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Horror Fiction 101: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole


Horror fiction is a genre with ancient origins and its roots embedded in folk literature. One can usually find supernatural creatures like ghosts or vampires, but also an enchanted castle, a mysterious forest, a haunted house. When talking about the most recent horror fiction, there are stories about psychological horror, where the reader cannot find the difference between what is real and what is not; there are also stories about alien invasions or robots taking over the world. However, to properly talk about horror fiction, one must start at the beginning: Gothic literature.

Horror Fiction 101 will be divided into five different chapters:

  • The Vampyre by John Polidori

  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

  • The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

  • Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

It was the year 1764 when The Castle of Otranto was first published. Its author, Horace Walpole, used a pseudonym and stated that it was a translation of a manuscript written between 1095 and 1243, during the Crusades “or not long afterwards” (Walpole, 1764, p. 5). This first edition of The Castle of Otranto begins with a preface where Walpole reflects on the author’s writing and storytelling choices. One of the things he chose to comment on is the castle that gave the novel its title. He writes, “these and other passages are strong presumptions that the author had some certain building in his eye” (Walpole, 1764, p. 7); and he was obviously not wrong. While writing The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole was renovating his house, later known as Strawberry Hill House, to transform it into the Gothic mansion that would inspire the castle in his novel. He did not seem particularly interested in hiding his real participation in the work, since he claimed authorship of the novel in its second edition which was published only a year later.

South View of Strawberry Hill, the seat of the Honble. Mr Walpole.

The Castle of Otranto is a story about Manfred, the illegitimate prince of Otranto, and his family. It starts with a death and a wedding, or a wedding interrupted by a death. Conrad, Manfred’s only son, suddenly dies crushed by a gigantic helmet minutes before his wedding to Isabella, the daughter of the closest relation to the true heir of Otranto. Manfred, fully aware of his illegitimate claim, is desperate to secure his lineage and tries to force himself on Isabella, who later runs away. This begins a story with supernatural elements, death, and incest that will be considered the first Gothic novel ever published in the English language.

This novel sets the tone for future Gothic stories. From then on readers will encounter stories about heroines kidnapped by evil relatives and “taken to a far away castle or abby […] which with its tunnels, dungeons and strange noises becomes a scene of terror, and strange supernatural happenings (not always accounted for at the end of the novel)” (Loisseau, 2011). The Castle of Otranto will be a model for future writers in Gothic fiction, like Ann Radcliffe’s Sicilian Romance or even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is therefore the perfect example for analysing one of the main themes in horror fiction: the Gothic concept of the haunted house.

Since Walpole’s novel was first inspired by his house in Strawberry Hill, it is not hard to deduce that the castle will be a key element in the story, an argument easily underlined by the title of the book (Loiseau, 2011). The castle of Otranto is also a product of Walpole’s obsession with Gothic architecture, and it will be one of the main tricks for Gothic writers to create the perfect atmosphere for their stories. Gothic architecture is known for its tall but narrow and decorated windows, which create shadows and dark corners. Moreover, the secret passages, hidden doors and maze-like corridors will exacerbate the fear of the characters. As a whole, the castle has an “irregular, asymmetrical shape; its geometry is uncanny, whether because of an actual distortion or because part of it remains unknown” (Aguirre, 1990, p. 92).

Death of Conrad, as illustrated in the 1824 edition.

The castle of Otranto will become a sort of character on its own for two main reasons. On the one hand, the castle seems to be acting on its own and directly affecting the plot. There are many instances where supernatural events take place at very specific moments. The main example is the trigger of the story, Conrad’s mysterious death by the fall of a large helmet that seemed to belong to Alfonso the Good, who was poisoned by Manfred's grandfather. There are many other examples. For instance, when Manfred is trying to force himself on Isabella, the portrait of his grandfather “begun to move, […] when he saw it quit its pannel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air” (Walpole, 1764, p. 24). This allows Isabella to escape. There are also sudden closing of doors and mysterious rays of moonlight that reveal secret passages. The castle takes a great part in the dark and terrifying atmosphere of the story, and it becomes a sort of fear for the characters, one of the guards says to Manfred that he should “send for the chaplain, and have the castle exorcised, for, for certain, it is enchanted” (Walpole, 1764, p. 33). There is also a room where "nobody has dared to lie […] since the great astrologer that was your brother's tutor drowned himself" (Walpole, 1764, p. 38).

On the other hand, the castle is also interpreted as a character in the story since it can "equally well be a lineage, a title, a family" (Aguirre, 1990, p. 95). This is a concept that will become key for future Gothic stories, the most famous one being Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, where the house is the symbol of the decay of the family and their later collapse. In The Castle of Otranto, the connection is not as clear, but one can distinguish the house rebelling against its usurper and preventing his plans from succeeding. The castle seems to be the cause of the story as it sabotages Manfred’s attempts to ensure his lineage by interrupting the marriage between Conrad and Isabella, and every other plan he tries to carry out.

Entry of Frederick into the Castle of Otranto, illustrated by John Carter.

The plot of The Castle of Otranto also revolves around the concept of domestic terrors. In fact, many female Gothic writers will use Walpole’s concept of the haunted house as a symbol for the dangers that women faced at home (Cohenour, 2008). The castle of Otranto becomes a container for Manfred’s violent and illegitimate desires. His sexual instincts towards Isabella (who sees him as a father) symbolise the destruction of family bonds, while his attempt to keep his false claim as the prince of Otranto causes the castle to crumble and deteriorate. Furthermore, the castle and its empty or hollow spaces become a womb-like symbol that is constantly violated and forced open by men with swords in hand (Cohenour, 2008). Matilda, Manfred’s daughter, dies at the hand of her own father when he stabs her with his sword, representing his incestuous desires towards Isabella. Frederick, Isabella’s father, attempts to penetrate the castle sabre in hand to drag out the usurper. Both men fail, as neither of them has a legitimate claim to Otranto.

As the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto will be responsible for introducing certain features that can also be found in what Edmund Burke called the Sublime. As he explained in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, “the Sublime is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke, 1757). He argued that through dark, uncertain and confusing elements one could experience both thrill and fear in such an extreme way that it becomes overwhelming; and that is the Sublime. It allows stories to play with the dichotomy between pleasure and fear because a terrifying scene can also inspire some sort of wonder and delight. Walpole’s novel, and therefore Gothic fiction, will inspire fear and pleasure with the motif of the haunted castle: dark corners, inexplicable events, maze-like passages…

Themes like the haunted castle will exploit this emotion by evoking horror, disgust and amazement both in the reader and in the characters. Many examples of this can be found in Walpole’s novel, even from the very beginning with Conrad’s gruesome death. Upon discovering the death of his only son, the reader will witness Manfred go from one emotion to the other: surprise, fear, anger for what it means to his plans. And it will not only be Manfred, as the main character, who will experience the Sublime, but also his family members and servants will be subject to those emotions as the haunted castle acts and affects the plot of the story.

Horace Walpole's plot devices and characters will become a norm in Gothic literature and a clear origin for many of the horror stories written today: far away lands, labyrinthic corridors, hidden doors, secret passages, damsels in distress, supernatural forces, but most importantly, the haunted house, or castle in this case. Despite the mixed reactions from readers and critics at the time, many authors will continue what Walpole started and create one of the most popular themes in horror fiction: Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw or Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, but also Dracula's castle and Doctor Frankenstein's mansion. Walpole's influence can be seen almost everywhere, one only has to look close enough.


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1 Comment

Mar 05, 2022

I enjoyed reading your analysis of this novel. It was also interesting to see the parallels between the writer's house and the castle in the story.

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Isabel Panadero

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