No British writer from the 18th century is harder to pin down than Horace Walpole?
Walpole espoused conventional religious views, but atheists cite him as one of their
own.  His political affiliations were even more misleading: Walpole  represented a
district in Parliament, but he never stepped foot in it.  He appeared to live a celibate
life, but many nowadays think that was a ruse—although the experts can’t agree on
what exactly happened behind closed doors. By the way, Walpole lived in a marvelous
but sham Gothic home that he loved to display—one commentator has called it "a
mock-castle of a fake dynasty"—but he preferred to go into hiding whenever sight-
seers arrived.

Ah, Walpole also hid himself in his writings,
which were perhaps his greatest deception of
them all.  What do we conclude from his
decision to write his play
The Mysterious
in secrecy…but then spread rumors
that he had written something too disgusting
for publication or staging? Or how are we to
evaluate his
Hieroglyphic Tales, which anticipate
the 20th century absurdist movement? He only
printed seven copies, and claimed that the tales
were written when he was ‘out of his senses’.
Yet a closer inspection shows that he was very
much in earnest about these apparently frivolous
narratives. And, finally, how do we deal with
Walpole’s most famous book
The Castle of
, a novel which he pretended was the
translation of a manuscript from 1529—based in
turn on a story that dated back to the time of the Crusades?

Those were simply tall tales.  Walpole actually wrote
The Castle of Otranto, and after
the success the book enjoyed
upon its publication in 1764—in which it was presented
as "A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of
Onuphrio Muralto"—Walpole decided that he wanted credit, after all, for his bestseller.
For the second edition, published four months later, Walpole declared his authorship.

Related Reading
Horace Walpole's Hieroglyphic Tales

Yet the tables quickly turned on our author. Critics now criticized The Castle of
. John Langhorne, who had initially praised the work, now denounced it
as ‘'false' and 'preposterous' and condemned Walpole for "re-establishing the
barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism." Thomas Babington Macaulay would
later dismiss the novel as “extravagant nonsense.”  Who knows how this book
would be perceived nowadays without the intervention of Sir Walter Scott, who
lauded the novel as "the first modern attempt to found a tale of amusing fiction
upon the basis of the ancient romances of chivalry." Scott no doubt saw his own
literary successes as following the precedent set by Walpole a half-century before.

Was it fair for critics to change their mind about Walpole’s book after they learned
his authorship? In most instances, this about-face would seem to invalidate a
commentator's opinion. But in this case, the question of authorship and the date
of composition are essential to our assessment of The Castle of Otranto. I would
be willing to forgive stilted dialogue and flat characters in a chronicle from medieval
times—the historical value would outweigh the limitations of the prose, and the
cultural context would sufficiently explain the shortcomings of the work. Recall that
this era relied on allegory—in which characters took on the names and attributes of
the qualities they evoked, such as Truth or Conscience or Reason (in the case of
Piers Plowman)—because this was the closest they could approach to what, today,
we would call psychology or the inner life of the protagonists. Yet this approach
imposed a terrible limitation on a story: once a character was defined in terms of a
single attribute, change or maturation was impossible and the future complications
in the drama became tiringly predictable. Despite these restrictions, allegories could
still have some value for readers, but perhaps more for the medieval mind than our
own. And there were good reasons why allegories were abandoned by most storytellers
after the Enlightenment. The human psyche deserved better than to be treated as a
one-trick pony.

For this reason,
The Castle of Otranto starts to smell funny once we understand that it
was written by an 18th century author. There isn’t a single moment in this novel that
rings true as a study of actual human or social life. Every bit of dialogue comes across
as a formulaic set piece conveying received ideas, most of them the tired concepts of
chivalry and courtly love that Cervantes and Shakespeare had displaced 150 years
before Walpole published his book.

Here is a taste of the dialogue, from an early scene in which Princess Isabella is
attempting to flee the castle, and encounters a helpful stranger:

"Sir, whoever you are, take pity on a wretched Princess, standing on the brink of
destruction. Assist me to escape from this fatal castle, or in a few moments I may
be made miserable for ever."

