Sunday, October 02, 2016

31 Days of Gothic Romance | The Castle of Otranto

Horace Walpole's 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto is generally accepted as the first, true gothic romance novel. As I mentioned yesterday though, the elements that make up the genre were not only present by Walpole's time, they'd already been arranged into a recognizably gothic story. And not just Beauty and the Beast, either. Otranto, with its crumbling, haunted castle, owes as much to Hamlet as any fairy tale. If beleaguered beauties and malevolent marquises are primary archetypes in a lot of gothic stories, then the common theme that drives those tales is decay. Particularly the decay of some once-great civilization or place like Shakespeare's Elsinore or the cursed castle of Beauty's Beast. Like those, Walpole's castle may be grand, but it's also threatened and tormented by the sins of its current master, Manfred.

Walpole was fascinated with medieval history and wanted to create a story that took place in it. In fact, it's the references to medieval architecture and setting that give gothic literature its name. But more than just using the scenery, Walpole wanted to write something that married medieval literature with the modern sensibilities of his day. He combined the fantastical elements of medieval epics and poetry with the realism that was popular in eighteenth century novels. He used the device - repeated many times in countless works since; most recently in the trend of found-footage movies - of claiming to have uncovered an old story that he had edited and was now presenting to the public. The people and places in Otranto are offered as real and historical, not legends and fairy tales. Walpole's innovation is that they also happen to share their world with the supernatural.

Manfred's wickedness has so angered the spirit world that they murder his only heir (with a giant helmet) and begin to haunt his castle. But that's mostly dressing on the real story, which is about the deplorable lengths that Manfred will go to in order to get a new heir, and how those actions affect his family. Manfred of course is the nefarious noble of the story who persecutes a couple of young heroines: his dead son's fiancée Isabella (whom Manfred now wants to take as his own wife, even though Manfred is already married) and Manfred's daughter Matilda (whom Manfred is willing to trade to Isabella's father in exchange for Isabella). There's also a young hero - beloved by both girls - who fights to put everything right again. Unlike Beauty and the Beast, it does take a man to rescue these women.

In spite of that though, The Castle of Otranto is a book that I've read and reread. It's a short novel (my copy has 110 pages), so even though the prose style is ancient, it moves quickly. There's plenty of drama, some great twists, and it's super atmospheric. It may not have been the first to collect the elements of the gothic romance genre into one story, but it certainly popularized them and inspired other writers to explore them as well. Some of whom we'll start looking at tomorrow...

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