Fiction Reviews

The Castle of Otranto

(1764/2014) Horace Walpole, Oxford University Press, li + 132pp, ISBN 978-0-198-70444-7


The daddy of all Gothic literature, and a cod-Shakespearian tragedy on a dizziness inducing grand absurd scale, but Walpole makes it work. The synopsis alone would probably stop the work getting past publishers today but Walpole tells it with a straight face and actually carries it off brilliantly.

We all want a family wedding to go off without a hitch, but sometimes things do go wrong; the bride arrives late, the best man forgets the ring, someone arrives drunk, or a giant warrior's helmet falls from the sky and flattens the groom dead right before the ceremony.

It is the last of these little misfortunes that halts the Italian wedding between Conrad and Isabella at Otranto. Naturally everyone is saddened and mystified but none more so than Conrad's father, Manfred. For him, the wedding meant hope of continuing his proud family bloodline, but with no son left living to inherit everything what is he to do?

Well he could marry Isabella himself, he thinks, but there are a few obstacles to that. 1/. Isabella doesn't want to marry him. 2/. He is already married to Hippolyta. 3/. His efforts to engineer the instant annulment of one marriage for the other are blocked by the local Friar, Father Jerome.

Everything and everyone opposes Manfred's crazed stubborn efforts to save his bloodline; even the ghosts of the family ancestors get out of their portraits to air their opposition. They mainly just succeed in terrifying the servants.

Isabella is aided in her flight to sanctuary by the story's hero, Theodore, who proves to be Jerome's long lost son right at the point where Manfred is about to execute Theodore, who is in love with Hippolyta's daughter , Matilda. Even Jerome never recognizes him until the execution is imminent.

A group of soldiers arrive at Otranto, eager to take charge of the castle for Frederick, the true father of Isabella, and though everything worldly and ethereal conspires against him, Manfred pursues his deranged plans to tragic consequences.

The supernatural elements act as a catalyst (the helmet arriving), and as omens of ill-fortune to come, (shrieking ghosts, and the plumes of the helmet swirling in the breeze), in what is really a study of acceptance of an inescapable destiny. Manfred's bloodline is doomed, despite his increasingly desperate pride. Many of the story survivors will retire to cloisters and nunneries in recognition of God's mastery of their fates.

Walpole writes himself, in an essay added as an appendix that as our social values crumble, and the creeping ivy reclaims our homes, we, like Otranto's survivors, must accept change and move on and out. The closing turn to the church is not acceptance of salvation, but driven by a sense of refuge and their last desperate hope they have nowhere else to go. Walpole has of course, with benefit of hindsight, shown us how false their 14th century hope is, for the story is set right before the beginning of Lutherism and the Protestant Reformation would bring even the comforts offered by the religious monopoly of European Catholicism to its knees.

For 21st century readers, having read many Gothic stories before reading Otranto its inspirations on Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, and Bram Stoker are obvious. Many will also see influences for Hogwarts inOtranto'.

It is a short novel, barely a novella, with extensive notes and essays that take up more pages than the central text, but they give it a fascinating new light We see just how many lines are borrowed verbatim from various Shakespeare plays. Most of the footnotes draw attention to exactly where. The main ghostly apparitions more than echo Hamlet's meeting with his father's spectre.

Otranto is an absurd mix of fancy and fantasy elements, extreme coincidences, melodramatic incidents, such as Theodore's true identity is revealed to his doting father and soap takes over from suspense. But Walpole moves the story with such conviction and pace that it works the preposterous story never fails to entertain or astound. Analysed too closely Otranto is nonsense but it may just remain among the finest nonsense in English literature.

The accompanying essays and the lengthy introductions give insights into how the Goth & Visigoth cultures invaded supernatural horror literature. The Goths were seen perhaps unfairly as unsophisticated barbarians unwilling to be civilized by Rome, replacing Roman portico archways with lots of cruder designs, often involving arches built on and within arches, filled with gaudy detail, leaving less open space. The Goths were seen unjustly as a people setting the clock back to older, more primal values. Gothic literature echoes that social decay with its proud long standing families falling into corruption, reflected in their modern mansions succumbing to nature, decay and older darker, starker more decadent forms of art.

Walpole simultaneously created a faux-Gothic style of life, architecture and literature. His famous Twickenham folly, Strawberry Hill, created through the contrived transformation of his famer Georgian Villa which was mostly decorated with whatever gloomy bric-a-brac Walpole could get his hands on. A similar gloom-laden sense of the collision of ancient & modern dominates The Castle of Otranto which was written even as Strawberry Hill was being decorated. Walpole had seen his father, Robert Walpole's political decline, and sensed that old ways and values would swallow what he saw as the progressive British Empire, as surely as the Goths helped to bring Rome to its knees. The madness of Manfred lies in his efforts to stem the inevitable tide of change that spells the death of his proud family dynasty. The past cannot be left behind us and like the mysterious giant pagan helmet, the past can come crashing down on us at any time. The tragedy at Otranto is not the death of Conrad but the fall of an empire to the very people they took it from in the first place, just as the Danes of Elsinore having to hand power to the Polish Fortinbras from whose father they conquered it, is more the tragedy than the mere death of noble Prince Hamlet in causing it. Walpole's dark little gem may be touted as the first supernatural Gothic masterpiece in English literature, but in all the referencing within itself, Otranto itself reminds us that the Bard's Hamlet  really got there first.

Arthur Chappell

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