The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole

I was inspired to read Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto after coming across an article about Strawberry Hill and Walpole’s cultural legacy. I couldn’t resist the temptation of reading ‘the first gothic novel’, especially as it’s under 100 pages and out of copyright – available for free.

Written in 1764, The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and the strange events that occur to him and his family starting on the day that his son Conrad is due to be married to the princess Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, a giant helmet falls on Conrad and crushes him to death. (Yes, you did read that correctly!) Manfred seems mostly concerned that the death of his only son means an end to his line because he believes that his wife Hippolita has failed to bear him a proper heir and is unlikely to provide another. A bizarre chain of events is set off with Manfred chasing his son’s fiance Isabella who he now wants to marry and bear a new heir with, then enters the heroic Theodore, a peasant who leads Isabella to sanctuary at a church and who turns out to have a hidden birthright. After this follows a series of confrontations and various tragic and untimely deaths.

What is the reason for the strange supernatural helmet? Is the family cursed? What on earth is going on!? These were the questions running through my head as I read this totally mad work of fiction. As the prelude to my edition pointed out, you do have to bear in mind that the book is set in medieval times when people believed in magic and supernatural events, but even so the best way that I can describe the story is that it is like some kind of crazy melodramatic soap opera. A sort of period version of Sunset Beach (a 90’s TV show known for it’s outrageous storylines).

Did I enjoy it? Yes, from the point of view that it is a curiosity. At times I found the story jumped around and it is a quite confusing, but it is certainly atmospheric and entertaining, if a bit silly. I can also appreciate it from the point of view that it is so original and imaginative and if it is true that it is the first gothic novel I am grateful to it for inspiring those that followed. I might have to make that visit to Strawberry Hill and see where the author of this crazy story lived… I didn’t feel that it was an amazing work of literature but it was an unusual and mind-bending read!

My rating:

5 out of 10

Have you read The Castle of Otranto? Can you recommend any good gothic novels?

18 responses to “The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole

  1. The only remotely gothic-esque novel I can handle is Northanger Abbey, which is a bit of a cheat since it’s a send-up of the genre. I can never take the melodrama seriously enough to make it through more than a third of most gothic novels.

    That said, there’s something marvelous about the name Horace Walpole.

    • That’s exactly it, sometimes it all just gets a bit silly and there were patches where I got a bit bored, then it picked up again. I need to find out about Walpole, I kind of imagine him to be even more mad than his book….

  2. I started reading this after reading Northanger Abbey last year but even though it is short I just couldn’t get through it. I do want to finish it though like you out of curiosity so might give it another try. I think its a book to be read on its own without any distractions to stop me finishing it!

    • I understand that Tracy, even though it’s short, I didn’t actually whip through it – it can be a bit of a struggle. Don’t feel you have to finish it lol, it’s interesting but you can get that jist from the beginning!

  3. I read this as part of a Gothic novel class in college, and I liked it in that context, as a curiosity, as you say. Some of the other books we read for the class (Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, some dreadful novellas by Percy Bysshe Shelley) were equally crazy and, for me, unfulfilling. But the best part of the class was listening to people trying to take these books seriously. Very, very seriously. Sometimes a book is just a lark, and that’s as true of old books as of new ones.

  4. This is the second review of this book I have seen in as many weeks (and they gave it a similar rating too). Rating aside, I still really want to read it as I hear that it verges on the ridiculous and that sort of appeals to me – I love classics that are so melodramatic; they make me laugh.

    • You know I thought the same thing and it is totally daft. I say if you fancy reading it, go for it – it’s such a short story what do you have to lose?

  5. I enjoyed The Italian and A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk by Matthew Lewis although they are melodramatic for sure.

    I’m a fan of Northanger Abbey too although it helps to have read some of the Gothic novels that she pastiches (like Otranto).

    • I feel as if I should read Northanger Abbey. I’ve never had a big urge to read Austen but perhaps it’s one to start with…

  6. I thought Frankenstein and Dracula were really well-written. I enjoyed reading them more than I expected. And I remember reading The Monk too.

    • I’d like to read Dracula. I started it when I was younger but didn’t finish it but I did enjoy Frankenstein. Perhaps I’ll have to get a copy of The Monk, a few people have mentioned that.

  7. I have a copy of this book on my shelf!!! Am yet to read it. Not sure if I will or won’t based on your review though 😛 I find gothic novels require a certain mindset that I just don’t have the energy for (having just finished Woolf and currently knee-deep in Proust’s 3rd volume). At least I know the plot now 😛
    Great review

    • Totally understand what you mean. You do kind of have to put yourself in a special (wacky!) mindset for this one. Perhaps wait until you’re not having a Woolf-Proust reading moment though!

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