The Castle of Otranto

Guess what, everyone? I'M BACK. Sorry for the long hiatus. On the plus side, I no longer feel like I'm going to die from acute schedule-itis, which is a disease known only to grad students that I just made up.

While I was away, I read The Castle of Otranto, a 1764 Gothic novel by Horace Walpole. In fact, it is largely seen as the very first Gothic novel, for reasons that will become clear pretty much immediately. This book was so strange (like, “in what universe would THAT be a logical progression of the plot???“) that I had to recap it. Read it for yourself here, if you want. It'll only take you a few hours.

THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO

The story opens with the rageful Prince of Otranto named Manfred (heh, Manfred), who has a weakling son named Conrad who will probably not live to see the next chapter. Manfred also has a beautiful virginal daughter, Matilda, who he doesn't like because she's a girrrrrrrl, and a wife named Hippolita who he also does not like because she failed in her wifely duty to have an heir and a spare.

Manfred is currently organizing a wedding to marry Conrad, he of the feeble bones and fragile lungs, to Isabella, the uber-smexy daughter of Manfred's rival, so the families can join and become a local superpower, blah blah. But Manfred is like, “Y'all, this wedding needs to happen NOW, because Conrad makes Little Lord Fauntleroy look butch by comparison, and we need to get some babies out of Isabella FAST, oh, and also, there is a prophecy that I don't really understand but have spent my entire life trying to evade.”

The prophecy “pronounced that the castle and lordship of Otranto 'should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.'” Dafuq does that mean? I don't know. Nobody knows. But it makes Manfred seriously edgy because he's got secrets in his past and is probably not the rightful owner of the title, so he's got baby-fever.

The wedding starts. The bride is at the altar, all the guests are there, there are blenders and flatwear wrapped up on the gift table . . . and there's no Conrad. You KNOW nothing good has happened, and when a servant runs in screaming incoherently about Conrad, you just know he's tripped over his own shoelaces and fallen and broken every bone in his body, or he's come down with a slight chill and is now on the verge of death, or maybe he's just spontaneously turned to ash, because he's that kind of character.

Well, let me tell you: whatever you think you know, you don't know. No amount of set-up by Walpole can brace you for this shit. I had to read this part about five times before I finally understood what happened.

Everyone in the church rushes out of the courtyard, where Conrad has been crushed to death by a giant helmet the size of a house that has spontaneously appeared, or fallen from the sky, or has been summoned by magic, or SOMETHING, because yeah, that's a normal thing to happen in a plot.

So they remove Conrad's corpse from underneath this gigantor piece of armor and prep him for burial. Then some random peasant says, “Hey, it looks like that helmet that's on the statue of that former prince who used to rule us, Alfonso the Good.” And Manfred responds with, “I WILL KILL YOU.” Everyone (including me) goes, “Whyyyy?” Apparently trying to figure out what the fuck just happened and where this helmet came from is equal to treason in Manfred's book. He's a diva like that.

Then someone comes in and says that the helmet from that statue of Alfonso the Good is missing. Manfred concludes that the peasant, Theodore, who just happened to notice the similarity between the two things is naturally a necromancer, so he imprisons him underneath the helmet (that Theodore theoretically conjured out of thin air? Great logic, Manfred) and says the Church will deal with him, Inquisition-style, because Church > necromancers.

Then Manfred goes to his room for a sulk, as you do when your only son has died and there might be a necromancer at your court.

His daughter, Matilda shows up and is like, “Daddy, shall I comfort you? I am a good and virtuous daughter who cares naught for herself, but only for others.”

And he's like, “Can you grow a penis and become my heir?

“. . . No.”

“Then go away.”

Manfred summons Isabella, his almost-daughter-in-law, to his bedchamber (sketccccchy) and they have the following conversation:

MANFRED: “My penis worship made me adore my son who really wasn't all that and a bag of potato chips. In fact, he kind of sucked. I have decided here and now that I am divorced from my wife–”

ISABELLA: “Don't you need some kind of paperwork or something–?”

