Tag Archives: Gothic

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto


Another rare foray into classics and it’s back to Gothic! I had heard of The Castle of Otranto around the time I was reading The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Ward Radcliffe. I had downloaded it to my Kobo and I was waiting for the inspiration to read it. Unlike The Mysteries of Udolpho, which took me 27 hours to read, this is a rather short read, at 3.4 hours. It is also a lot less scary. And I am not sure that the strangest mysteries get explained satisfactorily (How did the gigantic helmet kill the heir?) whereas in Udolpho, most mysteries had a very logical explanation and their apparent strangeness was magnified by fear and anxiety.

Horace Walpole wrote this book in 1765, when Ann Ward Radcliffe was only a baby. The Wikipedia article on the Gothic novel considers it the origin of the genre. The so-called preface to the first edition gives a fictitious origin to the manuscript:

The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529 How much sooner it was written does not appear.

So it starts with this aura of mystery, a story coming from the depths of the past. In the Castle of Otranto, Prince Manfred and Princess Hippolita have two children, Conrad and Matilda. Conrad is sickly but is getting married to the lovely Isabella who has been living in the castle with the family since an agreement was made with her guardian of a future marriage with the heir. Prince Manfred, who has been obsessed with having an heir to bear the family name goes a little nuts. He conceives a plan to divorce his wife and marry Isabella in the hopes that she can give him heirs. Isabella is horrified and fleas.

We later see that Mandred is accused of carrying the name of Prince of Otranto somewhat fraudulently and a true heir surfaces, a certain Theodore who is the spitting image of a former ruler of Otranto whose picture hand in the grand gallery of the castle.

Towards the end, after Manfred accidentally stabs his daughter Matilda, a spirit appears to resolve the situation:

Behold in Theodore the true heir of Alfonso! Said the vision: And having pronounced those words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards heaven, where the clouds parting asunder, the form of St. Nicholas was seen, and receiving Alfonso’s shade, there were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory.

After such a humbling moment, Manfred abdicates the principality of Otranto and he and his wife enter convents nearby. And of course, Matilda dies and even though she was Theodore’s true love, he eventually develops feelings for Isabella.

The story features some of the staples of such mysteries: strange noises, dark passageways, caves, intriguing visitors who don’t speak, priests with odd origins, lost relations who resurface, travellers stranded for years on islands, shrieking women, fainting women, submissive women await their fate to be decided by fathers or husbands, etc. Whereas Udolpho was quite dramatic, The Castle of Otranto has a strong comedic strain… the exaggerated affect of the characters quite nearly turns them into caricatures of themselves.




Joyce Carol Oates, The Accursed


In 1905-6 in Princeton, New Jersey, a series of strange events and people threaten to change the course of history. As Woodrow Wilson struggles to remain in control as president of Princeton University, a curse descends upon a prominent Princeton family, the Slades. That the family is targeted is not so clear in the beginning… and the event that triggered the curse is revealed only at the very end. Why others are victims of mad attacks remains unexplained.

In addition to an interesting portrait of what life could be imagined to be in early 20th century Princeton, Joyce Carol Oates also provokes some interesting encounters between well-known historical figures, such as Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London. She makes an interesting use of names of family members and acquaintances of Woodrow Wilson, but keeps twisting real life events to turn her story into a gothic extravaganza.

One character of particular interest is Mrs. Peck whom Woodrow Wilson encounters while vacationing in Bermuda to restore his health. He was staying in a hotel but got invited to move into her villa where other guests were in attendance, including Mark Twain. Wilson develops a close friendship with Mrs. Peck. In real life, Woodrow Wilson had an amorous relationship with a Mary Peck met under similar circumstances, and kept this relationship for more of his life. This may have been the matter of scandal, except the relationship was rumored to have remained platonic. In the Joyce Carol Oates novel, Mrs. Peck is called Cybella, and reveals herself to be a European noble, a countess, later married to a count and therefore twice a countess, but also an angel sent by God to protect him. She reveals this last piece of information about herself when she comes to meet him in Princeton and they are sitting down in a park to have a serious discussion. When he reflects on the situation and hesitates in his response to her, she disappears and he finds himself alone in the park.

