Librarian’s Choice: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

This blog comes from Ross, a Librarian Manager based in Local and Family History at Centeral Library.

Darken your summer with a little ‘gloomth’!

I like to imagine Horace Walpole as the Tim Burton of the eighteenth century. An author and art expert, he was obsessed with an aesthetic he called ‘gloomth’ – a mixture of gothic doom and mouldy bliss which, while fanciful, he approached with intelligence and a certain sense of mischief. Embracing gloomth with the kind of fervour today’s librarians reserve for hygge, he spent his early twenties swooning around the ruined cathedrals of Europe, before coming back with a truckload of cobwebby trinkets in 1741 to regale dinner guests with tales of castles and curses, probably on the darkest and stormiest of nights.

His infatuation with gloomth eventually inspired him to design the outrageous but stunning Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham in 1749, which is part English villa, part Hammer horror, and all Horace Walpole. The idea of someone remodelling a country home on a literary whim might not go down too well in these austere times (especially if that someone were the son of a Prime Minister, as Walpole was) but he at least had the artistic integrity to follow up his folly with a really good book – one that was published on Christmas Eve in 1764. (He wasn’t one for doing things by halves.)

Gothic The castle of OtrantoThe book was The Castle of Otranto, and Walpole went the full ‘found footage’ route by pretending it was a translation of a manuscript discovered in ‘the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England’. Not only that, but it was purportedly originally based on a story traced back to Italy in the High Middle Ages. Whether the ruse was designed to whip up maximum interest from the gloomth community – or simply give Walpole something to hide behind if the book was a critical disaster – isn’t entirely clear but, in any case, Otranto was deservedly well received, and Walpole was happy to take full credit as the author of the second edition.

Truth is, he’d actually dreamt up the basis of the novel at Strawberry Hill, during a nightmare he experienced involving a giant armoured fist and a spooky staircase. In The Castle of Otranto, this translates into the surreal scene that starts the story, where an enormous helmet inexplicably falls from the sky, crushing the son and heir of the main character, Prince Manfred. It’s also the moment at which you’ll probably become gripped if you decide to read the book yourself. From this point on, the plot descends into a tangle of family secrets, manifested by the actual labyrinths Manfred’s relatives and servants spend the book blundering into – from the dark catacombs beneath the castle, to the deadly network of caves beyond its walls. There are murders (some accidental); there is madness (lots of madness); and, looming in the background throughout, the monstrous owner of the giant armour threatens to make an appearance of its own…

The text is a little dense, and Walpole packs more secret passages and moving portraits into one paragraph than J.K. Rowling manages in an entire term at Hogwarts, but otherwise this is a refreshing read, with a lightness of style that contrasts humorously with the ominous trappings. This being the very first gothic horror novel, you’re also never safe from a shiver of true fear… Mario Praz explains the sensation perfectly in his introduction to the edition I borrowed from Armley Library: ‘what begins as an arabesque, in time breeds teeth and nails, and after having pleasurably tickled this skin, gnaws through the very vitals’ (from Three Gothic Novels, Penguin Classics, 2006).

It’s a disconcerting description of a novel inspired by a dream inspired by a house – and about the warmest invitation you’ll ever receive into the velvety, vicious world of gloomth.

If this has whetted your appetite for Gothic fiction try some of these other classics from our catalogue:-

Gothic The MonkThe Monk: a romance by M.G. Lewis

Ambrosio, a pious monk, finds himself drawn to his pupil, Matilda, a young woman in disguise. Unable to control himself, he sates his lust, and soon tires of her. But Matilda has more than her body to offer. As his desperate acts become more and more depraved, it becomes clear that Matilda is not everything she seems.

Gothic Mysteries of UdolphoThe mysteries of Udolpho: a romance by Ann Radcliffe

With The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe raised the Gothic romance to a new level and inspired a long line of imitators. Portraying her heroine’s inner life, creating a thick atmosphere of fear, and providing a gripping plot that continues to thrill readers today, The Mysteries of Udolpho is the story of orphan Emily St. Aubert, who finds herself separated from the man she loves and confined within the medieval castle of her aunt’s new husband, Montoni. Inside the castle, she must cope with an unwanted suitor, Montoni’s threats, and the wild imaginings and terrors that threaten to overwhelm her.


Gothic The Fall of the house of usherThe fall of the House of Usher and other stories by Edgar Allan Poe

The eerie tales of Edgar Allan Poe remain among the most brilliant and influential works in American literature. Some of the celebrated tales contained in this unique volume include: the world’s first two detective stories — “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”; and three stories sure to make a reader’s hair stand on end — “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and “The Masque of the Red Death”.

Gothic DraculaDracula By Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker’s novel became one of the masterpieces of the horror genre, brilliantly evoking a world of vampires and vampire hunters whilst simultaneously exposing the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and frustrated desire.