MANFRED: “–and I will marry you–”

ISABELLA: “Uh . . . ”

MANFRED: “–and we will sire a race of super-manly man-kings! Come 'ere, baby!”

And Isabella goes marathoning all over the castle and Manfred is always right behind her, but then he falls a bit behind because apparently this is the same universe as Harry Potter: a portrait of Manfred's grandfather comes to life and distracts him. It doesn't really go anywhere, and I guess this is the most reasonable way Walpole could find to distance Isabella from Manfred. I mean, he could have just tripped on the carpet or something, but hey, whatever.

Meanwhile Isabella escapes through the creepy cellar where she somehow knows there is a secret passage to the chapel, and her dumbass logic thinks that if she can just get to the church, there is NO WAY this clearly deranged man will rape her there, because sanctuary and shit.

She runs into Theodore the peasant who has somehow escaped helmet jail (OMG, he IS a necromancer!) and he decides to protect her. Manfred is right on their tail, and Isabella manages to get through the secret trap door, but the door shuts behind her and the super powerful necromancer has not yet learned the magic of how to open doors, so he's locked out, and Manfred catches him and is like, “DAFUQ?”

So while Manfred interrogates the necromancer, the necromancer stalls as long as possible to make sure Isabella can escape. Turns out, he's not a necromancer. He managed to escape the helmet jail because the weight of the helmet (which is directly above them) caused the ceiling in the cellars to cave in, and it dumped his ass right here, in deus ex machina central.

Then two of Manfred's servants rush in and say, “We had to break off our search for the princess because some SERIOUSLY WEIRD SHIT is happening in the portrait gallery.”

And Manfred is like, “What kind of weird shit?”

And they say, “Well, remember that giant helmet that smashed your son into a million pieces today?”

“Yeah”.

Now there is a giant armored leg hopping around your gallery, like some giant knight coming to life, piece by piece. I think you might want to call a priest and exorcise that shit.”

My first thought was to wonder if you could get a discount on exorcisms if you have more than one ghostly body part hanging around your house, like maybe they offer some kind of 2-for-1 voucher, or if those two body parts are technically part of the same ghost, or if exorcisms in general cover any and all ghostly presences in your home. But I don't think they actually covered that in my 12 years of catechism class, so thanks for NOTHING, Catholicism.

Meanwhile, Matilda is in her room, talking to her serving maid, all like, “Huh. Been a hell of a day.”

And the maid is like, “I bet your dad is going to marry you off now because he needs grandbabies. Maybe he'll marry you to someone really hot, like that portrait of Prince Alfonso who used to own this castle who is in no way related to your family. I've seen how you give his portrait some lustful eyes. Now tell me, why does your mother force you to go down to his tomb and pray over him every day, even in miserable weather?

“I don't know, she said it was some kind of secret, but I'm one of those disgustingly virtuous and obedient heroines and it's not my place to ask my mother anything, and also, I can't spoil the tension of the novel.” Chekov's gun duly loaded.

Then the maid is like, “Oh, Okay. hey,  what's the noise?” and Matilda goes, “It's the the wind.”

“It's not the wind, it's a ghost! Who sleeps in the chamber below you?”

“No one. My brother's tutor used to sleep there, but then he drowned himself and no one has slept in his room since.”

“Yup, it's definitely his ghost.”

SERIOUSLY, they are going to get such a discount for getting their exorcisms in bulk! This place is like Costco for ghosts.

So they see Theodore, the young peasant who I thought was still in Manfred's captivity after being caught AGAIN in the cellars, but nope, I guess not. He's just walking around, and they speculate that because of his fine bearing, he must be of more noble birth than his clothing would imply. Hey, maybe he's even a “prince in disguise”. Guys, they've not just loaded Chekov's gun with this whole Prince Alfonso/prophecy thing, they're loading every fucking gun in Chekov's arsenal.

