Book Review: “The Castle of Otranto” (1764), Horace Walpole



Often credited as the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto has all the ingredients you’d expect: mistaken identities, ghosts, incest, women running through dark hallways in a billowing nightgown… And it is (unintentionally?) hilarious. In the opening paragraphs, the prince of Otranto is dashed to pieces when a gigantic helmet falls from the sky and crushes him to death. Of course!

Sadly, the hilarity wears off after a while and you’re left with a book that may have spawned an entire genre, but doesn’t have much more to offer than that. Walpole said that he used Shakespeare as his model for this and it shows: there are traces of Macbeth and Hamlet all over the text. However, Otranto is nowhere near as complex, emotional, or well-written. Walpole all but shoves his symbols in your face and then underlines them three more times with a bright red pen for good measure.

I will give him some credit though: Walpole initially managed to fool people into thinking that this was a translation of a recently resurfaced ancient manuscript. He even wrote an introduction, pretending to be Otranto‘s translator and praising his own work for its excellent writing!

If you’re interested in the humble beginnings of the gothic novel, this is a must-read and a quick one at that (my edition has 119 pages). You can play Bingo with all the familiar genre tropes and giggle at the absurdity of certain plot twists. If this doesn’t like a fun night in to you, feel free to skip it.

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One thought on “Book Review: “The Castle of Otranto” (1764), Horace Walpole

  • December 8, 2014 at 10:38 am

    I read this book not long after you reviewed it and i’ve had your review bookmarked so i could read it afterwards, just to avoid it peppering my opinion as i’ve found i tend to do that! But i love your review and think it was very accurate in describing the fairly adequate writing, but occasionally hilariously absurd events! What a great opening plot twist.


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