The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole is a delightful read. The novel is filled with mystery, damsels in distress, supernatural happenings, and murder, which for its time, I’m sure, shocked the socks of its readers. The book supposedly inspired the likes of Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Upon its original release, Walpole pretended the piece was actually a manuscript printed in Italy during the Renaissance and rediscovered more recently in England. With the popularity of the book, however, the author decided he wanted some credit and wrote a new introduction in 1765. He admitted he was the author, using the excuse that he wasn’t sure how the book would be received, and didn’t want to be embarrassed if the book was a failure.

The short novel is set in the time of the crusades, and opens with the preparation for the wedding of the son of Prince Manfred. The son is killed quite suddenly just as the festivities are about to proceed by a giant helmet, which apparently has fallen from the sky.

Manfred is determined to have his tyrannical reign continue, and decides that he will wed his son’s fiancée, Isabella, despite being married. He must produce more male heirs (he has a daughter which he treats like trash, but she will not say a word against him)!

Isabella barely escapes to the local monastery, and soon strange things start to happen in the castle. Servants start to see apparitions and giant body parts, secret passages are discovered, long lost sons are found, and a knight thought dead returns to reclaim his inheritance.

Will Isabella marry Manfred? What will happen to Manfred’s neglected wife and daughter? Who is this mysterious knight? And why does giant armor start appearing everywhere?

You’ll have to read The Castle of Otranto to find out. It is available for checkout at the VC/UHV Library.

Review by Rebecca Holm.


Considered the first Gothic novel (1764), The Castle of Otranto that influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, and Brian Stoker’s Dracula, as well as Jane Austin’s Northanger Abby. The Gothic novel is literature of nightmares using myth, folklore, fairy tale and romance. It conjures up macabre beings such as ghosts, mad minks, vampires and demons usually in dark castles or stormy seas. Dreams fuel the stories.

The Castle of Otranto is filled with stock Gothic characters each verbalizing the story with apt descriptions of the curse, ghosts, some eerie moments and plausible plot twists.
Baron Manford of Otranto is obsessed with having a male heir to fight off the Otranto curse. When his only son is killed, he desires Isabella to give him a son since his wife Hippolyta seem unable to bare more children. Isabella loathes Manfred and struggles to escape the castle . She gets help from a new servant, Theodore. The monk, Father Jerome and the Mysterious Knight complicate Manfred’s plans. Manfred’s daughter Matilda aids Theodore, who has garnered Manfred’s wrath. Both Isabellaa and Matilda have fallen in love with the debonair Theodore–who is more than merely a servant. The plot becomes complicated and the action includes two murders and a couple of sword fights. Hidden chambers, a bleeding mausoleum , falling statues, ghostly visitations, and vocal pronouncements fuel this complex play.

Manfred is a flawed villain with some humanity and some humor while Theodore as an Errol Flynn type romantic hero. The Otranto Castle plays more as Gothic adventure romance than a pure horror work. It does have a macabre tone but the romanticism dominates. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you enjoy seeing a Gothic novel come to life as I do, then The Castle of Otranto will thoroughly entertain you.

Tom Williams

This review was also posted on


A fantastic, provocative and playful tale of medieval dynastic and sexual politics, The Castle of Otranto is regarded as the first ever published gothic novel and has inspired authors from Edgar Allan Poe to J.K. Rowling. Abounding with unfulfilled prophecies, supernatural occurrences, adventure, suspense and destiny it follows the fortunes of the royal family of Sicily in the thirteenth century.

Prince Conrad is crushed to death on the day of his wedding to the beautiful Princess Isabella. Heirless – and terrified of an ancient prophecy that foretells the downfall of his dynasty – his father, King Manfred, divorces his wife and resolves to marry the princess himself.

Far from enamoured with her new fiancé, Isabella flees the royal castle and makes for the sanctuary of a nearby church with the help of the humble Theodore. When the pair is captured their respective fates seem inescapable; but at the moment of Theodore’s death, delivery comes from the most unexpected of places.

Ghosts, spectres, monsters, ghouls, bloody murders, evil spirits, devils small and large, and things that go bump in the night!

We all have an underlying need to be frightened at times! Not in the real way but by means of imagination. And what better way than to let the book to the trick!


The setting is early medieval Italy. We open at a wedding at the Castle Otranto; the young prince of the house–

–wait, I have to say something about names now. The young Italian prince is named Conrad. His sister is Matilda. His father is Manfred. Apparently there are a lot of Germans in medieval Italy. OK, back to our story–

Conrad is about to marry Isabella, a young ward of the family (how 18th century!). But as the groom walks to the chapel, he is suddenly squashed by a giant helmet that falls from the sky.

Yes, you read that correctly.

This giant helmet is a portent of doom upon the entire family. Manfred, the lord of Otranto, is cursed because of the sins of his ancestors. That’s OK with me, because Manfred is a horrible person. He didn’t think much of his son anyway, so he hatches a new plan; he’ll put his wife away and marry Isabella himself, in order to get more sons. Manfred’s lady is the virtuous Hippolita, and she is your Patient Griselda type. So is Matilda. If I was Hippolita, I’d go along with this plan just to get away from Manfred and live in peace, but that seems a bit hard on Isabella, who is the only one with any gumption around here.

Isabella runs away, aided by a nice young peasant who just happens to be around all the time. More gigantic knightly accessories show up. Lots of mayhem ensues, with suitable mistaken identities, swooning, shrieking, accidental stabbings, and secret princes. You’ll never guess who the secret prince is.

Walpole really was starting off a whole new kind of novel. In the 18th century, a literary battle of sorts was waged between the old-fashioned romances (long, rambly things–think Don Quixote, only not funny) and the new realistic novel. By 1764, realism had been in for quite some time, and romance was pretty dead. The idea of having a ghastly and horrid novel that was not one bit realistic went against all literary fashion, and while reviewers thought it was just awful, readers ate it up and asked for more.

Many Gothic novel conventions got their start right here in Otranto, so in a way it’s like reading Tolkien (or watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, heh). The elements are very familiar and you have to remember that this is the book that invented a lot of them. The story of Manfred’s downfall is presented as a true historical incident, the account of which was discovered hidden in an old house–and this actually fooled quite a few people, because of its novelty. The prevalence of priests (ideally harboring important secrets), and Italy, and crumbling castles with secret passages–all that sort of thing started with Walpole.

Walpole loved castles so much that he built one for himself–Strawberry Hill was an extravaganza production that inspired the setting for The Castle of Otranto. You can go visit it! It’s close to London and even closer to Heathrow Airport, and if you get a chance to see it, please report back here.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s