"Alas!” said the stranger, “what can I do to assist you? I will die in your defense;
but I am unacquainted with the castle, and want—"

"Oh!" said Isabella, hastily interrupting him; "help me but to find a trap-door that
must be hereabout, and it is the greatest service you can do me, for I have not a minute
to lose."

Saying all these words, she felt about on the pavement, and dircted the stranger to
search likewise, for a smooth piece of brass enclosed in one of the stones.

"That," said she, "is the lock, which opens with a spring, of which I know the secret.
If we can find that, I may escape—if not, alas! courteous stranger, I fear I shall have
involved you in my misfortunes: Manfred will suspect you for the accomplice of
my flight, and you will fall a victim to his resentment."

"I value not my life," said the stranger, "and it will be some comfort to lose it in trying to
deliver you from his tyranny."

"Generous youth," said Isabella, "how shall I ever requite—"

You get the idea. And perhaps a few paragraphs of these clichéd declamations—filled
with ideas that were already a subject of ridicule long before Walpole was born—could
be tolerated. But every conflict and conversation in the novel proceeds along these

Yet readers can derive some value from reading
The Castle of Otranto. I would
encourage students to compare this tale with another story featuring a harried
heir with a dangerous parent set in a haunted castle, namely Shakespeare's
What could be more instructive than to observe one author treat these same plot
ingredients with psychological insight and poetic imagination, and then compare
the result with Walpole’s manipulation of stick figures pretending that they are
characters in a book.

This raises the obvious question: why has a novel so poorly written earned a place
in literary history? Well, if Walpole’s characters lack psychological insight, Walpole
himself possessed it in abundance. He understood that the chivalric notions of the
medieval period might have gone stale in intellectual circles, but that they still
fascinated readers of romantic fiction. Indeed, even in the 21st century, a certain
segment of the populace gets a jolt out of images of brave knights saving damsels
while proclaiming fantastic speeches filled with archaic but idealistic notions.

In short, Walpole helped invent the modern gothic tale, a kind of play-acting animated
by a stylized medievalism. Even better, he knew how to market the gothic concept.
He even built his own Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, creating
a stir in architectural circles that might be even more noteworthyl than his impact
on literary matters.  Even in Walpole’s lifetime, his castle was a tourist attraction—
although visitors had plenty of real medieval castles they could visit, many preferred
this phony imitation, a kind of theme park castle foreshadowing what you might see
at Disneyland in the current day. Give Walpole credit for grasping the public's
preference for faux medievalism over the real thing.  

The plot of
The Castle of Otranto is much the same, reeking of phoniness at every
turn. Its best passages are empty formulas, and the worst veer into the ridiculous.  
In the opening pages, the heir of Otranto is killed on his wedding day when a giant
helmet falls from the sky and squishes him into a pulp. The evil father now hatches
an alternative plan for securing a male heir. Meanwhile a romantic young man with
chivalric ideas show up on the scene, and makes many speeches about love, virtue
and service to the beautiful princesses of the castle.  Can you predict who will end
up as the new master of Otranto by the end of the novel?

Walpole makes a token effort to surprise the reader
with revelations about various matters, including the
true lineage of the chivalrous young man. But they
hardly surprise if you can see them coming a hundred
pages in advance. The real shock for readers in these
pages is how clumsy Walpole is at describing settings,
events, characters and conflicts. Everything comes
across as a reheated amalgamation of ingredients
drawn from older works.

But never underestimate the public’s appetite for idealized romance. By comparison, a
deep probing exploration of the real romantic lives of medieval couples would have been
a commercial failure. For the same reasons, a more psychologically nuanced approach
to these characters would have disappointed many readers. And, in all fairness, Walpole
wasn't the first author who succeeded by aiming lower than his peers.  Indeed, the very
simplicity of the ingredients in this book explain why they have been borrowed so
frequently by later writers.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: September 4, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Is The Castle of Otranto
the Clumsiest Classic Novel?
To purchase, click on image
By Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

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 Blind Assassin

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

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

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

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

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

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

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

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

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
The Centauri Device

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

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

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
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

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

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

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

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

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

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

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

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

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

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

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

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
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
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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All rights reserved.
In the opening pages,
the heir of Otranto is
killed on his wedding
day when a giant helmet
falls from the sky and
squishes him into a pulp.