Have you ever heard of Horace Walpole? He lived in eighteenth century England and was really obsessed with medieval things. He built a crazy house, called Strawberry Hill, that was a little like a Ren Fest if it had a permanent construction permit. And too much money.
He brought that love of old things to his few novels. He said, in his second introduction to The Castle of Otranto, that he wanted to blend together the realism of current literature with the interesting events of medieval romances. Romances weren’t liked too well by very serious people because they didn’t portray the world as it existed. Sound familiar? It’s a bad habit of the middle class hoity-toity to insist on realism in fiction. This is how we got Tom Jones. God may forgive them, but we cannot.
Walpole used that realism psychologically to show how people would realistically react to fantastic events. Sound familiar? Thus fantasy as we know it was born.
Of course… Walpole’s characters aren’t too realistic. They’re either hysterical all the time or just too angry or noble or bored or – honestly, female, that’s a trait for Walpole – to react to anything.
So our cast is Conrad, Manfred, Hippolita, Matilda, Isabella, and Theodore. There are also some goofy rustics that serve as a little comedy here and there. The novel starts with Conrad about to get married. Then a giant helmet falls from the sky and crushes him. No explanation, no anything. That just happens.
His father, Manfred, proceeds to freak the fuck out. Isabella is left waiting at the altar – she was about to marry Conrad, who is now dead, under a helmet – whose plume, throughout the novel, becomes a weird phallic symbol. It waves around in the air whenever Manfred broods about things.
Hippolita is Manfred’s wife and Conrad’s mother. Matilda is Manfred’s daughter. Don’t get Matilda and Isabella confused – it’s easy to do, so watch out.
Manfred’s the main character, actually. His perfectly rational and not at all batshit crazy idea is, now that his son can’t marry Isabella, he will! He needs to carry on his family line in some way, and Matilda just doesn’t have a penis, damn it. The book treats this like incest. I guess I get why it’s like incest, but whatever. Theodore shows up, won’t explain himself, gets imprisoned in the helmet by Manfred, escapes, falls in love with Isabella, and gets imprisoned in a regular room.
Meanwhile, this won’t have anything at all to do with the plot, but just in case you’re curious, Manfred’s family usurped Otranto and its surrounding land from another family. There’s a curse that says when the castle’s too small to hold its occupant, it’ll tumble around Manfred’s sneaky ears. Oh, also, Theodore looks just like a painting of the last rightful owner of the castle. This means nothing, look over here instead.
Manfred starts chasing Isabella around the castle. She’s in her underwear. Don’t get too excited – between the fact that this book was written in the 18th century and the fact that it’s set in the medieval period, her underwear is less revealing than you think. Manfred tells Hippolita they should get divorced, and she agrees, because, uh, she’s a woman, I guess, she does what he says. Seriously, that’s about all we get.
Isabella’s father shows up with an enormous sword – to match the enormous helmet. A gauntleted hand starts pushing its way out of rooms and grabbing at the servants.
There’s a lot of chasing people in various levels of dress; there’s a lot of moaning and whining; and there’s a lot of wanting to have sex. I won’t spoil the ending, though a lot of it’s pretty predictable. It’s interesting, though, so if you choose to read it you should have the ending to look forward to.
Why you should read it: it’s important historically. It’s the first Gothic novel. That makes it the first fantasy novel, at least according to some people. So if you want to know about the history of this genre we love, there you go. It’s also kinda hilarious. If you like watching bad movies that are still somehow good, like the old House on Haunted Hill, or, for that matter, anything with Vincent Price, you can read this book and have fun.
What makes this a fantasy novel? It’s a fair question, it doesn’t read like one in a lot of ways. Aside from the historical argument we already talked about, here are a few reasons.
Crazy ghosts and vengeance plots. Everyone loves a good vengeful ghost, right? It’s the reason you like Hamlet. C’mon, you know I’m right. The ghost sells it.
Crazy, giant, maybe phallic symbols waving around and threatening to put out someone’s eye. Plumes, swords, giant swords, thrusting hands, this book has it all.
A feeling of reality slowly slipping away from us. Contemporary fantasy may or may not do this, but you probably recognize it from horror stories – everything appears normal, and then slowly things get weirder and weirder. There’s no slowly for Otranto – page one, giant helmet. But honestly, it gets weirder than that. By the end doubles are confusing other doubles for one another, priests are smuggling women out of catacombs, and at the center of it all is this one man, so crazy and driven that it’s almost as though he’s warping the world around him. If you add his heritage to his own actions, that’s pretty much what is happening here.
Why you might not want to read it: it’s an eighteenth century novel. Dude, have you read one of those? The prose is terrible. Page one, about the wedding:
Manfred’s impatience for this ceremonial was remarked by his family and neighbours. The former, indeed, apprehending the severity of their Prince’s disposition, did not dare to utter their surmises on this precipitation. Hippolita, his wife, an amiable lady, did sometimes venture to represent the danger of marrying their only son so early, considering his great youth, and greater infirmities; but she never received any other answer than reflections on her own sterility, who had given him but one heir. His tenants and subjects were less cautious in their discourses. They attributed this hasty wedding to the Prince’s dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy, which was said to have pronounced that the castle and lordship of Otranto “should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.” It was difficult to make any sense of this prophecy; and still less easy to conceive what it had to do with the marriage in question. Yet these mysteries, or contradictions, did not make the populace adhere the less to their opinion.
I’m being up front with you here. It’s rough. So if you’re not used to dealing with terrible old prose, or you don’t want to learn to deal with it, don’t worry about this one. Sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes… no.