of years old, unearthed from the dusty library of an “ancient Catholic family” and had to be translated from Italian. There’s a lengthy introduction written by the “translator” explaining all his theories about how much of the story might be true and what the author intended to achieve. This charade isn’t part of the game-changing nature of the novel, however, because such a tactic was in vogue at the time.

Publishing the novel anonymously and translated by “Onuphrio Muralto” (an anagrammatic pun of Horace Walpole) was more than just a trendy move, however. The novel’s content was so drastically different from common reading at the time, public backlash or the possibility of being laughed off the shelves was a real concern. Instead, of course, the book became such a bestseller that the first printing sold out almost immediately.

With success in his sails, Walpole took full credit for his creation in the second edition. Not only did his name ablaze the cover, but he added the all-important subtitle: “A Gothic Story.”

Gothic ideology is enormously fascinating and can easily hijack this review if I let it. The short of it is that in the mid-18th century there was a new-found appreciation for the goths of medieval Europe, which combined with Edmund Burke’s philosophy of the “sublime” in 1757. Burke argued that meditative pleasure could be found in seemingly contradictory feelings, such as melancholy or terror. A crumbling Gothic castle, for example, was such a location to inspire unease and fear, but also awe and inspiration.

Compounded with all this was the Whigs, a political party who strongly identified with goth ideology and of which Horace Walpole was an extremely active member.

Thus was the atmosphere when Walpole penned some 100 pages of terror, romance and mystery, how he came to dubbing The Castle of Otranto a “Gothic” novel, and forever altered the path of literary history.

It’s worth mentioning all this before I get to my reactions, I think, because recognition is deserved for just how impactful this novel is to history, regardless of how I think about it some 250 years later.

Anyway, as it turns out, I like it! This may be somewhat unusual because even the scholarly introduction warns that modern audiences often find Otranto “ludicrous” and “unreadable.” No such feelings plagued my experience, however.

The first chapter is enormously captivating as we find ourselves in the midst of a wedding day from hell. Isabella’s groom has been mysteriously crushed to death by an impossibly large helmet which has fallen from the sky. This shock isn’t terrible for the bride, actually, since the wedding was arranged for political purposes. But then the groom’s father, anxious to combat a prophecy that his line will no longer rule Otranto, turns tyrant and plots to divorce his barren wife and marry Isabella himself.

Isabella flees in terror, encountering secret passageways, haunted caves, animated corpses, moving portraits, and much hullabaloo in the process. Other characters find themselves mixed up in the fray, including the tyrant’s daughter, a monk with a secret, and a youth with the striking resemblance to a hunk in one of the castle paintings.

With so much drama, the story might be considered a breezy read even by today’s standards, except for the odd choice to ignore grammatical convention. Few paragraph breaks are found and dialogue is all mushed together. Sometimes conversation is separated with a dash, but more often it flows freely. A bit confusing, but not incomprehensible. The introduction notes that some editors have given the novel grammatical convention, but these attempts never stick because the high-speed pacing is diminished as well as a sense of “claustrophobia.”

Once you get used to Walpole’s stylistic choice, it’s not difficult to manage. Other struggles, however, may include a general lack of shock by the events. After nearly three hundred years of imitation, and imitations of imitations, many of the plot threads come across as cliche or laughable.

After the bombastic opening chapter, I did start to feel that way. Other authors have done subterranean passages better, damsels in distress better, and tyrants with moodswings better, including Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis who were both responding to Walpole when they wrote their masterpieces. It’s one of the unfortunate difficulties of being first, I suppose, that you can become easily dwarfed by your imitators.

Still, the original holds up (as does The Blair Witch Project) in spite of all that have come after. And at a breathless 100 pages, you can’t call it a slog even if it’s not your thing. I wouldn’t call it essential reading, except for those who love Gothic Literature, but I would call it a good time. Particularly if you’re nerdy for history and are fascinated by how one piece of influential art can lead to so many others.

Researching this book has led to many rabbit holes and learning about topics I never knew I was interested in. A big part of why I enjoyed it so much, I think, can be attributed to the historical significance as much as to the text itself. For those inclined, I recommend this Oxford World’s Classics edition because of its lengthy introduction and excellent commentary.

Anybody else read this? What did you think?

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