Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review : The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (Penguin Classics 2010)

Few books can claim to be more influential. The Castle of Otranto is generally recognised as the first Gothic Novel, and as such its influence can be seen everywhere - in Gothic Novels themselves from Castle Rackrent to Dracula, in the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, in the Sensation Novels of the 1860's. Hammer Horror films of the 20th Century are direct descendants, as is the current fad for everything vampire-related. Even Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey and Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights demonstrate its all-pervasive influence.

Yet the book itself is almost unreadable.

On the day of his wedding to Isabella, Conrad the son of Manfred is dashed to pieces under a giant falling helmet which has appeared from nowhere. A peasant called Theodore observes that the helmet is like that on the statue of the former prince Alonso, for which Manfred imprisons Theodore under the helmet. Fortunately the point of the helmet digs a hole in the ground through which Theodore can escape into the subterranean passages under the Castle. Meanwhile Manfred tries to ensure his dynastic succession by announcing that he will divorce his saintly wife and marry the now-available Isabella, who is not enamoured of this prospect.

What would become in time the clich├ęs of the genre are met here first - the evil ruler who must have his way, the virtuous princess, the peasant who is really a prince, the prophesy of destruction of the family, thunder and lightning, inexplicable events...All fine in their place. Unfortunately, they are thrown together here in a completely indigestible mass. The falling helmet and the giant limbs are too silly for words. There is not a character who isn't a parody, who doesn't act in a predictable manner, there is no coherent plot but what is seemingly a stream-of-consciousness succession of incomprehensible events.

One must give credit to Horace Walpole for putting together such an original work in the first place - but one must also give him credit for knowing when to stop as this was the only book that he ever wrote.

1 comment:

Leon Akpalu said...

:-) Even the cover is almost unreadable!