The Castle of Otranto

“The force of truth is not damaged by being tinged with ridicule.”

Horace Walpole


Now I understand why Gothic fiction was looked down upon by genteel middle-class Victorians who nevertheless read them by candlelight all night.

I’ve been reading The Castle of Otranto concurrently with Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho for Gothic Fiction University Term after Easter; I’ve just finished Castle, hence the review (but Udolpho is, like, 600 pages so I’m still going with that one). Published in 1764, Walpole’s novel (for want of a better word) tells the story of Manfred, prince of Otranto, in whose medieval courtyard appears a giant knight’s helmet that crushes his son to death. What follows is a confused and frankly surreal cavalcade of dark prophecies, semi-incestuous marriage plans, incoherent servants and dubious priests. It reads like bad horror fiction, but that’s not the worst thing.

The worst thing is that when you’ve spent all day reading Gothic novels everything in real life seems more melodramatic than it needs to be. Everything. No food in the house? You can’t just go buy some, oh no. Despite your better judgement, you flounce around annoying everyone until you slam the door on your way out. At best, you end the day pissed off. At worst, it makes you paranoid.

I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the fact that all the characters keep bursting into tears at every opportunity. Perhaps it’s the claustrophobia of the dark castle settings, or the sheer obviousness of tropes like the orphaned peasant who turns out to be a prince. Or perhaps it’s just that there appears to be a secret lurking behind EVERY SINGLE CORNER. Whatever it is, it’s exhausting. I finished The Castle of Otranto longing for some nice, sane, rational science fiction, or at least something that doesn’t involve swooning at every available opportunity.


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