So Manfred is still raging somewhere and this priest comes in and is like, “I wanted to let you know that Isabella has taken sanctuary in the church and has told me why.” And Manfred is all, “BRING HER TO ME,” and the priest is like, “I don't think you understand what 'sanctuary' means.” And Manfred says, “Do it, I'm her father!” And the priest says, “No, you were ALMOST her father (in law) but God saw fit not to make that happen.” And Manfred goes, “I must have a son. The safety of my people depends upon it and my wife is too old, so please convince my wife to let me divorce her and please convince Isabella to come out of the church and be my brood mare.” And the priest goes, “Uhhh, no, you can't, because that would be incest, because you're her father!” And Manfred is too stupid to pick up on the priest's contradictions.

“Also, your wife is super virtuous and you are behaving like a Satan-worshipping asshole by even considering divorcing her.” Then Manfred pulls a Henry VIII and says that the REAL reason he wants to divorce his wife is because he has long doubted the validity of their marriage, that they're too closely related and also he thinks she might have been pre-contracted to someone else. The priest isn't buying it, but he doesn't have to not buy it for very long because Manfred has rage-ADD and becomes convinced that Theodore is actually Isabella's lover and screams, “Bring me my twice-captured necromancer!

So they bring him, and Theodore's entire personality is “I am too cool for school; I am definitely too badass to give a shit about any of your histrionics,” which, of course, enrages Manfred, because if you can even get your local peons to cower in fear of you, how are you supposed to subject your brood mare and maybe some prophecy ghost giants into submission? Answer: ya can't.

So Manfred orders Theodore to be executed RIGHT THERE and the priest is giving him his last confession and Theodore is all very, “Whatevs” about the whole thing. He is SO “Whatevs” that he even forgives Manfred for having him executed. I can't tell if he's so holy they're going to name a whole street after him in Heaven, or he's so existential that they'll name a whole street after him in France. Regardless, he takes it all in stride as part of God's plan.

So he starts to unbutton his shirt to pray (because the sexier you look, the faster God can hear your prayers), which is good for him because Matilda is watching and thinks he looks superfly, and ALSO he is a DEAD RINGER for Prince Alfonso, because this book is subtle like that. And then, just in case you were worried that this book hadn't had enough cliches, his unbuttoned shirt reveals a SUPER SIGNIFICANT BIRTHMARK in the shape of an arrow, and the priest recognizes him at once because HE'S THE PRIEST'S LONG-LOST SON! And the priest isn't really a priest (well, maybe he is now, I don't know), but rather the Count of Falconara!

So Manfred says he'll spare the life of Theodore if the priest/count brings out Isabella, because Manfred has got an erection that ghosts and executions cannot wither. However, the giant helmet starts shaking its head disapprovingly at Manfred, which scares the hell out of him. He has a literal Come-To-Jesus moment, and pardons Theodore and agrees to submit to goodness and the will of the Church. Unfortunately, a rider comes up to the gates and says he's a herald from another lord and calls Manfred a usurper and demands he meet the lord out on the field of battle.

So Manfred immediately goes back on his promise and tells the priest to go get Isabella, because he has re-arrested Theodore and will now hold his life hostage for the arrival of her super-fine booty. And the priest is like, “*WHIPLASH*”, but Manfred basically says that he can only be good and godly when he's in a good mood, and now that's shot to shit.

Turns out the herald is from Isabella's father, who is rather suggestively called “The Knight of the Gigantic Sabre” (hahahaha). Apparently while the knight and his giant (ahem) sabre were off crusading, Manfred bribed Isabella's guardians to agree to the match with Conrad. But now daddy's home and HE GON CRACK THE WHIP. The Knight says, “Come fight me one-on-one, and also give up your holdings on this title, because my family has better claim to it that you do.”

And Manfred's like, “DUH, why do you think I'm all hell-bent on marrying your only daughter and heir?” And the herald says, “Give her up NOW, or you're in for a world of hurt.” And Manfred's like, “Nah.” So the two of them start racing to find Isabella, and it's all very patriarchal, and let's see which man can hunt down the treasure and take the woman for his own.

