Features | Written by Kate Fathers 29/03/2021

BOOK WORMHOLE: THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO

“Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” So says Aaron Sorkin, writer and creator of The West Wing, and while that programme doesn’t have much to do with the genre fiction I’ve been reading (although there was a lovely episode subplot involving a Star Trek pin), the quote itself is completely applicable to Horace Walpole’s famous novel. And not because Walpole plagiarized.

            No matter what you write, no matter the topic or the plot or the characterization, every writer is inspired by those who came before them. Some, like James Joyce, take that inspiration to great heights, reworking previous works of literature as he did in his novel Ulysses, which was a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. Others take a quieter attitude, turns of phrase and small plot points a mere echo of the work that inspired them. That’s not what Walpole has done here. Instead, his work has acted as an inspiration for dozens of other writers, even those who have never heard of The Castle of Otranto before.

            The Castle of Otranto was first published in 1764 (500 copies on December 24, to be exact), and for the most part has been in print ever since. The subtitle of the first edition was “A Story”, but in later editions that changed to “A Gothic Story”, an indication of Walpole’s work having heralded a new genre: gothic fiction. The online Encyclopedia Britannica defines gothic fiction as “pseudomedieval fiction having a prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror”, which is very true of Walpole’s novel, which is set in the time of princes and armor-clad knights.  Gothic fiction also contains supernatural elements, such as ghosts, which while seen in previous works (such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet) becomes something completely different when combined with such staples of modern day horror fiction as haunted houses, gloomy castles, and characters under curses. Gothic fiction fascinated many of the time period, resulting in a revival of gothic architecture and the birth of many classic works of literature. I would go so far as to say that it’s probably one of the most influential works of genre fiction, or at least one of the works that had the most influence on genre fiction. It is because of Walpole’s novel and gothic fiction that we have Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre. Frankenstein, with a plot based heavily in the scientific realm instead of on the sorcery of The Castle of Otranto, has been said by some to be the first science fiction novel. In that vein, without Walpole’s book we wouldn’t have the works of HG Wells and Jules Verne, works which lead to George Orwell and Isaac Asimov; Douglas Adams and Philip K Dick; Star Wars and Star Trek and Doctor Who.

            A world without the Doctor scarcely bares thinking about.

            Polidori’s novel, in turn, paved the way for a heavy tradition of vampire fiction, most notably in the late 1800s with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dracula has spawned decades of vampire fiction (and helped Transylvanian tourism), and while vampires in the twenty-first century are a far cry from their gothic ancestors (the less said about Twilight the better) they still have a rich and fascinating literary and cinematic history. Gothic fiction also touched more mainstream (I hesitate to use the word “literary”) works. One of Charles Dickens’ most famous books, whose adaptations, be they faithful or filled with Muppets, are watched every year by thousands of people, and is a ghost story. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights not only has many gothic themes, but also has elements of plot that are extremely similar to The Castle of Otranto. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is a classic gothic horror story, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe are steeped in the gothic tradition.

            Modern fiction and cinema haven’t abandoned gothic fiction, even though it’s been over two hundred years since Walpole’s book was first published. Every vampire and demon on our screens, every alien and ghost, every tortured soul and Saw sequel is connected to this one book, which is frankly magnificent. But then, as I said previously, every work of literature is connected in some way to the ones that came before it. The presence of ghosts in the novel isn’t a new idea or a happy coincidence; Shakespeare used ghosts (as well as faeries, witches, and other supernatural beings) in his work, and before him there were the ghost-like creatures in The Iliad and the ghost in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and ghosts in works across the globe, as like tales about dragons every culture contains ghost stories. Literature where characters discover long lost relatives, which contain arranged marriages, and where nobles are disguised as peasants and priests were also present before Walpole’s time. In fact, as I read the novel I was reminded rather heavily of A Winter’s Tale, which I read over the holidays last year. The thematic devices that Walpole uses aren’t new, but at the time of publication the way he used them most certainly was. Its uniqueness is, in part, what must have driven many to read it, and although there are better works out there, at least in my opinion, it’s a testament to its originality that no matter how many people pluck things from it The Castle of Otranto is still published today.

            While its history is fascinating, it’s the novel itself I’m sure you readers are most concerned with. I must admit that I had difficulty getting into it. The last time I read something from the eighteenth century was years ago when I was studying for my undergraduate degree, and in recent months I haven’t ventured farther than the twentieth century. Consequently, I found it a very dense text, and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. The novel’s language is noticeably antiquated, although still comprehensible once you get into it. There are many thee’s and thou’s in the dialogue, and the prose itself reminds me heavily of Jane Austen. The layout of the text, however, is what I had most difficulty with, which when paired with the language is probably why I found it troubling. The only paragraph breaks are those that separate ideas (as paragraph breaks are supposed to do), but that’s it. There are no breaks for dialogue. It’s all squished together without any quotation marks and it takes keen concentration, especially when you first start reading, to decipher which bits of text are dialogue and who is speaking. After a while, I did find myself getting into a rhythm and my reading becoming easier, but heaven forbid I get up to pee because once you step out of that rhythm it does take effort to get it back again. Losing your place also becomes extremely problematic when you have to navigate through great blocks of text in order to find the exact word you left off at.

