The Castle of Otranto

by Horace Walpole

Gothic novel #1.

“It is sinful,” replied the Friar, “to cherish those whom heaven has doomed to destruction.”

Generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel ever written, The Castle of Otranto is an important book for those looking deeply into horror and it’s history and remains highly enjoyable.

A headstrong prince, Manfred, of a third generation ruling family come into power when the previous ruler expired without an heir, has contrived a marriage between his sickly son Conrad and Isabella, the daughter of a foreign prince, to strengthen his hold over the province. He doesn’t want his daughter, Matilda, involved with the kingdom. Conrad is killed suddenly by a giant-sized helmet falling from the sky, invoking a legend that when the true owner grows too large to inhabit the castle the current ruler will fall, and Manfred launches into a desperate bid to divorce his barren wife and forcefully take Isabella for his own wife and produce an heir. Isabella, scared out of her wits, flees the castle with the help of a mysterious peasant whom Manfred captures.

Jerome, the local priest, learns of Isabella’s plight and intercedes on her behalf, eventually learning the nature of the boy who helped her which further angers the prince. When three knights from another kingdom appear the leader reveals himself as Isabella’s father, and from this point everyone starts falling in love with everyone else and a tangled mess of relationships becomes the focus of the story as the Prince Manfred tries to force his will on them all.

Written in 1764, the novel has somewhat of a language barrier but it isn’t too prohibitive to the story. Interestingly, upon initial publication the author stated he didn’t write the book but instead found it and thought it to have been written hundreds of years earlier. The nature of the story, along with the idea that stories of this type weren’t told in that present day, let alone hundreds of years previously, helped the book’s success. The following year, when a subsequent edition of the work was to be published, Walpole came clean that he had actually written the story, not found it, but by then the popularity was cemented and the Gothic novel train had departed the station. A couple of decades later the second Gothic novel, Vathek, would be published, followed many years later by major early Gothic novels like The Monk (1796), Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897).

The Castle of Otranto is a short book, but the language does seem to intensify somewhat in the second half so that it’s not a lightning read. The action moves quickly, and the story is never in jeopardy of derailing. Its place in history as the first Gothic novel doesn’t affect the book’s rating here, but who’s to say what the landscape of horror would look like without it? Recommended.

3 stars


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