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The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole

16 Jul

n1156An awful silence reigned throughout the those subterraneous regions…Every murmur struck her with new terror…every suggestion that horror could inspire rushed into her mind.’

Horace Walpole – son of former and indeed first ever British Prime Minister Robert Walpole – is generally regarded as the man who started the genre of Gothic fiction and was not only responsible for the prototype story that would inspire such works as Melmoth the Wanderer and The Mysteries of Udolpho but he also coined the use of plot devices seen in such greats as Frankenstein, Dracula and Wuthering heights et al.

The story is classic Gothic fare, ancient prophecies to be fulfilled, brooding horror, romantic entanglements, misunderstandings, deaths and more supernatural goings than you can shake a haunted stick at.

These days, the horror element in this particular book feels dated, desensitized as I have become to the horrors of today’s films and books, it all comes across as rather tame.  The spooky goings feel like something that these days is shown on children’s TV, so with that in mind I had to view this as more of a curiosity piece than anything particularly harrowing.

When first published the author claimed it was a translation of a manuscript printed in Naples, dating back to the 1500’s and had been recently found in a library of a Catholic family in Northern England.  Not everyone was fooled by this piece of gravitas mongering and in subsequent editions Walpole admitted his authorship.

I liked this peculiar piece of writing, it was absorbing up to a point but what dragged me out of the story was the lack of dread, when clearly it was meant tp be oozing out of the pages. Horror is more sophisticated these days, fears have changed, if there was a Gothic Camp section in your local bookstore this would be highly recommended.  There is so much melodrama, I’m sure that soap operas writers would be envious of all the lightly sketched characters and the dramatically choreographed situations.

In all fairness though there is a lot packed in to the mere 100 pages of the book, there are many quotations of Biblical passages, a hefty dose of Shakespeare references and some wonderfully Arthurian imagery (both British and German styles, see Parzival by Wolfram Von Eschenbach in particular for the latter), it’s a great mix for anyone who is familiar with that literature but not noticeable if you have no inclination to read such of the aforementioned works.

it also has a bit of a Scooby-Doo vibe going on,I don’t want to belittle a work that started off a genre with some magnificent works to its name, perhaps this is only me but it just seemed to have a small hint of ridiculousness that reminded me of that staple of my childhood TV, until Scrappy Doo was introduced…then it all went downhill.

As with certain other authors, there are no speech marks contained herein, having said that it doesn’t ever confuse as Walpole always keeps you clued in on who is talking at any moment, in fact I found his style far superior to that, of say, Cormac McCarthy, so instead of my usual whinge on grammar, I will say no more and enjoy the deep sighs of relief.

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20 Comments

Posted by on 16/07/2013 in Classics

 

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20 responses to “The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole

  1. shadowoperator

    16/07/2013 at 17:40

    I think probably if it seems dated, it’s only because as you noted it was the first: we’ve seen a lot of what has come since, so historically speaking, we’re looking at it backwards, as it were. This was raw and innovative stuff when it first came along. I believe if you research “Strawberry Hill” (Walpole’s home) on Wikipedia, you may find some interesting facts out about the architecture (but I’m not going to spoil it with more than this hint, just in case you don’t already know!)

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    • Ste J

      16/07/2013 at 17:49

      I have heard mention of Strawberry Hill but haven’t looked into it yet, I was distracted by bright and shiny things and got confused, I shall do so soon though as it did intrigue me and your cryptic mention just compounds the curiosity itch.

      TCoO was always going to be dated but you’re right at the time it was quite a terrifying read…I think sadly it doesn’t even retain a glimpse of its original horror, in the same way that Dracula and to a certain extent Frankenstein, on an existential level does. Still credit where it’s due, without it the whole landscape of literature and film would be vastly different.

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  2. Robyn Lee

    16/07/2013 at 18:49

    The gothic horror story that is “lacking in dread” ~ oh no! Well it does seem to have some attributes… 100 pages is a good length for me (given my limitations with the joints) — and I always enjoy the references (in moderation) to Shakespeare, Biblical and all that …. maybe one to consider as I had a thing for Scooby Doo at one time in my life 🙂 ~ Hope all is well over there on your side of the pond … still searching for the ultimate Swiss Chocolate and needing to dig up all your old posts on your US trip!!! ~ Love and Light and Books ~ x R

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    • Ste J

      16/07/2013 at 19:06

      Scooby was great but Scrappy, they were dark days when it would be a cartoon with him in…the references aren’t blatant, they litter the text but unless you know your Shakespeare then certain ones will pass you by. I am not very versed in the bard…only read five of his works and none referenced here, so I was pleasantly surprised to read the notes and see what I had missed. It is a fun curiosity to delve into though.

