by Ted Gioia

Few literary figures are harder to pin down than Horace Walpole.  
He was Earl of Oxford but went to Cambridge.  He was a member
of Parliament representing Callington in Cornwall—but never
visited Callington.   He might have been a womanizer, and he
might have been gay, or according to some, he was asexual.  
He was a Whig, but how many Whigs are also Goths? Indeed,
The Castle of Otranto is
considered the first Gothic novel  
and his home Strawberry Hill House
anticipated the later gothic revival
architecture style.  He also was
an art historian, a publisher (he
installed a printing press in his
home), and invented the word

A strange resume, no?  But the
strangest part of it all is a little
known literary work, entitled
Hieroglyphic Tales.  Walpole
wrote these stories in 1766 and
1772, but waited until 1785 before
publishing them.  Even then, he
only printed seven copies, including
proofs.  One can hardly blame
Walpole for not circulating the book
more widely.  The only surviving response from someone who saw
the work during his lifetime comes from Madame du Deffand, who
accused the author of being raving or delirious.  

In another letter, Walpole explains that these tales were "written
while I was out of my senses."  A present day reader perusing the
Hieroglyphic Tales will be reminded of Italo Calvino or Eugène
Ionesco and other exponents of absurdism, surrealism and outré
experimental literary movements of the 20th century.  Yes, you might
conclude that the stories were written in the late Sixties and early
Seventies…but not of the eighteenth century.

Certainly some precedents exist for these tales—Walpole's
Hieroglyphic Tales will remind readers, to some extent, of various
colorful or extravagant works such as
The Arabian Nights, The
, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Tristram Shandy or
Rasselas.  But even these daring narratives seem controlled and
calculated compared to the unhinged, free-association style of
storytelling pursued by Walpole.  Our author starts with a style
halfway between a fairy tale and those long-winded jokes known
as 'shaggy dog tales', but then he adds in contradictions,
absurdities, anachronisms, arcane references and every other
kind of distraction or obstacle.    

Here’s a typical opening:

There was formerly a king who had three daughters—that is, he
would have had three, if he had had one more, but some how or
other the eldest never was born.  She was extremely handsome,
had a great deal of wit, and spoke French in perfection, as all the
authors of that age affirm, and yet none of them pretend that she
ever existed....

Of course, a story of this sort requires a romantic interest—even for
a non-existent princess.  In this instance, the suitor is the prince of
Quifferiquimini, who "would have been the most accomplished hero
of the age, if he had not been dead, and had spoken any language
but the Egyptian, and had not had three legs."

Thus, more than a century before
Dracula and 220 years before
Twilight, Walpole casts an undead man as his romantic lead.  
Unfortunately the Church intervenes in this courtship, deeming  
that "a woman that never was, and a man that had been" were
first cousins under canon law, and thus unable to marry without
the dispensation of the Pope.  

Marriage and miscegenation are a frequent theme of these
stories.   We meet Mi Li, prince of China, who is told by his
fortune-telling fairy mother that “he would be the most unhappy
man alive unless he married a princess whose name was the same
as her father’s dominions.”  He accepts this cryptic prognostication
and sets out for Ireland and England, where he aims to find a bride
who matches this description.  The conclusion of Walpole's odd
story is more like the punchline to a silly joke.  The same is true, but
with even more silliness, in Walpole's account of the romances
between the handsome Orondates of Milan and Azora, a lovely
African slave.  "Afric never produced a female so perfect as Azora;
as Europe could boast of but one Orondates."   I won’t spoil the
ending for you, but if you are expecting another Othello, you will
be sorely disappointed.

Again and again we encounter the familiar ingredients of myths
and folklore in these tales.  Magic and prophecy, eccentric kings,
witches and devils, young lovers and interfering adults—the tried-
and-true memes of populist storytelling are the basic ingredients
here.  But Walpole takes such liberties with the material that even
fantasy lit seems down-to-earth and predictable by comparison.  

But don’t jump to the conclusion that these
Hieroglyphic Tales are
all playfulness, without serious intent.  Like many of the magical
realism novels of more recent years, Walpole believes that fanciful
stories can also incorporate elements of social satire and political
commentary.  Some of the notes Walpole added to his copy of the
first edition indicate that he drew on real-life role models for many
of his fairy tale characters, and even the strangest passages—for
example, the above quoted church ruling on  marriage between
the undead and the never existent—are meant to call attention to
incongruities and absurdities in real life.

I might be inclined to add that Walpole wanted to show "truth is
stranger than fiction.”  But if that allegation is often correct, the
Hieroglyphic Tales are the counter example of fiction that pushes
so far beyond the plausible and realistic as to break free of their
gravitational pull.   In his postscript to the book, Walpole notes that
"works of invention" are "almost always devoid of imagination."  He
concludes, in the final sentence, that "there is infinitely more invention
in history, which has no merit if devoid of truth, than in romances and
novelty which pretend to none."

No one could make that accusation of his
Hieroglyphic Tales.  
Could Walpole have been any more daring in this work?  Well, yes
he might have taken one more bold step…and distributed these
stories widely during his lifetime.  Who can guess what the results
would have been?  I suspect that, with more bravado on his part,
Horace Walpole might no longer be viewed today as a jack-of-all-
trades or the 'original goth'.  Instead, his most lasting claim to fame
would be his extraordinary anticipation of many of the leading avant-
garde literary movements of modern times.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.
His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Hieroglyphic Tales
by Horace Walpole
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Saramago, José

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
Jospeh Peschel
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction

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