Creepy Book #2: The Castle of Otranto
This book is like roots, twisting through the ancient and modern conceptions of literature at a time when the function of such was the subject of much debate, to claim a new space; creating a sturdy base from which to grow the stacks of Gothic novels that were to follow, as the genre grew in popularity through the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The debate was over whether literature should be representative of life, or purely imaginative (natural vs. romantic).¹ Rather than takes sides, Horace Walpole decided to include elements of both in The Castle of Otranto. For his initial, 1764 edition, Walpole took refuge behind the pseudonym, William Marshal. Upon its favourable reception however, Walpole burst out from behind Marshal and claimed his authorship of the novel, explaining that he had composed it as “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success…”¹
I imagine Walpole, sitting up late into the night amidst the pointed arches and flying buttresses of the lofty gothic castle he created (called Strawberry Hill)², with a fresh sheet of paper before him, and the oil in the lamp topped up; its flame casting long, dancing shadows against the stone walls as he dreamt up his next creation: The Castle of Otranto. He would have been scribbling about Manfred, who is the lord of the castle, and the day of his sickly, only son’s wedding to Isabella. In a fantastical accident, Conrad is crushed to death by a giant helmet that falls from the sky. This incident rattles Manfred considerably and reminds him of the curse that hangs over the family, ensuring that should they become too proud, they will lose their place within the thick castle walls to another family. In a panic, Manfred casts aside his wife Hippolita and resolves to marry Isabella and continue his family line. Isabella, however, is not on board with the new plan and aided by peasant, Theodore, she escapes. But escape turns out to be a difficult thing indeed, and Isabella and Theodore must endure Manfred’s maniacal ensuing chase.³
(For a full summary click here)
The origins of the story are in truth, somewhat obscured. Walpole’s edition in 1764 is said to have been based upon a manuscript printed in Naples in 1529 that was discovered in the home of “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.”¹ There are rumblings that the story went further back still; its origins possibly reaching all the way back to the Crusades. In a 1924 edition by Montague Summers, the tale is linked to Manfred of Sicily, whose life story is mirrored by some details in the plot and who counted the real medieval castle of Otranto among his possessions.¹ Wherever it originated, the story of The Castle of Otranto has managed to survive the upheavals of centuries (albeit in edited and amended form no doubt) to intrigue readers to this very day and is responsible for the creation of the Gothic literary genre.
For a really cool, and quite surreal, animated video clip of The Castle of Otranto, click here.
1. Wikipedia. The Castle of Otranto 23:25, 23, October, 2012 web. 27 October 2012 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Castle_of_Otranto.
2. As I was researching the novel I became immensely intrigued by Walpole’s gothic castle, Strawberry Hill. It is truly an incredible creation and I can’t quite put my finger on it but something about the photographs just gives me chills (in a good way!). Perhaps I just feel as though maybe you can still encounter Walpole (in one way or another) pacing through the exquisite rooms. In case you are similarly intrigued here are interesting pieces on Strawberry Hill:
–http://www.zimbio.com: This site offers a slideshow or great photographs taken during the restoration of Strawberry Hill.
–http://www.youtube.com: This you tube video provides history of the Gothic Castle
–http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXDgZ-pOsIc: This one draws a parallel between Strawberry Hill and The Castle of Otranto and discusses the Gothic literary genre.
3. Helium. Plot summary: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. 15, November 2011 web. 27 October, 2012. http://www.helium.com/items/2254073-plot-summary-the-castle-of-otranto-by-horace-walpole.
Check back for another spooky tale tomorrow!!