The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole

This is a book from the 1700s that I never would have picked up if not for reading about it in another book. In Liz Moore’s The Unseen World the main character Ada gives David, her father, a copy of this book for Christmas because it has become a favorite of his. I’d heard of Walpole but this book never came up in any of the English lit classes I sat through.

I didn’t research it until after I read. It’s from around 1764. Walpole was a member of Parliament and the son of a prime minister. He was also a fanatic for the Gothic era, building his own Gothic castle around 1750. This book is considered one of the first gothic horror books written (I thought Jane Eyre was the pioneering work but apparently that’s considered more in the gothic romance genre) and was an inspiration for some of Poe’s approach. It’s written under the pretence of a translation of a book from Naples written in the 1500s and discovered in the library of an English manor house.

It’s a creaky book but it’s a short, easy read and I’ve read books with more outlandish plots (Mr. Lovecraft) though this has some distinct twists all its own.

At the beginning the lord Manfred and his wife Hippolita are about to marry off their ailing son Conrad to the beautiful Isabella. However, Conrad is crushed by a gigantic marble helmet that falls from the sky. There are hints to this in a prophecy about the castle 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”.

Manfred was really hoping for a continuation of the family line. So much so that he tries to convince the bishop that since Hippolita was a close relative that he should be granted a divorce so that he can marry Isabella himself. A peasant named Theodore helps Isabella escape the lusty clutches of Manfred. She escapes to a cave located beneath a church.

Much swordplay ensues, secret identities are discovered, rightful and more romantic matches are made, and characters are shamed or married in karmic order. More gigantic knight parts also mysteriously appear.

Those with Beavis and Butthead senses of humor will snort at lines like “he stared at her ejaculation.” It’s a museum piece of a book but interesting to see that there have been some reversions to Walpole’s style in the last century. Poe and du Maurier elevated the style, Lovecraft cleaved to it as did many horror magazine writers of 100 years ago. There are inexpensive books, very inexpensive Kindle versions, and at least four versions at Audible. If you’re a fan of the genre this is a must-read.