"The Castle of Otranto", first published in 1764, is often credited with being the first Gothic novel, a literary genre that would become extremely popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Purporting to be based on a (fictitious) sixteenth-century manuscript containing a mediaeval story about spooky goings - on in an Italian castle, it opens with the death of the heir of the castle of Otrantro, on both his wedding-day and his birthday, crushed by an immense helmet. It is a sensational and suspenseful story (of the type parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey) complete with sorcery, an underground passage, a ghost, an enormous sword, a cave in a forest, a masked knight, a storm, unearthly groaning, a statue dripping blood and a spectral skeleton.
Just because a book has "classic" next to it doesn't mean it's automatically a masterpiece.
This is by far one of the most terrible books I have ever read.
The book opens, as the blurb says, with the heir to a fictional castle being crushed to death on the eve of his wedding to the beautiful maiden Isabella by nothing less than a giant flying helmet. While his saintly mother and sister cower in the corner, and the servants scrape the splattered remains of poor birthday-boy Conrad off the floor, the novel's villain, his father Manfred, veers between reasonable head of the household and crazed, cackling, cape-swishing nutcase in the space of seconds.
And that's all within the first thirty pages.
And that's before we get to the giant armoured legs in the attic, scary bangs in the night, and the secret trapdoor that nobody knows about (except the girl who's lived there for two days and the boy who's never been there in his life).
One-dimensional stock characters are given equally one-dimensional backstories in the space of a second, and a prophecy straight out of the attempted high fantasy of a twelve year old - complete with usurpring minister, degraded prince and wrathful outcome - is shoved haphazardly over the myriad plot hole halfway through the book. Furthermore, anything that might be considered a plot twist, or some twisted cousin of character development is so contrived it's almost hilarious.
The plot itself is solid, but poorly executed - the language veers between omniscient and limited narration, and the prose is so presumptuous it's as if it thinks we're idiots. Listen, we know there's only one other recognisable male in the castle besides crazy ranting Manfred . . . you can drop the "mysterious stranger" pseudonym now. Please.
That said, though, the book is an absolute must-read if you want a high-speed journey through every Gothic feature in existence - terrified maidens, scary castles, crashing thunderstorms every other day, prophecies, dungeons, curses . . . there's even a couple of scuttling minions for the bad guy. Because of this overdose of hyperbole, though, even the blood-oozing statue seems more Scooby Doo than Paranormal Activity.
In short, The Castle of Otranto is a horrendously bad book. Read it for the historic value and the introduction to the Gothic, perhaps, but call it a "classic"?
Helmets really will fly before there's a chance of that.
~ Charley R
"The Castle of Otranto" is available in ebook and paper format from Amazon, as well as multiple high street retailers.