            Some of this is, of course, personal preference. I am someone who likes clear dialogue tags and the type of page layout that we’ve been using since the Victorian Era. It’s probably why I spent so much time in Victorian Lit classes.

            As for the story itself, it’s a good one, although something that modern eyes will likely find rather familiar. The novel opens with Manfred, prince of Otranto, preparing to marry off his sickly son Conrad to Isabella in the hopes of keeping his family’s hold on his kingdom secure. Of course, the marriage doesn’t go to plan and Manfred’s actions post-botched wedding end up with himself and his castle being beset by ghosts and supernatural omens. There is much secret plotting and misunderstandings which make the story very reminiscent of Shakespeare for me. The story on its own is good, but I found it was a more fascinating read when it was combined with my knowledge of the literature that followed it. It was so interesting to see phrases like “[h]er blood curdled” knowing that they were used before they became such clichéd phrases. So was taking note of how much the plot surrounding Mandfred, Conrad and Isabella mirrored the one that formed around Heathcliff, Linton and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. There are other moments like that throughout the novel, where you see what it has given to the works that have come after it. Sometimes I wondered what reading the novel would have been like without this knowledge—what it was like for the people in eighteenth century Britain who had never seen something quite so extraordinary before. Those phrases that make us roll our eyes or, if you’re an editor, get out a big red pen must have been chilling when they first appeared. The Castle of Otranto is one of those novels that, unfortunately, kept me continually aware that it was a novel, that it was something I could critique and could relate to other works instead of enjoying purely for its own sake. It’s like that for many reasons, its text structure and style and its connectedness to other writing which, for the last bit, isn’t its fault, at least not entirely. I could have worked harder to separate it in my mind, to put my entire focus on the story, but with the struggle I was having with the text I found it nigh on impossible.

            Maybe on a second read I’ll have better luck.

            As this is a column that reviews genre fiction, I think it’s about time I start talking more about the ghosts, and the giant pieces of armor, and the prophecy that really is the catalyst for every action Manfred takes. I know I said in a previous review that, especially after over a decade of prophecy-steeped storyline in the form of Harry Potter, that it’s a rather tired literary device. It’s been used for centuries, but it seems so overused now. At the time, however, it was both a classic idea and a fresh one. Oversaturation wasn’t a problem when the mediums for expression were limited, and two hundred years ago people didn’t have to contend with prophecies in the books they read and the television they watched and the films they went to see. In any case, prophecy is used rather wonderfully in the novel, acting as a motivation for each of Manfred’s actions, even the ones that preceded the action we the reader get to see at the start of the novel. The prophecy is why Manfred is having his fifteen-year-old son get married, why after the wedding fails he is driven to more desperate acts making those around him completely miserable. The supernatural is used as both a tool of the prophecy, thwarting Manfred’s attempt at circumventing it, and as a warning to Manfred to stop what he’s doing and let the prophecy unfold. The ghosts and animated portraits aren’t just there to make the story scarier or to make it different from the other novels of the time. They serve a purpose, much like the supernatural does in Hamlet and Macbeth. They are even more striking—and even more useful—when the entirety of the first edition’s title page, as well as the introduction, is taken into account.

“From the original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon at the Church of St Nicholas at Otranto”, it reads, sighting this work not as something created by Walpole but rather as a found text. Walpole explains why he did this in the preface to the second edition, saying that he thought that the novel would be more readily accepted if it was believed to have some foundation in reality, i.e. if the novel was actually an account of real events. What Walpole wanted to do was have supernatural elements be reacted to realistically, which at the time wasn’t the fashion in literature. “An improbable event never fails to be attended by an absurd dialogue” he says of romantic stories, and because that was the norm he felt it prudent to fake the novel’s origins. In doing so, in having characters react in realistic, human ways, he has, and the novel even more striking, both to me and to the novel’s original audience, and it is very likely another way in which The Castle of Otranto inspired other writers. I would even go so far as to say that it influenced film as well. After all, when one artistic medium becomes more realistic it’s only logical that others will follow. I admit, it’s a stretch, because emotional realism in film (and on stage) started becoming popular years and years after it became popular in literature. Nevertheless, I like to think there’s a connection.

All in all, it’s a rich text. It’s short, which given my struggles with it is probably for the best, but it doesn’t leave you bereft. There is so much to think about with this novel, and while it can be difficult at times and needs great focus, I think for those of you who want to see one of the birthplaces of genre fiction it is well worth a read.

            And for all of us hoping to become great writers, it’s good to know where to steal from.

[Article originally published in November 2011]

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