Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gothic at the Root: Walpole's THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO

So I recently tackled the great-granddaddy of all Gothic novels, the seminal work that influenced generation after generation of writers and readers, ranging from the most debased hack to stellar artists like Jane Austen.  Written by Horace Walpole in 1764, THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO is nearly 250 years old, so the casual reader of today can hardly be blamed for approaching it with trepidation.  But it's quite short (modern editions are frequently omnibus volumes with other short novels, or padded out with histories, critical essays, notes, and other stuff), so it's not too threatening.

How does it read in this day and age?  Quite well, actually.  The phrasing avoids the turgid purpleness one can find in later gothic novels (ranging from the three-volume monstrosities of the 1800s to the crappy 70s paperbacks that clutter up your local friendly used-book emporium), it moves briskly, and there's rarely a dull moment as in every few pages something new is thrown at the reader.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO purports to be an actual translation of an Italian manuscript (printed in Naples in 1529, and then rediscovered in the library of an old Catholic family in the north of England) about the downfall of Manfred, the Prince of Otranto during the Crusades.  Manfred plans to marry his sickly 15-year-old son Conrad to Isabella, the daughter of the Marquis of Vicenza, but before that can happen Conrad is killed by a giant helmet that falls from the sky.  (Yes, you read that right.  It just falls out of the sky, WHOMP, and little Conrad is just a smear, and all this happens in the first few pages.  Walpole doesn't waste time.)  After a hasty funeral, Manfred informs Isabella that he's going to divorce his lawful wife Hippolita and marry her instead.  A peasant, Theodore, announces that the helmet is identical to one worn by a statue of Prince Alfonso the Good (a former ruler of Otranto) in the nearby chapel of St. Nicholas.  Manfred imprisons him, then goes after Isabella.  While hiding from the priapic prince, Isabella meets Theodore, and they venture through an underground tunnel to the aforementioned chapel, and then...oh, I won't recount it all.  There's a lot of plot and counterplot, subterranean passages, secret panels, more pieces of giant armor showing up, a real giant appearing here and there, a bleeding statue, a skeleton in a hermit's robe, a confrontation in a cave, a portrait that steps out from its frame, romantic intrigue, murder, ghosts, and an apocalyptic finale.  (And interestingly enough, it seems that there was a real Manfred, a ruler of Sicily from 1258 to 1266, and some details of his life may have inspired the novel, and he DID own a castle called Otranto...but that's all remote and tenuous.)

CASTLE is full-throttle Gothicism from start to finish; I can't help but wonder if Walpole was aware that he was essentially writing the handbook for a new literary style.  And so much of it is so over-the-top, it often seems as if Walpole had his tongue firmly in his cheek while writing it.  There's often a feel that this is all a joke, as if he was wondering if he could write something as absurd as possible and pass it off as a real document.  I don't know if anyone really swallowed it, but in the second edition he owned up to it and admitted he made it all up.  The characters are given little depth or backstory, and the few that do have backgrounds have them only as plot devices.  Manfred has the most depth of any of them, and is the first of the great Gothic hero-villains who came to dominate the genre.  He has nobler instincts and knows the difference between right and wrong, but is too driven by sexual lusts and personal ambitions to let his higher nature guide him.  Sometimes he seems to truly hate himself for what he's doing, but then his passions overcome him and he goes ahead anyway.  He swings between relishing the mayhem he's causing, and repenting of it.  He's juicy fun.

It's also interesting to see that OTRANTO is free of the Catholic-bashing that came to dominate the genre in later years.  And it doesn't shy away from the supernatural, unlike later novels that played a Scooby-Doo game with it, like in Mrs. Radcliffe's THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO.  And it has to be said that some of Walpole's supernatural terrors lack bite, either because we're modern readers used to far worse, or because they're a bit ridiculous and may not have been intended to be all that horrifying.  But the scene of the talking skeleton still packs a whallop; while I giggled at some of the other things going on, that part actually gave me the shivers.

Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford (1717-1797) published a handful of novels, but was also an art historian, letter-writer, antiquarian and politician.  He was a member of Parliament from 1741 to 1768.  He also built Strawberry Hill, a Gothic architectural fantasia that along with OTRANTO is his most enduring work.

He also wrote a ton of letters, coined the world "serendipity," and wrote about the history of painting and gardening.  Strawberry Hill and OTRANTO were both big influences on a revived interest in medievalism and gothicism that reached its peak in the Victorian age, and was treasured by later architects and critics like Ralph Adams Cram.  And OTRANTO itself paved the way for modern writers, for which we should all be grateful.  He died childless and unmarried (there's been speculation that he was gay or asexual, nobody seems to know for sure), and the title of Earl of Orford died with him.

So should you read OTRANTO?  Absolutely.  It's good juicy gothicism, still highly readable, and worthwhile for anyone interested in the origins of modern horror.  Get a copy and read it to your friends on a windy winter night.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO is available in modern reprintings in many bookstores.  You shouldn't have much problem locating a cheap copy in your favorite used-book store, though.  Obviously, it's in the public domain, and you can download free copies from various sites on the aethernet.  Librivox also has a free audio version for downloading as well.

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