Literary elements

In the preface of the second edition, Walpole creates a heuristic for reading Castle which irrevocably changes the way readers are to view the novel until its end. He claims to blend the new and old styles of romance. The “old” romance is what we would consider pre-novel prose – a main tenet of such writings is their fantastic nature. There is magic, the supernatural abounds and they are wholly unbelievable. The style of the “new” romance is what the novels of the 18th century, when Walpole was writing, would generally have looked like. These novels were realistic: they purported to depict events and people as they truly were.

Walpole then, by attempting to blend these two genres, creates something new – something truly “novel”. He creates fantastic situations (helmets falling from the sky, walking portraits, etc.) and places supposedly real people into these situations and allows them to act in a “real” manner. In doing so, he effectively allows fiction to evolve in ways that it would otherwise have not been able to. However, readers then may question to what extent did Walpole succeed in his attempt. Do readers view these characters’ reactions as truly realistic, or do they merely seem so because of the heuristic that we are given at the outset of the novel?

An additional note: Walpole, in Castle, introduces many set-pieces that the Gothic novel will become famous for. These includes mysterious sounds, doors opening independently of a person, and the fleeing of a beautiful heroine from a licentious male figure.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Language of Gothic in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764)

Gothic language in any form depends upon reactions to what in Gothic, critic Frank Botting called ‘the poetic and visionary power’ (p. 4) of the sublime to achieve its purpose; to terrorise and horrify. While some contemporary readers may find the excessive language and stock imagery in Horace Walpole’s early Gothic work The Castle of Otranto contrived, it is important to consider modern Gothic as a mode gilded by the moving image; it is arguably the same antiquated excess beneath the contemporary veneer. The language of Gothic then is essentially a visual language as Botting concurs, inspiring contemporary images and anticipating emotive and sensual reactions in order to develop and sustain atmosphere. The mutuality of language and imagery in defining Gothic atmosphere can be illustrated by close reading of an extended extract from the novel:

‘Theodore and the monks besought her earnestly to suffer … Manfred, plunged into the deepest affliction, followed in despair’ (p. 110).

The language in this extract exemplifies both the clarity of Gothic imagery and the excess of Gothic language as the reader is overwhelmed by religious connotations as Walpole’s words become brush-strokes illustrating a Gothicised Renaissance masterpiece. To create atmosphere, Walpole establishes character and setting by placing the dying Matilda, Theodore, Father Jerome, Manfred and the monks in the tomb of Alonso, a symbolic threshold between the convent and Manfred’s castle. Despite the movement inferred in the passage by ‘they carried her thither’, Walpole’s language does not inspire a moving image. Instead, the reader reacts to a scene which is moving emotionally.

It is a scene in which Matilda is central, surrounded by the others, but it is the language which subverts the scene into a Gothicised Passage of the Cross in which the Catholic Virgin is crucified upon a wooden litter amid the relics of the grave. Walpole only illuminates the scene enough to reveal grieving Theodore on one side, lifelessly ‘hanging’ over Matilda like a shroud ‘in an agony of despairing love’, and on the other side, the pious Father Jerome, his crucifix ‘bathed’ by Matilda’s ‘innocent tears’, comforts her with ‘discourses of heaven’.

The effect is to realize stock imagery with such clarity and compositional consideration, that literary ambiguity can interpreted visually, as shown by Walpole’s use of ‘the other side’. Here, ambiguity is not only a compositional aid for the reader imagining the scene, literally placing the priest on the other side of Matilda; it also dwells upon death and ‘the passage to immortality’, underlining the priest’s solemn purpose. But where there is symmetry within this distorted Gothic trinity, there is also conflict, at its most visible when Matilda rejects the convent, turning instead toward the castle and the unholy presence of her father.

What Walpole achieves in The Castle of Otranto is a subtle yet critical balance between conveying character and setting, and effecting emotion, sensation and atmosphere. It can be seen from the visual interpretation of the passage that Walpole presents scenes of such graphic detail, that the work of the great Gothic artists is visualized within the text. These bold impressions occur with such frequency, dictated by the pace of the narrative, that the reader is prevented from producing what Botting described as ‘a rational and properly cultivated response’ (p. 4). Before their respective contemporary audiences, both early Gothic literature and modern Gothic cinema demonstrate that exciting irrationalism is the key to rendering the power of the sublime into imagery which terrorizes and horrifies as Botting suggests. What sustains Walpole’s effectiveness in actualising these aims is the realisation that these clear visual elements already being present within the text, his work would not be diminished by contemporary revision in the form of the modern graphic novel.



