In an ongoing overview of the many different concepts of the word “gothic” we come to gothic horror fiction. This school of writing burst into popularity in 1764, with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpool and, since that time, gothic fiction has only tightened its grip on the public imagination. The influence of the style is immense. Scroll across a smattering of the prominent examples from the Wikipedia page to contemplate the debt we owe the eighteenth century authors who originated the gothic story. From the foremost figures of literature like Edgar Allen Poe, Victor Hugo, and William Faulkner to sensationalist hacks like Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, and William Faulkner, authors have slavishly returned to Walpool’s template.
The elements of Walpool’s work will be instantly familiar to anyone who reads for pleasure (or indeed has access to moving pictures or a television set). The characters are larger-than-life stereotypes who roam through gloomy castles filled with magical portents, apparitions, frightful medieval torture devices, and monsters (both human and inhuman).
As an early Halloween treat here is a ghastly and baffling passage from Walpool’s The Castle of Otranto. By quoting only from the first paragraphs of the first chapter, I have tied not to give anything away [if you want to read the entire book on your own, however, consider this a spoiler alert]. The main character of the book, Prince Manfred, an imperious and impatient nobleman has been interrupted on the day his weakling son Conrad is to wed the lovely Isabella. This interruption takes the form of an immense helmet which has mysteriously fallen from heaven and crushed Conrad to a pulp! The terrible event is made all the more ominous (if such a thing is possible) by a prophecy that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from Manfred’s line, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it. The passage begins as Manfred rushes outside to find out where his son is and why his servants are behaving strangely:
The first thing that struck Manfred’s eyes was a group of his servants endeavouring to raise something that appeared to him a mountain of sable plumes. He gazed without believing his sight.
“What are ye doing?” cried Manfred, wrathfully; “where is my son?”
A volley of voices replied, “Oh! my Lord! the Prince! the Prince! the helmet! the helmet!”
Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily, – but what a sight for a father’s eyes! – he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.
The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune had happened, and above all, the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the Prince’s speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it. He touched, he examined the fatal casque; nor could even the bleeding mangled remains of the young Prince divert the eyes of Manfred from the portent before him.
Walpool’s over-the top melodrama edges toward dreadful parody (a hallmark of gothic fiction ever since). Even the saturnine and glowering prince is overshadowed by random supernatural forces.
Horace Walpool drew his writing inspiration from his dilettante’s interest in antiquities and from gothic architecture, which he loved. He took particular inspiration from the picturesque ruins of the great abbeys of England (dissolved by Henry VIII) and from Westminster Abbey. In addition to inventing gothic fiction, he repopularized gothic architecture by building a new country house for himself on the outskirts of London which he named “Strawberry Hill”. The strange confabulation of turrets, towers, and hallways was instantly famous. It defined a style unto itself “rococo gothic” which left its indelible mark on the gothic revival craze which was to sweep Great Britain and the United States a generation later.