On the day of his wedding, Conrad, heir to the house of Otranto, is killed under mysterious circumstances. His calculating father, Manfred, fears that his dynasty will now come to an end and determines to marry his son's bride himself, despite the fact he is already married. But a series of terrifying supernatural omens soon threaten this unlawful union, as the curse placed on Manfred's ancestor, who usurped the lawful Prince of Otranto, begins to unfold.
First published pseudonymously in 1764, The Castle of Otranto is purported to be an ancient Italian text from the time of the crusades and is a founding work of Gothic fiction. With its compelling blend of sinister portents, tempestuous passions, and ghostly visitations, it spawned an entire literary tradition and influenced such writers as Ann Radcliffe and Bram Stoker.
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A Disordered Mind or The 1st Gothic (Parody) Novel
Manfred, Prince of Otranto would be a reasonable man if his tempestuous emotions didn't overrule him. As Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) begins, the prince is trying with unseemly haste (that no one has the courage to criticize him for to his face) to marry his homely and sickly son Conrad on his sixteenth birthday to Isabella, daughter of the Marquis of Vicenza. Manfred is desperate for heirs because an old prophecy states that Otranto (castle and lands) will pass to the real owner when he's grown too large to inhabit it and because his wife (the devoted and saintly Hippolita) cannot bear him any more sons. Thus we might expect Manfred to be grief-stricken when, just before Conrad's nuptials, the youth is crushed to pieces by a giant, sable-plumed helmet falling from the sky (!). Instead, however, Manfred decides that he didn't need his weakling son anyway, and will divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself, figuring to start making heirs that very night. (This surprising shift from doting parent to calculating suitor is typical of Walpole's volatile characters, the inconstancy of the human mind being, perhaps, his point.) Needless to say, Isabella, who was not keen to marry Conrad, tries to flee his overbearing and taboo-eschewing father through a "secret" passageway to the neighboring church of St. Nicholas, there to seek sanctuary. Luckily for Isabella, a mysterious, handsome, and gentlemanly young peasant (who just happens to be the spitting image of Alfonso the Good, an earlier Prince of Otranto) is on hand to provide assistance.
The novel proceeds to depict the impious attempts of the disorderly-minded Prince to avert the prophesied doom. Walpole, whose epigraph sonnet goes, "Oh! Guard the marvels I relate/ Of fell ambition scourg'd by fate" is not sanguine about one's chances of escaping destiny. En route to Manfred's, there are piquant scenes aplenty: a melancholy portrait stepping forth from its frame; giant armored limbs appearing in the castle; the Knight of the Gigantic Saber paying a call (his attendants bearing a giant sword); Matilda, the virginal 18-year-old daughter of Manfred, whom Isabella has often talked out of entering a nunnery, falling in love with a stranger; Friar Jerome of the church of St. Nicolas revealing some unexpected history and identity; and so on.
Yes, Walpole founded the Gothic novel: supernatural events, old buildings, secret passageways, moaning winds, rumored ghosts, animated skeletons, old prophecies, hidden identities, psychic assaults, impious lusts, endangered virgins, foul murders, etc. The novel, however, is funnier than it is scary. Although it is, I suppose a tragedy in five acts (chapters), and Walpole said that he was channeling Hamlet when he wrote it, it is best approached looking for over the top, humorous entertainment. I suspect Walpole of parodying the Gothic genre even as he was founding it. Moreover, there are several comical conversations involving "blockhead" or shrewd servants who (perhaps) unwittingly try the limits of Manfred's small store of patience. I particularly enjoyed Bianca, Matilda's practical maid (who at one point says to her, "A bystander often sees more of the game than those who play"). And Isabella and Matilda's changing feelings toward each other vis-à-vis the object of their affections are amusingly rendered.
That said, Walpole's book is not all tongue in cheek, for he is exploring the workings of a "disordered" mind. Just after Friar Jerome piously says that his duty is "to teach mankind to curb their headstrong passions," Manfred "curbed the [good] yearnings of his heart, and did not dare to lean even towards pity. The next transition of his soul was to exquisite villainy." In addition to originating the Gothic genre, Walpole was one of the father's of the Byronic hero: Manfred, in his destructive braving of heaven and hell to follow his taboo-breaking and overmastering passions, is somehow as appealing as he is appalling. The novel offers a critical and yet sympathetic view of humanity: "What is blood! What is nobility! We are all reptiles, miserable, sinful creatures. It is piety alone that can distinguish us from the dust whence we sprung, and whither we must return."
Readers may feel that Walpole's depiction of subservient women is cringe-worthy, as when Hippolita lectures Matilda and Isabella, "It is not ours to make election for ourselves: heaven, our fathers, and our husbands must decide for us." But Walpole may be mocking that attitude, because even as Hippolita utters that line, the fathers of both girls are plotting an outrageous double marriage for them.
Tony Jay reads the Blackstone audiobook with aplomb: his rich, deep, slightly nasal voice is nuanced to speak for young or old, imperious or self-effacing etc. men and women without overdoing it. But although this audiobook version (2006) includes Walpole's epigraph sonnet, it leaves out his first preface (in which he poses as a translator who's rendered into English an old Italian manuscript dating back to the crusades) and his second preface (in which he explains his intention in writing the novel to "blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern").
To appreciate The Castle of Otranto, you should not expect modern verisimilitude and suspenseful horror. Readers interested in the Gothic genre or absurd, comical, and supernatural tragedies about out of control people should enjoy it. I found it entertaining and compact and got a delighted kick out of lines like these:
"Oh! the helmet! the helmet!" "The Prince, whose passions wanted little fuel to throw them into a blaze, fell into a rage at the idea of what the Friar suggested." "Am I to be bearded in my own palace by an insolent monk?" "A clap of thunder at that instant shook the castle to its foundations; the earth rocked, and the clank of more than mortal armour was heard behind."
This book, like Pamela for feminist literary history, is important due to the fact that it was the first gothic novel ever written. The voice is a good one for the story, deep, reverant, dramatic; the writing is of excellent breed as well. With that said, however, so much has been ripped-off from this novel, and into novels that we've already read, that the story itself comes off as a bit cliche, not to mention ridiculous. Although the hyperbole of the novel is based off sybolic intentions, the best that one can say about this piece is that it lit a torch for future great novels--not that it's so much a great novel on its own two feet. Worty of reading if you care about the history of novels in general, but if you're looking for a great gothic novel this can't be a first choice.