Meanwhile, Theodore, who's been locked up, is released from jail by Matilda, mostly because he gives her lady-wood, although SHE says it's because he is virtuous and beyond reproach, and also, her father's an asshole. Theodore's like, “Thanks, baby. PEACE” and instead of staying around for a little slap-and-tickle, he races off to find Isabella because he swore way back at the beginning of the book to protect her.

Meanwhile, the priest is debating how to keep his son alive and Isabella virginal, when he hears that Manfred's wife, who was perfectly healthy about half an hour ago, has died of convenience and plot points. WOOO, MANFRED IS A SINGLE SLICE OF BEEFCAKE! (Guys, I hate to tell you, but Hippolita is not dead and this plot point goes absolutely NOWHERE, so thanks for that, Walpole. These tangents are reaaaaally appreciated at this point.)

Theodore finds Isabella and drags her to a cave and tells her to hide, and then he slobbers all over her hand and says he's going to get himself knighted ASAP so he can be her devoted champion forever, and she's like, “WILL EVERYONE JUST LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE? Also, Matilda has the hots for you, so go mack on her for a while. I'm not interested.”

But then the knights from her father's party show up and Theodore doesn't know who they are or what they want, so he naturally just stabs one of them. But the knight takes off his helmet and it turns out to be Isabella's daddy, oh nooooooooooes, and in the parlance of literary sword fights where everything is a phallus, it turns out his gigantic sabre isn't so gigantic.

And then, for no reason I can really figure out, everyone decides to just go up to the castle and work things out, and maybe do a little family therapy, maybe do some role playing to see how words can be weapons and how you have to respect people's feelings, blah blah.

So whlie they're working everything out, Isabella's dad sees Matilda and goes (♥_♥).

This is only going to complicate the matter, but nope, Manfred thinks it's the solution to EVERYONE'S problems, and makes a daughter-swapping deal, because there's nothing creepy about that. Let's look at this from a purely logistical point: you have two opposing factions, each with a strong claim on the title. Each head of the family has one daughter and no son. If you marry each others' daughters . . . both claims are mutually strengthened and in no way united. This feud is going to continue in perpetuity. Also: incest. Because if both men have sons from each other's daughters, each son will become his own uncle. I think.

So Isabella and Matilda get together with the not-dead Hippolita and weep and wail about how virtuous the others are, and Matilda works herself up into a state because she has some red-hot lust for Theodore but has to marry Isabella's gross dad, instead, and she's upset because her lust is dishonoring her mother, because it's making her CONTEMPLATE being disobedient. I can't handle these women.

So Hippolita goes to the church to talk with the priest/count and begs him to help convince Manfred that Matilda doesn't have to marry Isabella's dad. Manfred shows up and is like, “Nah, we worked it all out, we're DEFINITELY going to marry each others' daughters, we're BFF“. And as he's saying this, the grossest thing happens: the statue of Alfonso the Good, which Manfred is standing directly under, starts to have a nosebleed all over Manfred.

The priest interprets this as the “miraculous indication that the blood of Alfonso will never mix with that of Manfred!” and that Manfred's whole race needs to be stamped from the earth.

So . . . I guess that means Matilda's life expectancy just got a lot shorter.

Manfred's not having any of it, and he grabs Hippolita and is like, “Let's jet, baby, we got some divorcing to do,” and she's like, “Okay. I am your servant” and I HOPE SHE DIES SOON AND HARD.

So Isabella's father goes searching through the castle for Hippolita (I'm not really sure why, not important) and he stumbles on a priest, who he only sees from behind, and he's like, “Zup, father?” and the priest turns around and IT'S JUST A SKELETON IN A PRIEST'S ROBES, and it's totally the ghostly spirit of this hermit that Isabella's dad met during the Crusades who saved his ass, and the skeleton is like, “Is this what I saved you for? Lust? Leave Matilda alone or I'll haunt you forever.”

So Isabella's dad rushes off to his own room to quietly shit himself, and runs right by Manfred who's all, “BROOO! LET'S PARTAY! . . . Bro? You okay, bro?”

