Christmas – a time for one to celebrate with loved ones and friends, to celebrate the warmth of the ‘Christmas Spirit’. For those who work in the field of Gothic studies, Christmas Day is a special occasion. December 25th, 2014 marks the 250th year that Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto has been in print. His ‘Gothic Story’, published under a pseudonym of ‘William Marshall’ on Christmas Day in 1764, would become one of the most influential novels of the eighteenth century. As the ‘father’ of Gothic literature, The Castle Of Otranto is in this regard noteworthy for bringing into fashion a literary mode that exists in some form even today.
Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill
Walpole, the son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was an antiquarian who had an obsession with artefacts and texts from the Middle Ages. At his behest, Walpole commissioned a Committee of Taste who worked on transforming his estate at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham into the likeness of a castle. The estate remains in the hands of a trust that keeps it maintained to this very day. In the warmer months, tours of the estate are made available for interested visitors.
Creating a Gothic Story
Made to look like a castle, Strawberry Hill was one of Walpole’s eccentric creations. But Walpole’s fascination for the Middle Ages extended into his literary interests as well. His ‘Gothic’, or medieval story was set in the Middle Ages, and has several recognisable archetypes of Gothic fiction: a tyrannical villain, damsels in distress, and a brooding, melancholic hero. Embracing ideas that came to him in a dream, Walpole’s novel is an important pre-Romantic text that celebrates the power of the literary imagination over literary realism and verisimilitude.
The Ghost of Christmas Past: From A Gothic Story to the Horror Film
The Castle of Otranto’s popularity elicited a string of imitators and others who drew on supernaturalism and terror as inspiration for their works. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s infamous text The Monk (1796) followed in the Gothic tradition. Lewis would have interactions with Mary Shelley in 1816, two years before the eventual publication of Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Post Modern Prometheus in 1818. Considered to be a pioneering work of Gothic science fiction, Shelley’s Frankenstein would take the Gothic novel away from its often medieval and early modern settings. Subsequently, the Brontes’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were both published in 1847. But of the Victorian Gothic novels published in the nineteenth century, it is perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case Of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) that are etched firmly in a twentieth century popular consciousness thanks to the representation of their eponymous characters in film and popular culture, particular in the Hammer Films adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula. The advent of cinema would be a fundamental game changer in the development of narratives of terror.
The Haunted House in the Twentieth Century
Just how different is Walpole’s haunted castle of Otranto from contemporary Gothic texts? Ridley Scott’s iconic Alien (1979) is in essence a haunted house narrative that takes place in space and in the future. The Overlook, the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining is a haunted hotel. In Gothic fiction, the idea of a castle as a structure used to shield and protect individuals is subverted. Castles become threatening spaces – Walpole’s novel features a female character fleeing from a tyrannical villain. This trope persists in slasher films such A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996). Despite changes in form, the DNA of contemporary Gothic texts and horror films have inherited the ‘spirit’ of Walpole’s novel in some way or another. Perhaps it is time for Hollywood to take up the challenge of adapting The Castle of Otranto for the big screen?
250 Years of Terror
On Christmas Day in 1764, when Horace Walpole published the first manuscript of The Castle of Otranto, he could hardly have guessed the impact that his novel would have on generations to come. Writing against a vein of Enlightenment rationalism, Walpole tapped into the essence of what makes us human – dreams and emotions – and delivered them in a tale of terror, a work that reverberates even till this day. We don’t even need to look to Walpole. Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas reminds us that, while Christmas is traditionally filled with warmth and happiness, grief and sorrow are at the heart of the human condition. Our fears are what make us who we are, and it is this acknowledgement of this aspect of our humanity that Walpole was trying to present way back in the eighteenth century. While what made Walpole’s text ‘Gothic’ – his medievalist inclinations – is markedly absent from contemporary Gothic texts, his ‘principle engine’ of terror exists, in many shapes and forms, in all forms of culture today.