The empiricism of thinkers like John Locke had come to dominant acceptance, and the belief was that the reproducible evidence of the senses was the only thing that could be upheld as truth. In this sort of atmosphere, seemingly spectral appearances were written off; the belief was that, if a spirit would not kindly consent to the demands of scientific rigour, then there was no reason to entertain their existence.
E.J. Clery, the author of several books on the rise of the Gothic school and the development of supernatural fiction, offers an explanation for the change in perspective in regards to the ghostly subject matter: “It is as though the urban relocation of the supernatural has effected a change in the very nature of superstition. The audience’s laughter seems to mark a transition, a displacement of the old opposition of belief and scepticism, truth and error. It celebrates the wresting of the invisible world from the sphere of religious doctrine, and its incongruous, hilarious embrace by the fashion system of the city. Freed from the service of doctrinal proof, the ghost was to be caught up in the machine of the economy; it was available to be processed, reproduced, packaged, marketed and distributed by the engines of cultural production. All spirits, whether spuriously real or genuinely fictional, will from this time be levelled to the status of spectacle…The town has added the supernatural to its list of commodities.” (Clery 17).
And the earliest Gothic writings were precisely that: simplistic, almost nostalgic fiction cashing in on the fad of the times, following along on the guilty pleasure people took in thinking themselves above the simpler superstitions of a more barbaric time now passed.
And the first real recognized instance of this type of opportunistic writing is ‘The Castle of Otranto’, a novella by Horace Walpole and not, as it was originally thought, a sixteenth-century work by an Italian named Onuphrio Muralto. The method of storytelling and the subject matter addressed was considered a risky venture by Walpole, and in order to hedge his bets he published the work under false pretences, purporting it to be a translation of a manuscript discovered in Naples, dating back to 1526. And, whether fortunately or unfortunately, this was a canny move on Walpole’s part; the public took great pleasure in the text, believing it to be a lost treasure of a time in which supernatural events such as the story describes were taken at face value.
The story itself became very popular, very widely read; in its February 1765 edition, the Monthly Review recommended the book, “promising ‘considerable entertainment’ to those who can ‘digest the absurdities of Gothic fiction, and bear with the machinery of ghosts and goblins […] for it is written with no common pen; the language is accurate and elegant, the characters are highly finished; and the disquisitions into human manners, passions, and pursuits, indicate the keenest penetration, the most perfect knowledge of mankind” (Monthly Review qtd in Clery).
High praise, certainly; modern scholars agree with the assessment of the novella as representative of the school of Gothic fiction, and further award it the dubious honour of being the first Gothic work, serving as the progenitor for a long line of supernatural tales.
But if this is the case, that the work is so well written and insightful, how can we square such praise with H.P. Lovecraft’s vicious assessment of ‘The Castle of Otranto’? Lovecraft, a progenitor in his own right of the style of “weird fiction,” (arguably the spiritual successor to the Gothic style) agrees with the claim that Walpole’s novella played an important role: “‘The Castle of Otranto’, a tale of the supernatural which, though thoroughly unconvincing and mediocre in itself, was destined to exert an almost unparalleled influence on the literature of the weird” (Lovecraft 14).
But the value of Lovecraft’s critique comes not from his assessment of the novella’s importance, but from his take on the story’s composition, its style: “The story — tedious, artificial, and melodramatic — is further impaired by a brisk and prosaic style whose urbane sprightliness nowhere permits the creation of a truly weird atmosphere. […] Such is the tale; flat, stilted, and altogether devoid of the true cosmic horror which makes weird literature” (Lovecraft 15-16).
In fact, as Clery goes on to mention, The Monthly Review, which was so quick to laud the fictitious ‘Onuphrio Muralto’, issued a retraction once Walpole stepped from the wings to claim credit for the work as a present-day supernatural tale: “While we considered ‘The Castle of Otranto’ a translation we could readily excuse its preposterous phenomena, and consider them as sacrifices to a gross and unenlightened age. But when, as in this edition, it is declared to be a modern performance, that indulgence we offered to the foibles of a supposed antiquity, we can by no means extend to the singularity of a false tale in a cultivated place of learning. It is, indeed, more than strange that an Author, of a refined and polished genius, should be an advocate for reestablishing the barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism!” (The Monthly Review qtd. in Clery).
But while The Monthly Review’s delayed reaction speaks more to a sense of embarrassment at being taken in — the tale was enjoyed, regardless of the deception — perhaps Lovecraft is biased, being overly critical of an eighteenth-century Gothic work for its failure to comply with his opinions on what constitutes horror and supernatural fiction; in other words, his twentieth-century, post-WWII conceptions.
