Saturday, March 28, 2015


In his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), H.P. Lovecraft describes The Castle of Otranto (1764) as “tedious, artificial and melodramatic”, and criticizes the work for being “devoid of the cosmic horror which makes weird literature.”  However, he acknowledges, as others before and after him have done, that Walpole created something very new at the time.  The Castle of Otranto established the basic form of the Gothic novel, replete with dark castles, hidden passageways, ghosts, family curses and the eerie mechanisms of supernatural justice.

Horace Walpole’s novel is not an easy read, at least not initially, though some might consider it mercifully short.  The reader needs to get through the first chapter or two in order to calibrate to the archaic English and the absence of conventional markers for dialogue.  The experience is similar to reading a play by Shakespeare, (unless one regularly reads such literature).  Though a challenge, The Castle of Otranto, yields an appreciation of how Gothic weird fiction developed and was later reflected in the work of Lovecraft and his contemporaries.

The story is very episodic, allowing for short readings across several sittings, and if the reader persists, there is some enjoyment to be had in the unfolding weird imagery and in some of the dialogue.  The appearance of ghostly apparitions who offer vague premonitions and other supernatural special effects will remind readers of similar elements in Hamlet or Macbeth.

In one scene, the character of Frederic, who wants to have the hand—and other parts—of Manfred’s daughter Matilda receives a spectral warning.  (I have altered the text somewhat for readability.)

And then the figure, turning slowly around, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl.“Angels of grace, protect me!” cried Frederic recoiling.
“Deserve their protection,” said the spectre.  Frederic, falling on his knees, adjured the phantom to take pity on him. 
“Dost though not remember me?” said the apparition.  Remember the wood of Joppa?”
“Art thou that holy hermit?” cried Frederic, trembling.  “Can I do aught for eternal peace?”
“Wast though delivered from bondage,” said the specter, “to pursue carnal delights?”
[Of course not!]
“… I have not, I have not,” said Frederic.  “But say blest spirit, what is thy errand to me?  What remains to be done?”“To forget Matilda!” said the apparition—and vanished.

As the story begins, the current patriarch of the castle, Prince Manfred of Otranto, is eager to create a dynastic line beginning with his doomed son Conrad’s marriage to Isabella, the daughter of the marquis of Vicenza.  The intent of this arranged marriage is to cement Manfred’s hold on the estate, for there is a question about the legitimacy of his rule.  

Regrettably, an enormous helmet falls out of the sky and flattens Conrad as he is about to arrive at the wedding ceremony.  This forces an abrupt change of plans.  How do the principle characters react to this tragedy?  Manfred efficiently overcomes his paternal grief and quickly begins scheming to retain his properties by some other means.  Conrad’s mother and sister are despondent. But Isabella, the bride to be, is marvelously ambivalent:

Yet her own situation could not help finding its place in her thoughts.  She felt no concern for the death of young Conrad, except commiseration; and she was not sorry to be delivered from a marriage which had promised her little felicity, either from her destined bride-groom, or from the severe temper of Manfred, who, though he had distinguished her by great indulgence, had imprinted her mind with terror, from his ceaseless rigour to such amiable princesses as Hippolita and Matilda.

Ever resourceful, Manfred maneuvers to divorce his wife Hippolita and marry his would-be daughter-in- law Isabella.  This travesty causes several characters to flee to a nearby convent by way of underground passageways, unleashing all kinds of spectral events.  Manfred even conspires with Isabella’s father Frederic, the marquis of Vicenza:  the two men will marry each other’s daughters, with Manfred taking Isabella and Frederick taking Matilda. 

Attention gradually shifts away from the villain and his machinations to a noble and impertinent youth named Theodore.  Theodore coincidently resembles a statue of the previous lord of the castle, one Alfonso, a knight who had fought in the Crusades.  The subsequent violence, melodrama, ghostly phenomena, and revelations of family secrets demonstrates the unfolding of an ancient italicized prophecy:  “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”  The real owner of course is the ghost of Alfonso, who is too enormous to materialize all in one place, preferring to appear as an assortment of gigantic limbs in various parts of the castle.

Some of the dialogue is amusing, especially when Manfred is expressing exasperation with some of the servants and with the impudent Theodore, who either challenge him openly or conceal important information from him.  Here, Manfred is trying to extract information from Bianca, a confidant of both Matilda and Isabella, after bribing her with some jewelry:

“Stay,” cried Manfred, “thou has not satisfied my question!  Hast thou ever carried any message, any letter?”
“I! Good gracious!” cried Bianca: I carry a letter?  I would not to be a queen.  I hope your highness thinks, ‘though I am poor, I am honest’.  Did your highness never hear what count Marsigli offered me, when he came a-wooing to my lady Matilda?”
“I have not the leisure to listen to thy tales.  I do not question thy honesty; it is thy duty to conceal nothing from me.  How long has Isabella been acquainted with Theodore?”
“Nay, there is nothing can escape your highness,” said Bianca.  “Not that I know anything of the matter.  Theodore, to be sure, is a proper young man, and as my lady Matilda says, the very image of good Alfonso:  has not your highness remarked it?”
“Yes, yes—No—thou torturest me,” said Manfred:  Where did they meet?”

These interactions may remind some readers of the passive-aggressive bantering between the John Cleese character and his staff in Fawlty Towers, or some of the old Monty Python skits.

The influence of The Castle of Otranto and similar works can be seen in Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly those stories that take place in Gothic settings or involve the discovery of terrible family secrets.  The Rats in the Walls (1924), The Festival (1925), and The Outsider (1926) come to mind.  He also seems to have emulated some of the 18th century English diction in a number of his tales, given his enthusiasm for that historical period.  (See also Lovecraft’s amusing 1917 piece A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson, at 2. ‘Shou’d My Present Recollections Meet With Fav...).


  1. I love Otranto for all its twisted weirdness.

  2. Once I got used to the somewhat archaic language, I found it interesting and engaging. Thanks for your comment.


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