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!
5 out of 10
Have you read The Castle of Otranto? Can you recommend any good gothic novels?