Updated: Jul 16
In many of the reviews for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak critics made reference to Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto as one of the film’s gothic inspirations.
So I thought I’d return to the novel that has been hailed as the founding father of this literary tradition…
In a letter to William Cole on 9 March 1765 Horace Walpole confided to him the origins of The Castle of Otranto: “I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story). In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it…”
In The Castle of Otranto, published anonymously on Christmas Eve 1764, Walpole had created a dark and exciting world populated with what has become standard Gothic tropes: ancient castles /churches, ghosts, curses, tormented villains, handsome heroes, gruesome happenings, sexually threatened innocent young girls, fear of the supernatural, secret passages and doors. Its initial 500-copy print run quickly sold out, and caused a sensation. In the novel’s second edition, published April 1765, Walpole put his name on the cover and added the subheading ‘A Gothic Story’; he also added a second preface outlining the literary heritage upon which this novel grew. The novel’s first preface having given the impression that the book was a translation from a found Italian manuscript dated 1529, relating to an incident that had taken place at some point between 1095 and 1243.
In 1764, the novel was still in its infancy, and popular works were writers’ fictitious memoirs including Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). These popular works were set in the present (or near present) and were depicting a recognisable world. The fusion of these ‘real accounts’ and a fantastical and supernatural setting set The Castle of Otranto apart.
British author Neil Gaiman, whose work is fuelled with notions of gothic-ness, was interviewed for the British Film Institute’s 2013 Gothic Film Season. He opened the interview by saying “One knows how Gothics began with the glorious Gothic novels: [The Castle of] Otranto, The Monk and these big strange gloomy books…” as the interview continued he attempted to define the Gothic: “Gothics are all about atmosphere, they are about people and houses, people and darkness, people finding themselves, people losing themselves, people coming to terms with themselves …” He ended by saying that it is “…very hard to describe the perfect Gothic, in the same way that it is hard to describe to a loved one over breakfast why your dream was so interesting.”
This notion of the dream-like nature of the Gothic clearly echoes Walpole’s own account of the novel’s conception, and the prominent position in Gaiman’s list of the Gothic’s use of location (houses) and atmosphere (darkness), harks back to Walpole’s own emphasis on the novel’s descriptions of the Castle, and in the false preface the author’s insistence that it is these descriptions that make this a work of truth not fiction. “The scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle. The author seems frequently, without design, to describe particular parts. The chamber, says he, on the right-hand; the door on the left-hand; the distance from the chapel to Conrad’s apartment. These and other passages are strong presumptions that the author had some certain building in his eye.”
Walpole of course created his own ‘castle’ having purchased Strawberry Hill House in 1747 and in the early 1750s had begun transforming it into a Gothic ‘wonderland’. It was there in his architecturally whimsical house, which by turns transports the visitor/occupants from gloomy dungeon-like spaces, to rooms decorated in deep sexual reds to iridescent golds, that he had his feverish dream that became The Castle of Otranto.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given Walpole’s fascination with the Gothic architecture and design, the castle itself is perhaps the most realised ‘character’ within the novel. The word ‘castle’ is mentioned 185 times.
In October 2014 the British Library mounted an exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ linked to the 250th anniversary of the publication of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and celebrating its place as the formal beginning of the Gothic novel. It traced how its tone and themes has become a template for 250 years of literature, films, television, fashion, music and lifestyle. In the exhibition’s press release the lead curator, Tim Pye, said: “Gothic is one the most popular and influential modes of literature… [in the exhibition] there is truly something for everyone”. Perhaps, it is the nature of a press release or creating an exhibition that has ‘something for everyone’ but what Pye and his colleagues avoided doing, was stating what Gothic is. This was something that presenter Tom Sutcliffe and guest reviewers Stephanie Merritt, Dea Birkett and Sarfraz Manzoor raised in their review of the exhibition on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review (4 October 2014). Birkett: “I was talking to one of the curators, and said ‘why did you never define gothic?’ and they said ‘well it is sort of this and sort of that, and we didn’t want to define it’. But I think for a visitor to an exhibition you need a definition in order to agree or disagree with. You need something to hang on to. And if the British Library can’t have a stab at ‘What is Gothic Literature’ then nobody can.”
Despite there being a reluctance or difficulty in being able to define what Gothic is, there is a clear consensus that Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was the starting point. Fred Botting writing in Gothic (1996) said: “Many of the main ingredients of the genre that was to be known as the Gothic novel can be found in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto … it was Walpole’s text that condensed features from old poetry, drama and romance and provided the model for future developments.”
The narrative hinges on Manfred’s dynastic obsession and his plan to cast-off his wife, and marry his recently deceased son’s fiancée, Isabella. The powerful, use of location and the vulnerable heroine are central themes of the novel, and pervade gothic and horror literature and films to this day. Gaiman’s abiding ‘Gothic’ image is of "a beautiful young lady, preferably wearing nothing but a nightie, running away from an old dark house".
In October 2014 BBC Four joined forces with the British Library to celebrate the birth of the Gothic. In the first episode (20 October 2014) three part television series The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour, writer/presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon unequivocally stated that ‘The Castle of Otranto is the book that launched a thousand gothic horror fantasies.”