      Things go well here, the sun, the blogging, the books, the warm beer…lol. I hope you are doing well also? May I beg permission to quote one of your comments from your blog…to be precise the one from our most recent conversation for a possible post I am thinking of writing? xx

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      • Robyn Lee

        16/07/2013 at 20:21

        warm beer – oh goodness — i can drink warm wine and warm vodka but not warm beer! 🙂 — of course – you may use whatever words you would like (just check my grammar and spelling will ya?) ~ seriously would be my honor to offer any inspiration at all for a post of yours my friend ~
        🙂
        x RL

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  3. Lyn

    16/07/2013 at 21:22

    When I first read the title of your post, it read “The Castle of Ontario” and thought, Oh, Ste J is off on his travels again. then I read it a second time and decided the flu was doing my head in 🙂 Great review and you can keep your warm beer 😉

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    • Ste J

      17/07/2013 at 18:20

      No, I insist you suffer some warm beer! If I had the money to travel…I would do a Kerouac but less of the beat about it.

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  4. RoSy

    17/07/2013 at 02:29

    A Scooby vibe eh? I still catch the cartoon once in a while when the kids are watching it.

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    • Ste J

      17/07/2013 at 18:18

      It is a noble cartoon but only if there is a real question mark over whodunnit….usually the typecast man in the fez if I recall rightly.

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  5. Alastair

    17/07/2013 at 18:32

    I was amused by some of the items you commented on. I wonder how the readers of that era would have coped with PennyWise, or Christine, even HEEEEEERRRREEEEEE’S JOHNNY! What we see as desensitised, would have literally caused heart attacks back then. Please don’t think I am belittling your review, I am just commenting on how today’s work would be accepted back then.

    ScoobyDoo now would be Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Hills Have Eyes back then. 🙂

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    • Ste J

      17/07/2013 at 18:40

      You are right, our horror would have been banned, all that psychological stuff as well as the blatant ones would have destroyed their sould and brought about the end of the world. I love the idea of people running terrified from a man in a suit chasing a talking stoned dog and his hippie mate down a corridor with the same repeating door, bookcase and table with a vase on it. That is a great idea for a comedy sketch right there.

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  6. Alastair Savage

    19/07/2013 at 09:25

    I don’t think you can criticise this book too much for not being scary, because I don’t think any horror book is particularly chilling. I get far more frightened by horror movies but that’s all down to the sound and special effects than the actual story.
    This bit was fascinating: “When first published the author claimed it was a translation of a manuscript printed in Naples, dating back to the 1500′s and had been recently found in a library of a Catholic family in Northern England. Not everyone was fooled by this piece of gravitas mongering and in subsequent editions Walpole admitted his authorship.”
    Umberto Eco pulls the same trick in a prologue to The Name of the Rose, and he must have got the idea from here. It fooled me when I first read The Name of the Rose, but I was only 15 at the time (precocious youth that I was …)

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    • Ste J

      19/07/2013 at 18:19

      The Name of the Rose at 15, fantastic! That heartens me in this world of Nintendo 64’s and Sega Saturns et al, it is good to know that the young did and do read quality literature. Eco is a brilliant writer, I had forgotten that he had wrote that though, thanks for the reminder of that and a wonderful book which has some great references to Borges in it as well.

      It’s less of a criticism about the book and more of a warning to people expecting something that has the power to chill as certain of the old Gothic fiction stories still do…I have found a couple of chilling books, The Woman in Black was a great one for that but yes you are right all these quotes on books about spine tingling horror and all that is pure fantasy, either that or the reviewer is a bit weak or a novice when it comes to anything horror.

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  7. readinpleasure

    02/08/2013 at 15:24

    How scary can scary be, Ste J? What we have now me thinks is ‘computerised’ horror. A great review 🙂

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    • Ste J

      02/08/2013 at 18:24

      Fair point, I think horror has gone to overboard, from just a fun scare it now seems to be an ultra realistic thing. Thee is something to be said for the longevity of the classics though. I suppose in the right frame of mind this could be seen as a bit of horror but it is a push these days!

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  8. The Book Haven

    25/12/2013 at 08:25

    Have you read The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis? It’s another classic Gothic horror novel.

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    • Ste J

      26/12/2013 at 10:56

      I haven’t gotten around to that, although it is one of the many hundreds currently awaiting a thorough read, alongside The Mysteries of Udolpho and Melmoth the Warrior. I believe firmly on queueing the good books up.

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  9. hannahsteveeee

    26/09/2014 at 02:15

    I agree, the giant helmet falling out of the sky seems ridiculous now! However, I really enjoyed this book too and I found it very intriguing, despite how clunky it feels in places!

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    • Ste J

      28/09/2014 at 08:08

      It reminds me of one of those old b/w horrors from back in the day. Once I accepted its cheesy nature it made me happy.

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