Saturday, February 27, 2016

Book Review: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

You know how Monty Python's Flying Circus starts off?

Imagine that, but with a giant helmet. That's how this book begins.

The Castle of Otranto is THE original Gothic novel. You've got a creepy castle (set, appropriately, in Italy), a failing noble line, a family curse, and secret identities. You can see how this set the stage for Gothic horror for basically all time.

The book opens up on the wedding day of the young, sickly prince Conrad and princess Isabella, who has been separated from her family and placed under the guardianship of Manfred, Prince of Otranto. Unfortunately for Conrad, he gets squashed by a giant helmet when crossing the courtyard. Manfred tries to blame it on some poor peasant who happens by, and he is shoved underneath the helmet and placed under guard, to starve him to death.

Meanwhile, Manfred is concerned. There's a prophecy that the castle will pass from the current family when "the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it". With the loss of a male heir, Manfred decides that the best thing to do is tell Isabella he's divorcing his wife Hippolita so they can make babies. He struggles to understand Isabella's reluctance.

Isabella runs away and finds herself in the basement, where the peasant from before has somehow escaped from beneath the helmet and helps her find a tunnel to the nearby church. Manfred and his servants catch him, but before they can do anything about him, a couple other servants come running up to declare they had seen a giant foot upstairs. The peasant boy offers to check it out because everyone else are wimps.

The next day, Manfred's daughter Matilda is worrying over Isabella's disappearance, and tries to get information from the peasant boy, who is walking below her window. She is struck by his resemblance to the painting of the original owner, and while she can declare all she wants that she wants to become a nun and that she looks at the painting so much for religious reasons, she clearly has the hots for the boy.

Manfred, meanwhile, has summoned local priest Jerome, who is sheltering Isabella at the church. He seems almost ready to relent, but then they discover that the peasant boy is Jerome's son Theodore from when he was married years before. Manfred decides to use the boy to force Jerome to allow the noble couple to divorce so Manfred can marry Isabella. 

Suddenly, a wild battalion appears! It's the Marquis of Vicenza, Isabella's father, and also the closest kin to the previous owner of the castle. Manfred is even more freaked out and demands Jerome go fetch Isabella. After a silly confrontation in which Theodore finds Isabella and tries to save her, and the Marquis finds Isabella and tries to save her, they all sit down to an uneasy dinner, where the Marquis decides he has the hots for Matilda, Matilda and Isabella know they both have the hots for Theodore, and each thinks Theodore has the hots for the other.

Manfred assumes that Isabella and Theodore are an item, and tries to find out if they're meeting at the local church. He stabs the girl, who turns out to be Matilda. Alfonso appears as a really giant ghost, which makes the sad moment very silly. Then Theodore has nothing to do but marry Isabella instead, because she's the only one that could understand his pain. I imagine afterward they chose to wear only black, and obtained black eyeliner, somehow.

It's rather cheesy and overwrought, as Gothic novels should be. You can see where a lot of the parody of Northanger Abbey came from too. It's a quick, fun read.

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