Oct 7, 2008

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Originally published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto is considered the first Gothic novel. The preface to the first edition introduces it as the translation of a 16th century Italian document that refers to events that took place in the 11th or 12th century.

The Castle of Otranto is the story of Manfred, the prince of Otranto, whose son Conrad is crushed to death by a giant helmet on his wedding day. Manfred then decides to marry Isabella, his deceased son’s bride-to-be, and since apparently this was considered incest, everyone is horrified.

The rest of the story is complete with spectres and apparitions, monasteries and secret passages, secret identities, damsels in distress, and people perishing from grief. So yes, the whole paraphernalia of Gothic clichés, but since The Castle of Otranto was the first, I didn’t have a hard time forgiving it for being so over the top.

The story is really very dramatic, and the result was a lot of unintentional comedy. I’m actually not sure how seriously this was meant to be taken at the time. There were several instances where I got the impression that Walpole was having quite a bit of fun.

So even though it's pretty impossible for a modern reader to find this story unpredictable or original,The Castle of Otranto was an enjoyable book. Most of all I liked the atmosphere, and it was interesting to see where some of these Gothic clichés come from. The plot twists weren’t at all surprising, and yes, the characters were pretty one-dimensional. But I wasn’t expecting anything different, and none of that really bothered me.

Also, because this book is so short, its over-the-top-ness never gets to be too much. I could see it getting tiresome if it had gone on for much longer, but as it’ only a little over a hundred pages long that never actually happened. Instead, it was a fast read and entertaining read, and fans of Gothic fiction will probably find it quite enjoyable.

Other Blog Reviews:
Framed and Booked
Age 30+...A Lifetime of Books

(Have you also reviewed it? Please let me know.)


  1. I read this in college and thought it was hilarious - and lots of fun! As you mention, it was interesting to see where so many of the cliches originated. Glad you had fun with it!

  2. I hadn't heard of this book before but it's sounds fun. It seems almost like it could be a spoof of gothic novels. I'm so curious how one gets crushed by a giant helmet ... and just why there was a giant helmet to begin with. I am really going to have to read this one, thanks for the great review :)

  3. it sounds interesting, I love the classics. the style of writing always draws me in.

  4. Oh my, every day I learn even more just how vast my ignorance is...I've never heard of this before! But I have to say, it certainly does sound fun, whether that was the intention or not. And like Book Zombie, I was immediately intrigued with the idea of death by a giant helmet. :)

  5. Somehow I never read this in school even though I've always wanted to. You made it sound like it's good fun!

  6. It's all got to begin somewhere, right?! lol I can't imagine being the person to begin something that would become so famous though.

  7. I've never heard of this book but I'm glad you enjoyed it. It sure sounds like it has all the elements needed to make a good gothic novel.

  8. I read Castle of Otranto a few years back and really enjoyed it. It is indeed humorous in the grandiosity and dramatic flourishes of that time and at the same time it has the right kind of creepy vibe that comes from gothic fiction. I found it an enjoyable read and because of its brevity and its place in literary history it is a great introduction to the gothic period of literature.

  9. Oh-kaaaaaay... looks like another (fun) one to go into my wish list. Thanks for the review, Nymeth, and I am curious about the book.

  10. Sounds interesting - and might be a good one for next year's decades challenge, if there is one! ;-)

  11. Hmm, I had no idea that this was so short! I think my brain has decided that classics = thick and dense. I'll have to check this one out.

  12. Giant helmet? Har! I'd read that shiz, and I'd probably LOVE it.

  13. its so hard in some ways to read these books so many years after they've been written - when the genre has been so concretely established. also, we've changed so much as a civilization (that sounds a lot grander than what i was going for!) so its sometimes also hard to relate to the feelings and actions of the characters too...

    i'm experiencing a similar thing with "frankenstein". i find it quite hard to deal with old victor, who keeps on whining - which is probably partly shelley's aim, but its a bit of overkill for a modern reader.

    but otherwise i'm enjoying it a lot! similarly for the atmosphere and for how sophisticated it is as a novel - and not just a scary story.

    its good to hear that the atmosphere in "otranto" is still cool, 'cause then we can still get a lot out of it as modern readers!

  14. Oh I'm so jealous that you read this one. Great review! I love the "crushed by a helmet" thing...what??!?!

    This book is actually kind of hard to find. I've been trying not to buy any books new but I'll see what I can find.

  15. I don't think I've ever even heard of this one! I looked it up and there is a short foreign film based on it though.

  16. Darla: lol, it really is hilarious.

    Book Zombie: There's an interesting story behind the giant helmet :P And yes, if something like this was written today it would just HAVE to be a parody! I hope you enjoy this book :)

    Naida: I've been enjoying the classics more and more these days. It's always great to discover a fun one.

    Debi: I hadn't heard of it either until not too long ago. There are other giant bits and pieces in the book, it it all has to do with a prophecy, and more I cannot say :P

    Valentina, it really is!

    Deslily: It is pretty amazing, isn't it?

    Dar: Yes, it does...almost too many of those elements :P But it was the first, so I just couldn't bring myself to judge it harshly.

    Carl: Yes, despite being so dramatic it becomes funny, it managed to remain creepy and atmospheric. I had a lot of fun reading it!

    Alice: I hope you enjoy it! I really had a lot of fun with it.

    Joanna: Yes, definitely a goof one for that!

    Fyrefly: This was a very pleasant exception to that rule!

    raych: lol, I hope you do. Like Darla said, it really is a hilarious book

    JP: Yes, absolutely. I loved Frankenstein, but there are bits where Victor's pompous dramatic tone is hard to take. That's one of the reasons why I actually preferred the creature to him :P At least he had a good reason to be miserable! But The Castle of Otranto manages to be even more over the top...definitely an overkill by modern standards, but that was part of the fun.

    Amanda: lol, "What?!?!?!" was pretty much my reaction. And it gets better :P I hope you manage to find it, but if not, there's always the e-book.

    Ladytink: oooh, I'll have to look up that movie!

  17. How interesting! I've heard of the book and I can imagine how it would translate to being so over the top given that it was written so long ago. I'd still like to read it but I think it's going to be one of those that I have to be in just the right mood for it.

  18. Is this the book that had Catherine all hot and bothered in Northanger Abbey? I seem to remember the name of that book mentioned in Austen.

  19. I am a huge X-files fan so I read the book PopLit, PopCult and the X-files by Jan Delasara and she mentions The Castle of Otranto many times.

  20. I'm not sure when I'll get to it but this is on my list. Sounds like it'll be fun to see how the gothic genre began. (Much like I was glad to finally read Dracula last year so now I can understand the references that are frequently made to the story.) Plus I'm now very intrigued by the death by helmet! :P

  21. Iliana: Yes, I agree. I think RIP helped put me in the right mood for it.

    Chris: I can't say because I haven't read Northanger Abbey yet, but I plan to in the next week or so, and I'll pay extra attention to that!

    lenore: I'm an x-files fan too. I must look into that book!

    tanabata: It really was lots of fun. And lol, death by helmet is generating a lot of interest, I see :P

  22. I haven't read quite as much gothic lit as I would like to but I took a class on 19th century Sensationalism lit (Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, some Dickens, Anthony Trollope). And while it was also really predictable to a modern reader they are just so much fun. I have some Ann Radcliffe on my shelf that I'd eventually like to read--have you read her?

  23. I love the sound of that class! Books of that kind really are a lot of fun. I haven't read any Ann Radcliff yet (nor any Wilkie Collins...I know, I know!), but eventually I will!


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