Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

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Title: The Castle of Otranto
Author: Horace Walpole
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Paperback: 208 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
On the day of his wedding, Conrad, heir to the house of Otranto, is killed in mysterious circumstances. Fearing the end of his dynasty, his father, Manfred, determines to marry Conrad's betrothed, Isabella, until a series of supernatural events stands in his way. . . . 
Set in the time of the crusades, The Castle of Otranto established the Gothic as a literary form in England. With its compelling blend of psychological realism and supernatural terror, guilty secrets and unlawful desires, it has influenced a literary tradition stretching from Ann Radcliffe and Bram Stoker to Daphne Du Maurier and Stephen King.

Overall: 3 out of 5

In The Castle of Otranto, Manfred is determined to keep his family in power, which means he needs an heir. When his engaged son dies by being crushed by a statue's helmet, Manfred resolves to marry his son's betrothed, Isabella, and produce heirs so that his family can live on. Understandably, Isabella doesn't want to marry the man who was going to be her father-in-law and leads Manfred on a merry chase throughout the castle and its surrounding area.

If you take this book seriously, I'm not sure how enjoyable it is. The supernatural elements are a bit out of sync with the plot itself -- they aren't integrated well into the whole story. The characters are more like caricatures, and the end is quickly tied up into a haphazard bow. I know that if I looked at it as a serious piece of fiction, I would have hated it. Luckily, I found it all a bit funny. Yes, it's an important novel since it's considered the first Gothic novel, and yes, it's a "classic" and deals with themes like family, power, gender stereotypes, etc. But that doesn't mean you have to take the plot seriously, and I certainly didn't.

It all started with Conrad being mysteriously crushed by a statue's helmet. Then, bits and pieces of the statue started appearing in the castle for no apparent reason. I just couldn't take it seriously. If you like the overly dramatic, bit of fun Gothic story, I think you'd really enjoy this. It has crazy twists and turns (you can definitely see a Shakespearean influence in this), and without including much character building, internal dialogue or much character self-reflection, the story moves along at a brisk pace. The writing may be a bit hard to understand (it is an eighteenth-century book, after all, and the editors have kept all the weird commas, lack of paragraph breaks, and misspellings), but if you read period lit, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. All in all, fun if you want to see what supposedly started the whole Gothic thing, but not something I'd want to enjoy a glass of wine and relax with.