Writers of Gothic tales and writers about them use many of the same terms, but they often assign different meanings and values to them. Or they may assign the same Gothic-ficiton-writers to different categories, e.g., the weird tale or the occult tale or the tale of terror . For instance, Glen St. John Barclay identifies Le Fanu, Stoker, and Lovecraft as masters of “occult fiction”; for Edward Wagenknect, LeFanu, Machen, and Blackwood are masters of “supernatural fiction”; and S.L. Vernado discusses Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft was writers of the “numinous tale.”

For these reasons, it is important to be aware of the meanings a word may have in general and to determine the specific way a writer is using it, as well as know exactly what you mean when you use the word. I have grouped words which have similar, overlapping, or associated meanings together, to highlight their similarities, differences, and connections.

Mysterium Tremendum, Numinous, Occult, Paranormal, Preternatural, and Supernatural
“mysterium tremendum”:

The numinous is the divine and the spiritual, or it may be the revelation or suggestion that a god is present; always, it inspires awe and reverence. This meaning was in use by 1647. The adjective derives from the noun numen, meaning deity, divinity; divine or presiding power or spirit.
Writers exploring occult and supernatural fiction frequently quote Rudolf Otto, who “defined numinous as the non-rational mystery behind religion, which is both awesome and fascinating. It is, he asserted, the permanent and essential feature of all religion, including Christianity” (S. W. Sykes).

The occult is what is kept secret or is told only to the initiated (this meaning appeared in writing in 1533). Later in the same century, it came to mean something not understood by the mind or not capable of being understood by the mind; it was, in other words, mysterious. The final meaning relevant to our course refers to ancient and medieval sciences or their modern equivalents, like magic, alchemy, astrology, and theosophy; these occult sciences used agencies of a secret and mysterious nature, for example, divination, incantation, magical formulas. Thus, the occult may mean magical or mystical. This last set of meanings was in use by 1633.

A modern word appearing in 1920, the paranormal functions according to natural laws which are not yet known and so cannot now be explained, but the paranormal, it is assumed, can be explained.

Since the sixteenth century, the word preternatural has described happenings or powers which, it is assumed, follow natural laws not yet known. With the eighteenth century, the word came to be used as a synonym for supernatural. The preternatural, though sometimes mistaken for the miraculous, is merely strange and inexplicable.

Of things in nature and art: Affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur.

The supernatural is, as its name literally indicates, above nature; it belongs to a higher level than nature and transcends nature; these meanings were current in 1526. So Calvin said, “Of nature is giltinesse, and sanctification is of supernaturall grace.” Later in the century, the word was extended to mean relating to, dealing with, or characterized by what is above nature.
Eerie, Uncanny, and Weird

From 1300 on, eerie meant fearful and timid; today, the word has narrowed to a specific kind of fear–a vague superstitious uneasiness. It is used as a synonym for weird and uncanny, as well as for gloomy and strange; the eerie arouses fear.

The usual meaning of uncanny is having a supernatural character or being mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. According to the OED, the first recorded use of this meaning occurred in 1843, and by 1850 it was common. The word may also mean mysterious, eerie, or ghostly. An uncanny person is not quite safe to trust to or be involved with, because of having some connection with supernatural arts or powers; this meaning appeared in 1773.
Freud offers his own definition and theory about the uncanny.

This word has a long lineage, its first recorded use being in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, where it means fate or destiny. A stock phrase using this meaning is “to dree one’s weird,” that is, to suffer one’s fate. A narrowing of this meaning, dating from 1300, is an evil fate which is inflicted by supernatural power, often in retribution. By the fifteenth century, the word also meant events which are fated or predestined to happen; by the eighteenth, a prophecy or prediction of someone’s fate. Not until 1814 is weird used to describe a story about the supernatural or the marvelous.
In the 1930s and 40s a magazine called Weird Tales catered to readers with a taste for the Gothic and published several of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary distinguishes among these three words:

Weird, eerie, uncanny mean mysteriously strange or fantastic. Weird, in stricter use, often implies an unearthly or preternatural mysteriousness; eerie, a vague consciousness that unearthly or mysterious and, often, malign powers or influences are at work; uncanny, in its prevailing but looser sense, unpleasant mysteriousness or strangeness, as of persons, places, sensations, thought, etc.




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