Gothic Reading Challenge Review: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

This is my third Gothic challenge read and the first classic Gothic novel I read for the challenge.

Genre: Gothic novel; historical
Year of publication: 1764
Setting & time: Medieval Italy, during the  Crusades

Conrad, son of Manfred, Prince of Otranto, is crushed beneath a gigantic helmet on the day he is to be wed to the Princess Isabella. Manfred, determined to secure a replacement for his only son and heir, decides to divorce his wife and marry Isabella, who objects and seeks sanctuary in a nearby church with the aid of a mysterious young man. These events are only the beginning of a convoluted and suspenseful story.

This, the very first Gothic novel, is a defining novel of the genre, with its air of perpetual menace, supernatural events, gloomy setting, driven villain, missing heirs, convoluted plot, thrills, shocks and revelations, noble heroes and damsels in distress. It is highly entertaining, although to me, a modern reader, probably not quite in the manner intended by the author. I found it very funny in parts, mostly because of all the melodrama involved.

The story is wonderfully plotted and convoluted and delivers one thrilling revelation after another. The characters are mostly flat, puppets to be controlled by the narrator and made to do his bidding, but it doesn't matter because the story is very much plot driven. The plotting is masterful, with every plot point resolved and all the threads tied up at the end, and a neat but not entirely happy ending (which rather surprised me).

Many of the plot points and the settings were, I believe, quite new to readers of the time, and would have seemed to them to be fresh and new, whereas to a jaded modern reader (like myself) nearly two and a half centuries after it was first published, it seems slightly worn, somewhat dusty and very melodramatic. This was undoubtedly a ground-breaking story, and one can see in it so many plot conventions and themes that are still used in modern genre literature.

I would have adored this story had I read it as a child. As it is, I respect it for being what it is, and recommend it to anyone interested in the beginnings of the sensation novel, the horror novel, and the suspense story (not to mention urban fantasy, which often reads like a Gothic novel removed from lonely castles and ruins to dreary urban settings). 3 stars.


Trish said…
I've heard this book had a flair for the melodramatic. But what I find so fun about reading these dusty old classics is how you can trace themes and style and characters right up to the present.
Audra said…
Being a fan of a good gothic novel, it's a shame I haven't read this one! Lovely review!
Sophia said…
I'm doing the Gothic Reading challenge too, and I think I'll give the Castle of Otranto a try after reading your post. I've just finished the Mysteries of Udolpho and absolutely loved all the spooky elements, which have almost become cliches to us now. It's all so OTT, but so much fun to a modern reader.
Dorte H said…
I also try to read a classic now and then so I have a dozen or so waiting for me in my Kindle. Lately I have read old Danish crime fiction, however, but I may try some of the Gothic novels later. As you say, modern readers are not impressed by all their tricks of the trade, but it is interesting to see what people found scary at that time.
Geosi Reads said…
I am bad at reading classics but I find this book interesting. Thanks for sharing this.
Bibliophile said…
I recommend reading it. It's a short and quick read and for anyone even remotely interested in literary history it's a must read.

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