*WARNING: This blog is intended for a mature audience. Its contents may include adult situations, violence and sensitive issues that some people might find disturbing. Please read at your own discretion.

11 September 2014

Book Review #4: The Castle of Otranto, by H. Walpole

The Castle of Otranto has a little bit of everything: a doomed love triangle, a curse and prophecy, a crusader returned from the dead, a delusive tyrannical character, mistaken identities and a gigantic killer helmet... Yes, you read that right: a gigantic killer helmet!

If you have ever read a Gothic novel – say, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, or The Monk by Matthew Lewis – many of the above elements will already sound familiar to you, but what makes this story unique is having been the first one.

The storyline.-

The novel begins when Conrad – son of Otranto's master Prince Manfred and heir to his estate – is found dead in his chamber on the eve of his marriage to the beautiful Isabella. This is the shocking fashion in which his father encounters him:

"He [Manfred] 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 distraught father then goes on to make the worst decision he could have made: to divorce his wife and marry the girl who was meant to become his daughter in law, in the hope of producing another male heir for the household. But, will the chain of inexplicable events and the disclosure of an old feud prevent this unhappy match in the end?

The setting.-

As soon as we start reading we find ourselves immersed in medieval Naples, while under Aragonese rule, at some unspecified time during the Crusades.

The Castle itself is, as you might expect from the very title, the main location in which all action takes place. In fact, we never leave the castle's premises and surroundings throughout the whole novel. Otranto is described as having all sorts of secret passages and cloisters, but only sparsely; very much is left to the reader to imagine (or dread).

Supernatural elements are also scarce and only hinted at, which gives great strength to the eerie feeling permeating the tale.

The pros.-

It's a great read in terms of originality, and one that may be of interest to any Gothic fiction enthusiast. I applaud Walpole's attempt at merging together old and modern forms of literature, and creating something entirely new out of them. To use the author's own words, as he wrote them in the preface to the second edition,

"It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbabilty: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success."

The cons.-

This novel might not be the book for you if you're not into this type of fiction; it might have caused quite a stir when it was first published but, in my opinion, it hasn't aged well. The characters are flat and over the top, and the point Walpole was trying to make was completely lost on me.

Some details I found interesting.-

  • The "invention" of the Middle Ages. Or at least, the idealized version of the Middle Ages as it has been passed onto us by the Romantics. I couldn't shake off the feeling that I was being told about the 18th century more than I was about the 11th.
  • Both the terms terror and horror are used. The genre would evolve into two sub-genres later on, depending on which of the two feelings had a most prominent role in the plot, but here we find them blended.
  • Ann Radcliffe was born in 1764, the year in which The Castle of Otranto was first published. Very befitting!
  • Although this is not concerned with this book specifically, Walpole is credited with being the coiner of over 200 new words, among them serendipity.

Further reading.-



  1. Gothic, eerie... Can keening voices be heard outside the window at night? I'm not very fond of this kind of stories. They remind me of "Wurthering Heights" and, to be honest, are all very alike to me. Nevertheless, I'm sure there are many readers who absolutely love to be scared.
    Take care!

    1. Well, The Castle of Otranto is not so much interested in the supernatural elements themselves as it is in portraying the characters' feelings in the face of them. It has little to do with Wuthering Heights and its surreal, oppresive atmosphere. Still, this might not be the book for you.

      Take care you too! :-)

  2. He leído los tres que nombras, pero el de Otranto es el que menos recuerdo. De todas formas, el gótico de antes no es el mismo que el de ahora, disfruto más con el clásico.
    Un beso :)

    1. No me sorprende que sea el que menos recuerdas de los tres. Lo único destacable que le encuentro a la novela es haber sido la que estableció un poco las bases del género.

      Con respecto al gótico de antes/gótico de ahora, en mi caso depende: no es que sea muy aficionada a estas historias (y creo que han perdido fuerza con el tiempo), pero de vez en cuando me gusta leer alguna cosilla.

      Un beso para ti también :-).

  3. I haven´t read this work, but I like gothic novel, so probably in the future it will be one of my readings.

    1. If you're fond of this genre, you might like The Castle of Otranto. I'd love to know your opinion if you do read it.

      Kisses for you too :-).

  4. ¡Hola Marsar, un placer volver a visitarte después de tanto tiempo!
    Creo que nunca he leído novela gótica o no caigo ahora, pero me gustan los castillos y los pasadizos. Aunque ambientar una novela en espacio limitado tiene su aquél. Creo que puede llegar a cansar al lector, a menos que esté muy bien narrada y que el tema sea atrayente.
    Un beso

    1. ¡Hola, un placer también para mí que vuelvas a hacerme una visita!

      Bueno, pues si te gustan los castillos y pasadizos, puede ser que te guste este libro. De todas formas, no creo que esté muy bien narrado, y el tema..., bueno, impacta las diez o quince primeras páginas, después se hace un poco repetitivo. Te aconsejo más que leas Los Misterios de Udolfo que, aunque es quizá demasiado sentimental, tiene más "sustancia".

      Un beso para ti también :-).

  5. Me gusta lo gótico, más el clásico: la bruma, las velas, las escaleras empinadas y oscuras. Gracias a tu entrada, me animaré a recuperar antiguas lecturas. Abrazos.

    1. Ah, está muy bien que te haya animado a recuperar antiguas lecturas. Éste no es un libro tan impactante como otras obras posteriores del género, pero aún así es curioso de leer.

      Abrazos para ti también :-).

  6. No puedo afirmar que no haya leído nunca una novela gótica, pero tampoco puedo negarlo, lo que sí saco en claro es que, si lo hice, fue hace mucho, so I can turn cons into pros!
    Un beso grande y que se cumpla lo de los 1000, sí, 1000 seguidores.

    1. Bueno, pues si no has leído ninguna, esta novela puede ser tan buen comienzo como cualquier otra, así que espero que te animes :-).

      Muchas gracias por tus deseos :-D, pero... ¿¡mil seguidores!? No creo que llegue nunca a tantos.

  7. Very interesting to have found one of the authors who invented new words. As a writer I often wonder, why is that word the way it is, and how does it come to mean what it does? So to be the person who actually came up with a new word that was accepted into the English language seems impressive to me. LOL.

    1. Yes, it is impressive. Apparently, Walpole made quite a contribution to the English language with a few new words... And I've always found etymology to be a fascinating discipline.

      Thanks for your comment :-).