The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Primer

November 22, 2008

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto reads much like a Macbethian melodrama: the courtly intrigues, the hints at supernatural deviances, and a plot that seems to have been birthed with a stage in mind. One almost expects a scene divulging dialogue such as “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

Walpole—like Shakespeare—held an interest in storied courtly intrigue set abroad. Otranto is purported in the first edition’s preface to be set in medieval Italy, a non-fiction happened upon by chance—and painstakingly translated—for the benefit of English readers. Of course, this is all a fabrication by the author as an attempt to increase the dramatic potential of the work.

Just as mystery, horror, and related genres capitalize on fear of and fascination with the unknown and grotesque, so too does subversion of the authenticity of authorship draw readers/viewers into a story by way of intellectual narcissism. When the author is taken out of the creator–object–viewer equation, the experience changes dramatically. Instead of using the time and place of the author as a rubric to judge a work, the energy that would have otherwise been spent on a more grounded analysis is turned back on the viewer, like Narcissus grasping at his own reflection in the pool. Instead of the origin, there is only the destination; the reader is pulled in by the author’s invisible hand. And self reflection can be a frightening thing.

This effect points at the importance of the author’s presence and explicit participation.

This concept, which I might term the “primacy of authorship,” or having to do with “subversion of the primacy of authorship,” is a fundamental part of fiction, and touches upon (or brings to mind) questions of validity, plagiarism, authorial integrity, and origination.

In the case of Horace Walpole, his absence from the bylines of his first edition was an attractant to readers. In its preface, the pseudonymous editor/translator feigns to offer an analysis of the text:

Though the machinery is invention, and the names of the actors imaginary, I cannot but believe that the groundwork of the story is founded on truth. The scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle.

Yet, the account of what happens to Manfred and his kin is anything but real: a giant helmet falls from the sky to crush his son, an event that would traumatize anyone.

The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune happened, and above all, the tremendous phænomenon before him, took away the prince’s speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it.

To modern readers, Otranto has many elements that might seem familiar. (The book was first published in 1764). Of course, there is the castle. And while it may be popular to apply to this construct the title of character unto itself, I don’t think that’s what Walpole had in mind. That is, I think he was more interested in how the various characters react to, and are affected by, their environment. Replete with creaking floorboards, whispering winds, and trap doors, the castle leaves a lasting psychological impression.

The story’s horrific moments—the destruction of family members by both supernatural and accidental means, danger of imprisonment by a maniacal tyrant, and fear of banishment and familial ostracism from said tyrant—push romanticism into the grotesque.

1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
2. Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Berkshire: Oxford University Press, 1998.