Gothic Fiction and The Castle of Otranto

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Peter Damien

Staff Writer

Peter Damien has been reading since time out of mind, writing for a very long time, and been hopelessly lost to a disgraceful addiction to tea for a few years now. He writes short stories, comics, a lot of articles, and novels at an achingly slow pace. When not staring at words, he spends a lot of time in the woods, as befits a man of his hairstyle. He lives with a billion books, a tolerant wife, too many animals, and also two small boys. When it comes to writing, the small boys are, frankly, no help whatsoever. You can find Peter on Twitter, if that's the kind of thing you're into. Twitter: @peterdamien

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I didn’t do any of them crimes what I was accused of doing. If there’s two things you should know about me, it’s that and also that I am a sucker for gothic fiction.

Anything with the word “gothic” in the name, really. Gothic architecture, fashion, film, literature, and so forth. I always have, although I’ve only been able to explain why I like it very recently.

If you don’t know what gothic literature is, the quickest and easiest description I ever heard of it was “heightened melodrama.” That’s pretty apt. Everything in a gothic work is turned up to eleven, be it the emotions, the crimes, the dramatic twists and turns, and hell even the weather most of the time. Gothic romance was once a particularly booming genre (less so now, perhaps), but I think if we remember gothic fiction best in any way, it’s gothic horror, which is the cornerstone of my entire personality, really. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is regarded as the first science fiction novel by many (myself included), but you could also firmly describe it as gothic horror. Likewise some of the works of Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, for one; The Tell-Tale Heart, for another).

In addition to the soap-opera qualities of gothic fiction, a lot of it was a reaction in the 1700s and 1800s to the increasing role of science and logical understanding in the world, as well as the age of exploration mapping out so much of the world and leaving so little mystery behind. Reacting against this, the mystery had to be found elsewhere, in exciting ghost stories and paranormal encounters with dangerous forces of the otherworldly (or the mental) in far-off castles, on moors or something. Somewhere with lots of running room for a damsel to be properly in distress, you know?

Just one of the best films, period. Honest.

For a big shiny easy example of gothic horror, I invite you to go watch Crimson Peak, the masterpiece film by Guillermo del Toro. Stuffed full of influences from gothic literature, as well as an astonishing piece all on its own, you can get so much from that movie. Plus, it’s basically the interior of my head, so who doesn’t want that?

Yesterday, I thought it would be fun to start digging deep into gothic literature, because a writing project I’m working on is gothic enough to provide the excuse. So I decided to go all the way back to the beginning, to The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1764.

I read it with utter glee. Because, my friends, this book is out of its goddamned mind.

So, some brief background, because I thought it was interesting. Horace Walpole was born into money, the son of Sir Robert Walpole. He was given several fairly meaningless titles, such as “Usher of the Exchequer” and “Comptroller of the Pipe” and so on, all of which got him set up with some further money to, basically, putz about. He roamed Europe, became Earl in his father’s place, wrote The Castle of Otranto, and owned a printing press with which he published what sound like some frankly boring books (“Anecdotes of Painting in England,” is one).

Oh, and according to Wikipedia, he invented the word “serendipity.” So that’s good.

On to the craziness of the book! Allow me to try to summarize part of the plot for you here. This is how I’ve understood it:

So there’s a young man named Conrad who is set to marry a young woman named Isabella (whose father went off to the Crusades and died OR DID HE) and they are all wondering where Conrad is when all of a sudden there’s a CALAMITY and servants are like OMG and so Prince Manfred, Lord of the Castle of Otranto, rushes out to the courtyard where we discover that…a gigantic helmet has fallen and crushed Conrad.

Everyone? Freaked.

Then this one young man who is a random peasant points out that the helmet looks like the helmet on a statue at a nearby church and this comment – which seems chill to me – makes Manfred realize the peasant is an evil warlock or something, in league with Satan. So they deal with him for the moment by…sticking him under the giant helmet. (Don’t worry! The helmet slightly broke the floor and so he escapes into mysterious catacombs under the castle.)

Nope, being illustrated doesn’t make it any less nuts.

Then, Manfred goes up to his room while everyone is insensible with grief and he decides that the reasonable course of action here is probably to divorce his wife and marry Isabella so he can get them sons, boy.

Isabella is not really into this.

She escapes into the catacombs, spontaneously remembering that there’s a tunnel from this castle to a nearby church (helluva memory, since she’s just visiting this castle). Down there, she meets the young peasant, who helps her escape, but he fails to escape, and then he and Manfred argue. Manfred hauls his ass to the courtyard to be put to death. Then Friar Jerome arrives from the nearby church and is pleading for the boy’s life, and Isabella’s life I think, when he spots a birthmark on the side of the boy and realizes that the boy is his long lost son for Friar Jerome is actually also a Prince too honest it’s true.

Friends, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Later, someone arrives with an entourage carrying a giant sword that they had found buried, and there’s a prophecy that if that giant sword is near the giant helmet then this new arrival gets the castle. There’s a duel in which a knight is dying dying oh pray for him he’s dying now and then actually they were but flesh wounds and he’s fine. And on and on…

It is so much fun.

It’s fun the way the movie Sharknado is fun, you know? Everything is DRAMA TO THE MAX and the plot makes some soap operas look calm and realistic with their twists.

You need to go read it. It’s on Project Gutenberg and it won’t take you very long. And perhaps to further convince you, I’ll leave you with a passage from the book, to prove what awesome cheese there is in this, the book that birthed a massive and far-ranging genre.

Heavens!” cried Isabella, waking from her delusion, “what do I hear? You! My Lord! You! My father-in-law! The father of Conrad! The Husband of the virtuous and tender Hippolita!”

I tell you,” said Manfred imperiously, “Hippolita is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour. Too long has she cursed me by her unfruitfulness. My fate depends on having sons, and this night I trust will give a new date to my hopes.”

At those words he seized the cold hand of Isabella, who was half dead with fright and horror. She shrieked and started from him, Manfred rose to pursue her, when the moon, which was now up, and gleamed in at the opposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rouse to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner, and accompanied with a hollow rustling sound. Isabella, who gathered courage from her situation, and who dreaded nothing so much as Manfred’s pursuit of his declaration, cried–

Look, my Lord! See, Heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!”