Sunday, November 02, 2014

19. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I follow some people on my Google+ feed who are big fans of gothic literature and it is from them that I learned of the Castle of Otranto, which is considered the first gothic fiction.  It turns out meezly had a nice paperback copy of it in her bookshelf (which is a growing source of potential good reads for me). 

This is a weird book.  It is far from gothic in tone.  It's actually quite absurd and funny.  Just to give you an idea, at the very beginning of the book, the sickly son of the Prince of Otranto, who is going to be strategically married to a neighbouring Duke's daughter, is killed by a giant plumed helmet that falls out of the sky.  What follows is a story of political and courtly intrigue as seen from the perspective of several characters. The Prince is the principal figure (to call him a protagonist does not capture what a maniacal asshole he is) and once his son is dead, he becomes obsessed with marrying Princess Isabelle (who was supposed to have become his daughter-in-law).  We also follow his wife and daughter, the priest (who shelters Isabelle) and a handsome, idealistic young foreigner.

The layout of the writing makes it difficult to read.  I don't know if it was this edition or that was the way it was orginally written, but there are paragraphs that last several pages, with back and forth dialogue and a lot of narrative all crammed in there.  Some of these passages, I suspect, are supposed to be quite humorous.  The dialogue involves one person repeatedly not getting to the point of what they said they were going to say while the other one keeps exhorting them to get to the point.  I found it tiring.  The action picks up in the second half and it ends up being somewhat enjoyable.

The gothicness of it is more in the themes and locations:  unknown birthrights, mysterious strangers, evil momarchs, the haunted castle, the catacombs underneath, a gloomy forest, etc.  I'm sure I am not doing justice to this book, as it is from the 18th century and has been studied extensively by scholars.  I'm glad I read it, though.

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