The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story
by Horace Walpole
We have Horace Walpole to thank for the modern horror story. He was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, the famous statesman who is thought of as the first Prime Minister of Britain, and a politician himself. Being financially independent meant he could indulge his taste for the Gothic aesthetic in a private estate known as Strawberry Hill.
What is Gothic? In Walpole’s lifetime, there was a growing interest in the art, architecture, and literature of the Middle Ages, known as the Gothic period. The interest developed into a new aesthetic that would find its full flowering with Byron and the Romantics in the nineteenth century and last well into the Victorian era. We call this the Gothic Revival, and elements of this aesthetic movement will come up again and again throughout the Great Novels list.
But that was mostly in the future for Walpole. During the eighteenth century the predominant mainstream view of fiction was that it was meant to educate readers about the “correct” way of life and moral values, which really just meant the standard social conventions of the period. But Walpole and other writers like him wanted to give their imaginations a freer rein. The first Preface to The Castle of Otranto (his only novel) presents it as simply a pseudonymous translation of a medieval manuscript. After critical and commercial success, the second edition came with the subtitle “A Gothic Story” and a new Preface where Walpole came out of the closet, acknowledged his debts to past writers, and outlined how he hoped his novel would pave the way for an innovative literary future.
Walpole’s innovation lies mainly in the way he proposed to combine supernaturalism with realism. Whether he achieved this or not is debatable, but what he wanted was to portray characters who behaved as real people would do under extraordinary situations. Perhaps the criticisms of unrealistic characters that is often made against Otranto is this nature of the story, which finds characters responding to a plot which is forced on them from outside rather than being generated by their own actions. It’s a subjective determination whether Walpole succeeds or not, a matter of personal taste decided by the reader.
But the effort to combine real with unreal results in something more than just the Gothic aesthetic. It makes Otranto one of the first works of true fantasy in the modern era. In fact the real story of the novel is not just about a string of supernatural phenomena, but about the consequences of a past crime that stole the inheritance of property from its rightful possessors. Class distinction, the passivity of women, and other social conventions all eventually come into play. I often maintain that a good fantasy will be about something other than the fantastic elements. Fantasy literature can have a strong relationship to our real lives, and horror literature’s true power can lie in its exploration of what frightens us most.
Given the variety of discussion topics it generates, I still didn’t find myself liking The Castle of Otranto very much. Some of the complaints I can make against it are similar to ones I would make against a lot of modern horror fiction (but certainly not all of it), namely the reliance on shock and surprise to create terror rather than the slow buildup of suspense. The story often shifts abruptly from one Gothic image to the next: a man crushed by a giant helmet falling from the heavens, a woman fleeing down a dark tunnel, an armoured hand on the bannister at the top of a staircase. These kinds of setpieces became almost standard in Gothic literature, but they create a superficiality that give importance to things instead of people or plot or dialogue. And Walpole, while not a terrible writer, isn’t necessarily a good one. “Serviceable” might be the backhanded compliment to employ here about his prose.
It’s a bit funny that the novel which is seen as the progenitor of the modern horror story, and which has had so much influence on English and American literature, should have at its core the issue of inheritance rights. Walpole’s literary descendants are many and he has bequeathed to them his legacy of sometimes being derided and sometimes being praised by the mainstream; these days it’s usually the elite who dole out criticism and the masses who gush the praise.
The Castle of Otranto remains an iconic work in the history of literature, no matter what I think its problems are, and it challenged the ordinary conventions in a way that is hard not to admire. Walpole said in a letter, “It remained for the enlightened eighteenth century to baffle language and invent horrors that can be found in no vocabulary.” He was speaking of the execution of Louis XVI in France. He could easily have been speaking of the Gothic.