This is just one example of a “spirit” or non-human being intervening in the story. Some seem to be more of the vampire type, but there were also ghosts. That is interesting… Gothic stories often include the intervention of other-worldly beings. But others often end with an explanation of how strange manifestations were really not the work of “spirits” (this is the case with The Mysteries of Udolpho).

The narrator of this book is an historian whose father commits one of the unexplained crazy actions in the book. He is often silent but sometimes quite vocal and visible as the historian who attempts to elucidate the origins and workings of the curse that affects the Slade family and others connected to it. He claims to use as his sources a variety of materials, many of them diaries and notebooks written by the main characters in his story. Some of these documents are more or less credible, often ignored by others or forgotten in archives for a long time. Or, in one particular case, written in code.

I have read quite a few books in recent years where the narrator is a historian, sociology or anthropologist writing based on historical documents or from original research to explain a situation and tell a story. Quite a popular device with authors, it seems.

All in all, Joyce Carol Oates’ book was quite an enjoyable read and I am certainly looking forward to reading more of her books. From my perusal of the web, I get that she is quite eclectic and that I can expect very different things from her other works.

By the way, the NY Times review of this book, by Stephen King, is wildly entertaining.


Links to information about Woodrow Wilson:




Links to reviews of The Accursed:




Ann Ward Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho


I was drawn to reading this book after reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey where the female characters are enthralled by it and compare it to other perfectly “horrid” books, other gothic novels that they are reading. Udolpho consists of four volumes that download as one book from the Gutenberg Project and they took me 27 hours to read. It took me a long time to read the first half but for the last half I could not put my Kobo down and read it all in the past week. It’s a wonder I did not miss my stop on the metro and only miss the bus stop at home once.

To the extent that the book is a true reflection of life at the time in which the story is set (late 16th century, two hundred years earlier than the time of publication), it shows an interesting picture of the lack of independence afforded to women as long as they had parents or family appointed as guardians. The book only shows the heroine, Emily, as an independent young women quite capable of taking her own decisions (in spite of a strong propensity to faint) once her guardians have died. She can then take possession of the properties that were already in her name and settle where she wants.

And the whole drama of the book starts from this very dependence. After her parents’ death, Emily becomes the ward of her aunt, Madame Cheron, a wealthy widow, if I remember well. The aunt then proceeds to make an ill-advised marriage to an Italian noble, Montoni, who soon insist that they return to his home in Venice. It turns out that he is a gambler who has lost of fortune and married Madame Cheron for her money. He also attempts to marry Emily to some associates of his in order to gain access to their riches. When some of his plans fall through, he removes his establishment to the remote castle of Udolpho in the Appenines. Emily’s vows then become more severe as she is a virtual prisoner at the castle and has to see her aunt die as a result of Montoni’s mistreatment of her.

After some additional difficulties, Emily manages to escape and find her way back to France where she hopes to reunite with the man she had vowed to marry, whom she had met while her father was still alive. At the time that they meet, she learns that he had fallen victim to a number of vices, one of them gambling, and she concludes that he is no longer worthy of associating with her. This was in part due to a series of misunderstanding. In the end, this misunderstanding is resolved, and many mysteries encountered along the way (ghostly apparitions, strange musical phenomena, disappearances, and uncanny resemblances) are  all logically explained and Emily marries the love of her life and settles in the old home where she grew up to live comfortably and happily.

The novel features many trips on land and water, through difficult mountainous terrain where travelers are constantly threaten by the dangers of the landscape and the possible presence of criminals. The descriptions of the majesty of various locations (the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Appenines) are very vivid and provide a perfect backdrop to the adventures of the many lovable characters that Radcliffe develops in this book.

The author also describes in minute details the emotions and physical reactions of the main characters as they work through the elation of young love, the disappointments of perceived betrayals, and the many fearful moments they encounter throughout the novel.

This book was indeed very entertaining and I would very much like to read other books by Ann Radcliffe, if I don’t get buried by a mountain of unread books that threaten to topple over me as I write this note.