Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto (1765/1901)
The Castle of Otranto is a fun, melodramatic, “gothic” novel published in 1765. (Wikipedia says 1764, but Project Gutenberg puts the date at 1765, so I’m going with that.) The ebook version that I read comes from a 1901 manuscript, but the introduction of the book, written by Walpole, suggests the story was a lost, Italian tale printed in the 1500s, but that it might have been written several hundred years before that. These notes are actually just an elaborate frame for the story, which was written by Walpole himself, according to Gutenberg, based on dream that Walpole had. According to many different sources, this short novel is credited as the first GOTHIC tale ever published.
Okay it’s gothic, but how good can a book be that was written 250 years ago? Surprisingly, it’s a fun, weird story, that reminds me a bit of The Princess Bride! It’s got sinister plots, an evil prince, and sword fights (no shrieking eels or Andre the Giant, though, but it’s 250 years old! Give it a break!) What it ALSO has, and this is what I enjoy, are supernatural occurrences all over the place! There are ghosts and visions and a giant, armored harbinger of doom… I’m telling you, if you want a weird ghost story this winter (and you can stomach some pre-Victoria moral piety), this is the book for you. (It’s also available as a free download for your e-reader from a few different places, including Project Gutenberg!)
Here’s a short plot summary, although I’m not going to say too much, because half the fun of the story is in the exciting revelations. Here goes: Prince Manfred, the lord of Castle Otranto, is about to marry his favorite child, his son Conrad, to Princess Isabella, thus forming a powerful political bond that Manfred hopes will secure the fortunes of his family line for generations to come. Unfortunately, Conrad is killed on the day of the wedding, in the first of a series of strange, supernatural circumstances. Manfred, his hopes for the continuation of his family line crushed, SNAPS, and he goes berserk.
Conrad’s death and Manfred’s mania set off a number of bizarre incidents. The Castle Otranto is overrun with ghosts and specters, and family revelations come back to (literally) haunt Manfred and his innocent and pious wife and daughter. Some of the occurrences in the story are humorous, but most are tragic, and all of the major plot points are pushed along by ghostly visitations, prophecies, and wild conspiracies. It’s not a very long novel, but a lot is jammed into it, and the writing is surprisingly readable for a book that is more than two centuries old.
For those bothered my melodramatic dialog or pious sentimentality, the novel might get a bit tedious. Most of the characters in the tale are good, Christian citizens who make these grand, sweeping speeches about following the will of heaven or weep bitter tears about betraying the trust of their parents by falling in love with the wrong person. Taken at face value, it can get a bit sickening, (for those of us who tend not to believe in DESTINY,) but I like to pretend that it’s all high camp, and I try to read the novel like you would read a melodrama about a nasty villain, twittling his moustache as he ties a damsel to the train tracks.
Overall, it’s a quick, fun read, humorously tragic, with a great story frame, and plenty of ghosts and sinister plot twists to keep a modern reader entertained, AND you’ll be able to brag to all your friends that you’ve read the first GOTHIC novel every published, which was written way back in the GEOGRIAN era (the one BEFORE the Victorian era.) That’s the kind of thing that not everyone can say! The language isn’t as tricky or poetic as Shakespeare, and there aren’t any dirty words or explicitly gory murder scenes, so it’s safe even for a timid soul, as long as you’re not too afraid of ghosts! Definitely worth the effort!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)
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