Goth-Cred and The Castle of Otranto

9 Jun

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Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto – 17th century imagery and the birth of the Novel.

There is an epiphany that quite clearly occurs in the historical development of the novel that the “Castle of Otranto” embodies. Not only does it herald a specific genre, the necessary stock figures and applicable theme-specific scenarios, it also introduces the reader to something far more exciting. Rather than a two dimensional didactic, or even the repetitious monotone of an epistolary – where one is forced to endure and experience at second hand, the episodic adventures of another’s life – it is instead, a catalyst for imagination.

               Otranto through imagery engenders pure escapism, allowing the reader on a subjective level to visualize and experience the imagination of its author. Walpole creates a first-person-shooter account that puts the reader in the fore-front of the action; a feast for the mind that interprets Walpole’s written word into a spectrum of colorful form. Although one could dwell on Walpole’s innovative choice of subject, plot development and characterization one would miss that which makes it such a seminal work. It is the development of atmosphere that metamorphoses this from a simple work of fiction into an entertaining cerebral experience. The reader is no longer just an end-user but rather an amenable participant, whose ability to dispense with reality makes for such an enduring and enjoyable experience.

                Walpole’s novel although published in 1764 is still available in print and being enjoyed by contemporary audiences. Instead of reading under sufferance the novel engenders one to turn the page, whilst willing the characters to succeed or fail. It’s the participation of readers themselves that transforms a printed page into a story, and the imagery and atmosphere within the pages that turns the printed characters into a memorable experience. There is a dimension to Otranto that goes beyond the printed word that is 4th dimensional, allowing one to submit to what Coleridge would have termed “the wiling suspension of disbelief,” but which Walpole more succinctly terms “…the air of the miraculous.” (p.6) Just as designer Brook Stevens put the art into everyday items such as steam-irons and Robert Mapplethorpe turned the advertising genre of commercial photography into high art, Walpole does the same with the novel. There is an immersion quality to his work that allows one to soak into his thought process and actually experience that which he’s trying to describe. It evokes Cinema- Scope realism that wasn’t apparent in Richardson’s writing and a believability that was glaringly absent from Defoe’s. Rather than watching the unfolding action, the reader is placed in a position alongside his characters. One doesn’t just read Walpole, one participates.

               The Castle of Otranto – although apparently fictitious – is an immured stone-edifice, filled with circular staircases, hidden grottos and studded oak doorways. It’s a, “between branchy…,” creeper clad, “…rook racked, and river rounded,” – to quote Manley-Hopkins – seat of incestuous aristocracy, filled with the ghosts and secrets of an ancient family. It’s the intensity of imagery that Walpole creates that makes his story so enduring. Although he teeters between comedy, horror, the ridiculous, and even a retelling of “Hamlet,” it’s his solid descriptive voice that makes the novel memorable. One is literally led through the castle as though the author is describing perhaps a place once visited, and to which he returns throughout: a castle created for the mind of the reader in which to contain his story. Although his characters are a tad underdeveloped, it’s the environs and the experience they have whilst in them, that brings the story to life. One can literally hear the slam of doors, the steps on descending stairwells and hear the wind rattle through the casements. One can sense the gloom and feel the damp oozing up through the walls as one creeps through the gloom to assist in the escape of Isabella or to catch a glimpse of the Giant. Walpole, through vivid description, takes us by the hand and leads us through the streets of his creation.

               The escape of Isabella from the unsolicited advances of Manfred is a keen example of this. Her flight to the bottom of the “principal staircase” in preference to the “guarded locked gates”, in an attempt to access  the “subterraneous passage” she recollects, that will afford escape from the vaults of the castle to the church of Saint Nicholas – that runs contiguous apparently –in order to gain sanctuary at its alter.(p.26) Seizing a lamp hung at the bottom of the stairs to light her way through the gloom – we imagine the crash of shoes on stone and the hiss of flame – as she hastens to the lower realms of the castle, “hollowed out into several intricate cloisters.”(p.26) Subjected to awful silences, door shaking blasts of wind  and grating rusty hinges, that can be heard throughout the subterranean gloom, we stand with Isabella, our breast heaving, as we attempt to ascertain the pursuit of the dreaded Manfred.(p.26)

               Although one must assume that Walpole doesn’t have experience with the spirit world, former Counts masquerading as priests, or even perhaps itinerant Giants, he does have a plan. In the lucid explication of the route taken by the fleeing Isabella he takes us to a location where he has undoubtedly visited. His memory of the castle and its environs lends credence to his tale, and complimented with his dynamic prose adheres to the old adage of writing what you know. Because of Walpole’s crafted narration “The Castle of Otranto,” although a fantastical tale, is made almost believable. His rich descriptions, vivid imagery and sense of timing, create what might be considered a modern novel. It was the development of the descriptive scenario coupled with ornamented language that undoubtedly turned the epistolary and picaresque novels of Walpole’s day, into the modern codices we now enjoy on our bookshelves.



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