The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Date published: 1764
In essence: The true heir of Otranto must be found before the castle kills them all.
The reason I love Gothic Horror so much is the space it creates. Crimson Peak came in for some bashing when it was first released but I will watch it over and over again just for the house.* The house beats all with its cobwebbed corners and shadowed staircases, its loft ceilings and lancet windows.
Who would live in a house like this?
Only a family in disintegration. A family with secrets and passions that simply can’t fit into the real world. Otranto’s patriarch, Manfred, thinks it’s a good idea to divorce his wife and marry his dead son’s fiancée. The current Mrs Otranto does not object as much as you would expect. The fiancée does object and flees to a monastery while Miss Otranto finds it all very disturbing, but she’s a good girl who obeys her father and is far more concerned with the random, yet handsome stranger outside her bedroom window.
The castle itself has very strong opinions on the fact that Manfred should not be in charge at all. It is the grand sire of Crimson Peak’s house, and yet it behaves like a teenager throwing fits of giant-sized armour and terrorising its inhabitants with prophetic ghosts.
“I want the true heir of Otranto back!” Door slams and plate metal rattles. “Now!”
The family remain puzzled, but carry on with their own agendas. The servants seem more inclined to pay attention, and like Hamlet’s Gravedigger offer some light relief.
I found in The Monk that the funny moments sort of made the scary stuff less scary. To find it happening again in The Castle of Otranto was not as odd.
It made more sense that in The Castle of Otranto because the gothic space was more clearly defined. The Monk roves about over a whole city while in the claustrophobic confines of the Gothic Castle there is enhanced pressure on a group of people who cannot escape each other. In that setting the comedy did enhance the horror.
Here is a good article that explains it better than me.
More than just scenery
Of all the characters, the castle was my favourite. It wasn’t just window dressing, but had an agency of its own that drove the plot almost as much as Manfred’s desire for unconventional marriage arrangements. Plus the castle was a lot easier to sympathise with.
This is also a good read if you’re a writer who wants to learn how to use setting to enhance atmosphere. It’s a brisk read too.
So, I still really love a haunted building, but I think now I am more aware to the responsibility of owning one. Especially if it doesn’t want me to.
If you’d like to learn more about Gothic Houses and what they mean, I really recommend this podcast.
*Yes, the house. Not Tom Hiddleston removing his trousers.