The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

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The Castle of Otranto was written by Horace Walpole in 1764. A genre defining work, it’s considered to be the first Gothic novel ever written. What exactly is a Gothic novel? Gothic novels, or Gothic horror, are books (and more recently, films) that have their roots at the confluence of fiction, horror, and death. The name is derived from the Gothic architecture where many of these stories take place (castles being a notable recurrence). The Castle of Otranto is joined by other famous works such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

The story begins on the verge of a wedding. The husband to be is killed in a horrific freak accident – he is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls on him from high. The death is part of a prophecy (another recurrence in Gothic novels) that warns 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”. The prophecy, and the fear it strikes into the heart of the Manfred, the father of the husband-to-be, leads to a series of events that end in tragedy for the man.

Otranto was lauded in its own day, until Walpole revealed that it was satirical fiction. After that seemingly tiny admission, the people turned against it. Even then, however, its importance could hardly be contained. The Castle of Otranto has continued to influence in the 250+ years since it was first published and is considered a classic.

If you want a physical copy of the book, the Oxford World’s Classic edition is a good starting place.