A servant finds Manfred and says that Theodore is meeting some girl in the church, all private and sexy-like, and Manfred goes, “IT MUST BE ISABELLA!” and his buzz is totally harshed, and he grabs a knife and rushes to the church to do some stabbin'. He overhears some sweet nothings whispered, and stabs Isabella for being a lyin', cheatin' HO, only when he turns the body over, it was Matilda he stabbed, not Isabella.

Everyone is really sad and Manfred goes crazy, and the priest/count walks in and says, “AWESOME”, and then procedes to tell everyone that the prophecy has been fulfilled–that when Prince Alfonso died without an heir all those years ago, Manfred's grandfather falsified Prince Alfonso's will so the title would be left to him, not to its rightful heirs, Isabella's family.

BUT WAIT ONE MINUTE–Isabella's family isn't the rightful inheritor, either! (Everyone goes, “Say whaaaaaa?”) It turns out that Alfonso secretly married a woman on his travels and they had a baby right before he died, and that baby was Theodore's MOTHER, and that makes THEODORE the rightful prince, because no one saw that coming. You know. The guy who is a dead ringer for Prince Alfonso.

So Manfred signs the abdication papers, and take Hippolita and goes to live elsewhere.

Theodore is super duper sad that Matilda's dead, because they were totally in love (I don't know when this was supposed to have happened, since he spent the whole book fawning over Isabella, but okay). Isabella's dad is like, “Please marry my daughter so this horrible book can be over and so I can go away”. Theodore is like, “Nah, can't do it. Heart's too broken.”

But then he and Isabella talk about Matilda a lot and they both cry a lot and revel in their grief, and he's like, “Well, maybe I WILL marry Isabella, because she'll let the memory of Matilda be the third person in our marriage, and we'll never have to move on, and we can be weird and sad together forever.”

Wow, this book shows a lot of healthy relationships.

So they get married and live sadly ever after, The End.

WAIT

Did the ghost helmet and ghost leg ever disappear? Or are they still there?

WAIT

Why did Hippolita make Matilda go pray to the statue of Alfonso every day?

WAIT

Did the priest/count/Theodore's father ever explain why he became a priest and what that means for THEIR family title?

WAIT

Why was Hippolita rumored to be dead?

WAIT

What about the “ghost” of the brother's tutor who drowned himself?

Guys, I have so many questions.

The problem with this book was that I read it in its original format, which means that there are precisely ZERO quotation marks or line breaks to show dialog. So even though this isn't a very long or complicated book, you have really, really important things being said in the middle of giant chunks of exposition, and if you don't read every line extremely carefully, you might easily miss a key plot point.

The version I linked you to has all of the lines broken up and has quotation marks around everything, so please respond in the comments if any of my questions are actually answered anywhere in the text. It's entirely probable that I just missed something.

So, the moral of the story is: if you do something bad, your great-grandchildren will be exterminated by ghosts.

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3 Responses to The Castle of Otranto

  1. Oh my, you made me laugh out loud with this one! >.< I have nothing much to add to your summary, despite the fact that I've read this book (in that same annoying paragraph-free format, which definitely does not help one's comprehension!).

    I have a feeling that if someone re-wrote this story as an episode of Dr Who it might make a whole lot more sense (giant statues coming to life = nothing we haven't come across before; people acting illogically = they're probably possessed by alien brain parasites…).

    On the other hand, it does seem like Walpole was on a wavelength all his own when it came to relationships, so perhaps it was a case of him going "Uh, marriage? *shrug* …I don't get it… *scribble*" 🙂

    Like

  2. linda_lupos says:

    … I´m not sure if I want to read this now because of the sheer madness of the plot, or if I want to stay far away from it for the same reason! I have a friend who´s into Gothic Horror, and she´d told me about the Death By Helmet scene, but I had no idea the rest of the book was thís weird. O_o

    Like

  3. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic

    What a hoot. So-o-o-o-o much better than Horace’s version. I actually knew what happened.

    I do remember, though, that when Theodore was re-captured for the third time, I thought: this man has an IQ struggling to make it into 2 figures. Don’t think the 18th century really grasped the concept of the Alpha hero.

    Like

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