16 October 2007

Gothic Book of the Year: The Castle Otranto

‘Tis the season of my favorite holiday. Halloween. All other holidays are complete rotters compared to it.

And also 'tis the season for that perennial question, "What gothic/horror/dark fantasy work geared specifically for this luscious day of ghoulish delights and costumed parties should I read this year?"

This years, I have decided to go way back… way, way, way back… to what literature scholars consider the first English language Gothic novel: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Oxford, first published in 1764.

And, I get to read it for free, through the magic of public domain and Project Gutenberg.

I don't exactly have high literary expectations for this work; by all reports, it's melodramatic and hammy as can be. But it did give birth to a great tradition of novel writing that continues to this day, and the Dark Lord knows I’ve made my own stab at Gothicism.

Walpole tried to hoodwink his original audience by pretending that his novel was actually a translation of an older Italian document. It wasn't until the second edition that he owned up to his authorship (and, strangely, the positive reviews suddenly turned negative) and added a new preface to explain. Writers today still use this device of framing their work as translations or lost manuscripts, but today they place their own names on the front cover and don't intend any deception, only the rationale for a particular “voice”" Edgar Rice Burroughs loved this tactic.

How did ol’ Horace frame his novel? Here's what he has to say:
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 [a typeface we usually think of today as "gothic"], in the year 1529. How much sooner it was written does not appear. The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that savours of barbarism. The style is the purest Italian.

If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the era of the first Crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards. There is no other circumstance in the work that can lead us to guess at the period in which the scene is laid: the names of the actors are evidently fictitious, and probably disguised on purpose: yet the Spanish names of the domestics seem to indicate that this work was not composed until the establishment of the Arragonian Kings in Naples had made Spanish appellations familiar in that country. The beauty of the diction, and the zeal of the author (moderated, however, by singular judgment) concur to make me think that the date of the composition was little antecedent to that of the impression.
“Or maybe it was written last year and I made this all up.” Anyway, nice set-up Horace.