Good Gargoyle, It’s Gothic!

The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1765) is one of the first recognized English Gothic novels.

As an author, I get goose pimples just thinking about being the writer who started a genre, hooking its conventions like claws into a National readership.

That’s what Horace Walpole did with his novel, Otranto. Readers of the time were thrilled by the suspense and became enthralled with what we now consider the Gothic genre conventions:

  • a remote setting
  • the supernatural
  • medieval trappings
  • a villain Manfred

According to Project Gutenberg, “Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses”.

Now even though Otranto is recognized as one of the first Gothics, it doesn’t have a very good review in terms of the writing. It’s kind of like Freud, still recognized, but not taken seriously. Why?

According to Gothic studies at Brooklyn College, “the characters are insipid; the action moves at such a fast clip that the novel lacks emphasis and suspense, despite the supernatural manifestations and a young maiden’s terrified flight through dark vaults”.

Modern readers might consider Walpole’s book to be poorly written, but it was so popular at the time a genre was born. Even the genre’s name was taken from Walpole’s title: The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story.

So which classic Gothic fiction would still be worth reading? According to the Brooklyn College’s Gothic studies:

    The first great practitioner of the Gothic novel, as well the most popular and best paid novelist of the eighteenth century England, was Ann Radcliffe. She added suspense, painted evocative landscapes and moods or atmosphere, portrayed increasingly complex, fascinatingly-horrifying, evil villains, and focused on the heroine and her struggle with him.

Goodreads offers lists of classic Gothic books as well as reviews on each. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is highly recommended. At Project Gutenberg you can get many of these classic Gothic novels for free and open them directly in your Kindle. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Ward Radcliffe is available. The Open Library is another place to get free classics that are in the public domain.

Now all that said, I personally was curious about this very “first” Gothic by Walpole and downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg. Below is the “vault scene”, which I quite enjoyed reading. The portrait’s deep sigh, the subterranean passages, the curdling blood all create a sense of foreboding in me, the reader, and I feel this text may have been short-changed in the Brooklyn College quote above. Read on… if you dare.


At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh, and heaved its breast.

Isabella, whose back was turned to the picture, saw not the motion, nor knew whence the sound came, but started, and said-

“Hark, my Lord!  What sound was that?” and at the same time made towards the door.

Manfred, distracted between the flight of Isabella, who had now reached the stairs, and yet unable to keep his eyes from the picture, which began to move, had, however, advanced some steps after her, still looking backwards on the portrait, when he saw it quit its panel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air.

“Do I dream?” cried Manfred, returning; “or are the devils themselves in league against me?  Speak, internal spectre!  Or, if thou art my grandsire, why dost thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for—”  Ere he could finish the sentence, the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him.

“Lead on!” cried Manfred; “I will follow thee to the gulf of perdition.”

The spectre marched sedately, but dejected, to the end of the gallery, and turned into a chamber on the right hand.  Manfred accompanied him at a little distance, full of anxiety and horror, but resolved.  As he would have entered the chamber, the door was clapped to with violence by an invisible hand.  The Prince, collecting courage from this delay, would have forcibly burst open the door with his foot, but found that it resisted his utmost efforts.

“Since Hell will not satisfy my curiosity,” said Manfred, “I will use the human means in my power for preserving my race; Isabella shall not escape me.”

The lady, whose resolution had given way to terror the moment she had quitted Manfred, continued her flight to the bottom of the principal staircase.  There she stopped, not knowing whither to direct her steps, nor how to escape from the impetuosity of the Prince.  The gates of the castle, she knew, were locked, and guards placed in the court.  Should she, as her heart prompted her, go and prepare Hippolita for the cruel destiny that awaited her, she did not doubt but Manfred would seek her there, and that his violence would incite him to double the injury he meditated, without leaving room for them to avoid the impetuosity of his passions.  Delay might give him time to reflect on the horrid measures he had conceived, or produce some circumstance in her favour, if she could—for that night, at least—avoid his odious purpose.  Yet where conceal herself?  How avoid the pursuit he would infallibly make throughout the castle?

As these thoughts passed rapidly through her mind, she recollected a subterraneous passage which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of St. Nicholas.  Could she reach the altar before she was overtaken, she knew even Manfred’s violence would not dare to profane the sacredness of the place; and she determined, if no other means of deliverance offered, to shut herself up for ever among the holy virgins whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral.  In this resolution, she seized a lamp that burned at the foot of the staircase, and hurried towards the secret passage.

The lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloisters; and it was not easy for one under so much anxiety to find the door that opened into the cavern.  An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions, except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the doors she had passed, and which, grating on the rusty hinges, were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness.  Every murmur struck her with new terror; yet more she dreaded to hear the wrathful voice of Manfred urging his domestics to pursue her.

She trod as softly as impatience would give her leave, yet frequently stopped and listened to hear if she was followed.  In one of those moments she thought she heard a sigh.  She shuddered, and recoiled a few paces.  In a moment she thought she heard the step of some person.  Her blood curdled; she concluded it was Manfred.  Every suggestion that horror could inspire rushed into her mind.  She condemned her rash flight, which had thus exposed her to his rage in a place where her cries were not likely to draw anybody to her assistance.  Yet the sound seemed not to come from behind.  If Manfred knew where she was, he must have followed her.  She was still in one of the cloisters, and the steps she had heard were too distinct to proceed from the way she had come.  Cheered with this reflection, and hoping to find a friend in whoever was not the Prince, she was going to advance, when a door that stood ajar, at some distance to the left, was opened gently: but ere her lamp, which she held up, could discover who opened it, the person retreated precipitately on seeing the light.

Isabella, whom every incident was sufficient to dismay, hesitated whether she should proceed.  Her dread of Manfred soon outweighed every other terror.  The very circumstance of the person avoiding her gave her a sort of courage.  It could only be, she thought, some domestic belonging to the castle.  Her gentleness had never raised her an enemy, and conscious innocence made her hope that, unless sent by the Prince’s order to seek her, his servants would rather assist than prevent her flight.  Fortifying herself with these reflections, and believing by what she could observe that she was near the mouth of the subterraneous cavern, she approached the door that had been opened; but a sudden gust of wind that met her at the door extinguished her lamp, and left her in total darkness.

Words cannot paint the horror of the Princess’s situation.  Alone in so dismal a place, her mind imprinted with all the terrible events of the day, hopeless of escaping, expecting every moment the arrival of Manfred, and far from tranquil on knowing she was within reach of somebody, she knew not whom, who for some cause seemed concealed thereabouts; all these thoughts crowded on her distracted mind, and she was ready to sink under her apprehensions.  She addressed herself to every saint in heaven, and inwardly implored their assistance.  For a considerable time she remained in an agony of despair.

At last, as softly as was possible, she felt for the door, and having found it, entered trembling into the vault from whence she had heard the sigh and steps.  It gave her a kind of momentary joy to perceive an imperfect ray of clouded moonshine gleam from the roof of the vault, which seemed to be fallen in, and from whence hung a fragment of earth or building, she could not distinguish which, that appeared to have been crushed inwards.  She advanced eagerly towards this chasm, when she discerned a human form standing close against the wall.

She shrieked, believing it the ghost of her betrothed Conrad.  The figure, advancing, said, in a submissive voice—

“Be not alarmed, Lady; I will not injure you.”

Isabella, a little encouraged by the words and tone of voice of the stranger, and recollecting that this must be the person who had opened the door, recovered her spirits enough to reply—

“Sir, whoever you are, take pity on a wretched Princess, standing on the brink of destruction.  Assist me to escape from this fatal castle, or in a few moments I may be made miserable for ever.”

“Alas!” said the stranger, “what can I do to assist you?  I will die in your defence; but I am unacquainted with the castle, and want—”

“Oh!” said Isabella, hastily interrupting him; “help me but to find a trap-door that must be hereabout, and it is the greatest service you can do me, for I have not a minute to lose.”

Saying a these words, she felt about on the pavement, and directed the stranger to search likewise, for a smooth piece of brass enclosed in one of the stones.

“That,” said she, “is the lock, which opens with a spring, of which I know the secret.  If we can find that, I may escape—if not, alas! courteous stranger, I fear I shall have involved you in my misfortunes: Manfred will suspect you for the accomplice of my flight, and you will fall a victim to his resentment.”

“I value not my life,” said the stranger, “and it will be some comfort to lose it in trying to deliver you from his tyranny.”

“Generous youth,” said Isabella, “how shall I ever requite—”


The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole,
Edited by Henry Morley


For an excerpt of The Fergus She, this author’s Gothic novel manuscript, go to!read-my-writing/c1b4g


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