Richard Davenport-Hines, a scholar of the Gothic school and author of the nearly-definitive Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, at least has something nice to say about Walpole’s work: “Horace Walpole’s pioneering Gothic novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is an extended camp joke; but it is shot through with ideas about power relationships which recall those developed in the altogether less frivolous works of Rousseau and Hegel” (Davenport-Hines 9).
And it is overly reductive and short-sighted to claim that Walpole wrote ‘The Castle of Otranto’ for no other reason than to turn a quick profit or pander to the sentiment of the time. Davenport-Hines compares Walpole to men like Rousseau, and with good reason; though he may not equal their talent Walpole certainly shared in their desperation, their belief that city life was draining away all the beauty, all the wonder, all the worthwhile-ness of the world.
The titular castle of the text was based on Walpole’s own retreat, a Gothic-style castle which he dubbed Strawberry Hill, acquired by Walpole in the 1740s and which served as his small consolation in a world that he judged to be going through what he called “an age of abortions” (Walpole qtd in Davenport-Hines).
Walpole could have filled several books with correspondence devoted solely to the task of describing his renovation of Strawberry Hill, and his almost childlike delight in doing so. He took a delight in these types of antiquities, which satisfied both his desire to be surrounded by substance and his desire to be morose.
Davenport-Hines provides this explanation of Walpole’s tastes: “He expressed what was serious in his life in terms of artifice, elegance and mocking laughter: a mode which in the twentieth-century became known as camp. ‘He liked Gothic architecture,’ declared Lytton Strachey, ‘not because he thought it beautiful, but because he found it queer’” (Davenport-Hines 131).
In many ways, the sudden popularity of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ can be said to be almost coincidental. Walpole was not indicative of his time; rather, he could only have presented in this time, when a childish fascination in things gone by served as an easy salve for the difficulties involved in the new urban sprawl.
Given that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is little more than a love letter written from Walpole to his house, that it became as popular as it did demonstrates that people felt the same lack that Walpole did. And hidden away within the story, perhaps in the sorts of hidden chambers and secret passages that would come to litter the genre, are hints of what was to come, important themes and questions which more directed, confident writers than Walpole would later elaborate upon.
The main character and lord of the castle, Manfred, is a man of terrible ambition and greed, desiring to possess land, prestige and position through any means necessary. His initial attempt, and the plan which opens the novel, is to wed his weak, effeminate son to the daughter of a powerful local lord. When his son is killed through unbelievable, supernatural happenings — crushed to death by the helmet of a statue standing in the castle itself — Manfred fears his chance is missed; that is, until he decides to put aside his loving and faithful wife and wed the heiress himself.
The events of the novella detail her flight from Manfred, finding a love of her own, as all swells to numerous clashes twixt good and evil, ultimately resulting in heroic sacrifices, tragic deaths and secrets aplenty revealed in the end.
All in all, a text which gives the impression of being crammed with all a writer’s favourite tricks and tropes, without any thought to the overall effect created by so many dramatic devices constrained in such a small space.
Manfred’s momentary hesitation, before finally violating the sanctity of a declaration of sanctuary within the castle’s chapel, will become equally commonplace. Both are repetitions on the theme of the careless, uncompromising violation of the sacred, both of which result in supernatural retribution for the violator.
The theme that emerges could not be better suited for the time in which it appeared: as people became more and more willing to transgress their old beliefs in the name of reason and empiricism over superstition, the thought of possible spectral backlash played on the doubt that still lurked in everyone’s minds, despite their collective shows of bravado.
Lovecraft makes mention of this as well: “There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our inmost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species” (Lovecraft 3).
There is a sense, already present in Walpole’s confused work, that there is something special, some je ne sait quoi in regards to the fear produced by spectral forces. Lord Manfred’s challenge of, “If beings from another world […] have power to impress my mind with awe, it is more than living man can do; nor could a stripling’s arm” (Walpole 101) is answered with a later encounter, at which the character of the Marquis remarks, “This is more than fancy […] her terror is too natural and too strongly impressed to be the work of imagination” (Walpole 124).
What draws the attention in the Marquis’ comment are the two qualifiers he uses to posit the presence of spectral forces which, even at this late point of the story, several characters persist in denying.
He claims that the fear is both “too natural” and “too strongly impressed” to be something that the character only thought she saw. He does not offer empirical data to support the hypothesis that the character has seen a spirit; he does not indicate the room turned crime scene and mark out points of entry. Rather, he examines the character’s emotional state, and finds that whatever affected her was too powerful, and too primaeval to have been caused merely by what the character observed.
There must be something more to experiencing a ghostly presence than the visual phenomenon.