The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

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Reviewed by Simon

If you’ve ever wondered what sort of prose Catherine Morland might have read before she ventured to Northanger Abbey, then look no further than Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto – originally published, anonymously, in 1764 (and thus celebrating its 250th birthday this year). This novel is the father of the Gothic genre, and a lovely new edition from Hesperus slips easily into the pocket for when one wants to be beset (or, alternatively, bemused) by the riddles and horrors of Otranto.

It begins – as which novel does not? – with a young prince dying on his wedding day after being crushed by an enormous helmet. This event is actually one of the more probable that takes place in the insane 109 page epic. Yes, despite its brevity, The Castle of Otranto feels like an epic – not solely for the number of extreme events, but because of the breathtaking pace at which it all happens.

A catalogue of the novel’s features will give you a good idea of the sort of thing. Men and women fall in love at the slightest provocation; people are forever proclaiming that they would ‘die a thousand deaths rather than stain they conscience’ &c. &c.; secret passages are discovered, duels fought, and long lost children revealed. There’s even a bleeding statue for good measure.

But the prose! Oh, the prose.

“My Lord,” said Theodore, “you wrong my father: neither he nor I are capable of harbouring a thought against your peace. Is it insolence thus to surrender myself to your Highness’s pleasure?” added he, laying his sword respectfully at Manfred’s feet. “Behold my bosom; strike, my Lord, if you suspect that a disloyal thought is lodged there. There is not a sentiment engraven on my heart that does not venerate you and yours.”

The grace and fervour with which Theodore uttered these words interested every person present in his favour.

It is all gloriously ridiculous. The fair knight Theodore is one of the more tedious characters in all of fiction – but a fascinating example of what the 18th century considered good material for a hero. Not a single moment is believable and few are even possible, but, you know what? It’s still a brilliant read. Walpole wasn’t aiming for realism; he was going for excellent storytelling – and, despite myself, I felt swept along by the narrative. I’d far rather re-read The Castle of Otranto than Pamela, let me tell you; for its period, it is astonishingly fast-paced and spare.

Yes, against my better judgement, I got completely sucked in. It breaks every rule in the modern writing book, and it’s of far more interest as a period piece than anything else – but I can’t mock those who avidly devoured it in the 18th century. Silly though it is, Walpole certainly knew how to spin a yarn.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and wouldn’t die even 500 deaths for anybody, I’m afraid.

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Hesperus: London, 1764 repr.2014), 978-1843915201 109pp, paperback.

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