The Historical Supernatural - The Gothics - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The Historical Supernatural
The Gothics
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

What led Horace Walpole (1717—1797) to write The Castle of Otranto, self-published at his “Gothick” castle at Strawberry Hill on Christmas 1764 (although the first edition bears the date of 1765), under the pseudonym Onuphrio Muralto, is not entirely clear, in spite of the massive amounts of documentary evidence that Walpole himself left, chiefly in the form of correspondence, that would presumably allow an understanding of his chameleonlike and perhaps contradictory personality. Son of the prime minister Robert Walpole, he himself failed at politics and so devoted himself to being a wealthy dilettante, an occupation he practised with verve. His literary tastes can be gauged more from what he disliked than from what he liked; his letters are filled with somewhat captious criticisms of the novels of Fielding and Richardson, and also of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. His disdain for Pope, the icon of eighteenth-century classicism, does suggest a certain fatigue with rationalism unenlivened by imagination.

Even Walpole’s building of Strawberry Hill is not without its paradoxes and ambiguities. He did not begin fashioning it into a neo-Gothic castle until around 1750; and prior to this date he can still be seen expressing approval of Palladian classicism in architecture and using “gothic” as an epithet. Moreover, Walpole cannot be said to have invented or initiated the taste for Gothic architecture: as James Watt reminds us, the Gothic revival had really commenced as early as the 1740s (Contesting the Gothic 15). But the decade and a half of work on his castle prior to writing The Castle of Otranto does appear to have had some effect in casting Walpole’s mind to the mediaeval past and in seeing in that past a fruitful source for literary composition. His canonical utterance on the matter occurs in a letter to Horace Mann when he first conceived the idea of building the castle: “I am going to build a little Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill. If you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms or anything, I shall be excessively obliged to you. I can’t say I remember any such thing in Italy, but out of old châteaus I imagine one might get it cheap, if there is any” (10 January 1750). Three years later he followed up on the idea:

I thank you a thousand times for thinking of procuring me some Gothic remains from Rome; but I believe there is no such thing there: I scarce remember any morsel in the true taste of it in Italy. Indeed, my dear Sir, kind as you are about it, I perceive you have no idea what Gothic is; you have lived too long amidst true taste, to understand venerable barbarism. You say, ’you suppose my garden is to be Gothic too.’ That can’t be; Gothic is merely architecture; and as one has a satisfaction in imprinting the gloomth [sic] of abbeys and cathedrals on one’s house, so one’s garden on the contrary is to be nothing but riant, and the gaiety of nature. (Letter to Horace Mann, 27 April 1753)

There is much of interest here—notably the notion that Gothic was inherently barbaric in contrast to the “true taste” of the Georgian era—but it may be worth focusing on Walpole’s blandly dogmatic utterance that Gothic could apply only to architecture. Manifestly, in the course of the next fourteen years he came to realise that Gothic could be a literary mode also—hence The Castle of Otranto.

There is little need to rehearse the plot of this well-known work. It features the attempts of Manfred, the usurper of the noble line of Otranto and occupier of the eponymous castle, to preserve his ill-gotten gains either by fostering the marriage of his son, Conrad, or (when Conrad is supernaturally killed) by himself marrying in order to produce an heir that will retain the castle and title. The would-be bride, Isabella, stoutly refuses, thereby becoming the first in a drearily long line of Gothic heroines whose chief aim is to preserve their chastity. The topos of the nobleman in peasant garb is also introduced in the figure of Theodore, who predictably enough turns out to be the true heir of Otranto. He haunts the dank underground chambers of the castle and seeks a way to topple Manfred; but the job is done for him by the ghost of Alfonso (the father of Theodore and the man whom Manfred had killed to gain the castle and title), who spectacularly destroys the castle at the end and declares Theodore’s title to the line. Where exactly Theodore is to exercise his newly found noble lineage, now that his castle is in ruins, is a matter left for another day.

In many ways, Walpole’s two prefaces to the novel—the first appearing with the original (pseudonymous) edition, the second added to the edition of 1765, when Walpole admitted his authorship—are considerably more interesting than the text itself. The first preface is, in essence, designed to foster a hoax. Here Walpole maintains that the novel that follows is a document printed in 1529 but written sometime between the period 1095 and 1243 (these dates being chosen on the grounds that the incidents in the novel must have occurred between the first and second crusades, “or not long afterwards” [39]). Walpole goes on to say that “The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity” and that the original Italian author meant to “confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions” (39). This is all very clever; for what Walpole is doing, manifestly, is trying to have his cake and eat it too. At the very time that he is exhibiting incidents of the wildest improbability (chiefly by reason of the implausible supernatural manifestations that occur throughout the novel) he is simultaneously stepping back and declaring that only the deluded ignoramuses of the Middle Ages could have believed them—at least, in a literal sense. Walpole concludes this preface by declaring: “I cannot but believe that the groundwork of the story is founded on truth” (42)—but it is not entirely clear what element of “truth” Walpole sees, or intends the reader to see, in the work. If the “moral” of the work, at least on a surface level, is thought to be the comforting adage that usurpers to noble titles (and property) never prosper, then perhaps Walpole is assuming—at least as a gesture to readers who might be inclined to doubt that a tale of such bizarre supernatural occurrences can have any “truth” to it at all—that the core of the tale, shorn of its supernaturalism, can still retain aesthetic validity by the moral soundness of Manfred’s ultimate overthrow and the reinstatement of Theodore to his ancestral estates.

There is only one problem with this formulation: it is in fact impossible to make any sense—aesthetic or moral or otherwise—of The Castle of Otranto except by reference to its supernaturalism. Indeed, the one thing that can be said for the novel is that its supernatural manifestations are strictly in accord with its moral (or, perhaps more precisely, social) purpose. The very first such incident—the much ridiculed appearance of the gigantic helmet that kills Manfred’s son Conrad—is an instance of this; for this event causes the unscrupulous Manfred to seek to marry Isabella himself and thereby preserve his lineage—and his control of the castle—by the production of a presumably legitimate offspring. But at the very moment when Manfred utters this plan to the horrified Isabella, another supernatural incident occurs: “At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast” (59). Again, when Manfred threatens to execute Theodore, the plumes of the gigantic helmet shake. And, of course, in the climactic scene when the ghost of Alfonso emerges and destroys the castle, he speaks balefully to Manfred, “Behold in Theodore, the true heir of Alfonso!” (145). In effect, every supernatural occurrence is intended only secondarily for a moral purpose; its prime motivation is the aristocratic aim of preserving the legitimacy of succession at Otranto. All this makes one see the truth of Sir Walter Scott’s passing comment regarding Walpole’s “respect for birth and rank” (Lives of the Novelists, 191).

The question of what led Walpole to write this curious little novel in the first place may cast some light on the central question of his attitude toward his work, and specifically toward the supernatural phenomena featured in it. It seems obligatory to cite the dream that Walpole maintained—several months after the novel was published—inspired the work:

I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it … (Letter to William Cole, 9 March 1765)

This, quite frankly, does not tell us much of value; indeed, it is not at all clear what the strange phrase “Gothic story” could refer to. It may not even refer to literature, for it is not certain what previous literature Walpole could have read to inspire the dream. At this point we may as well discuss Thomas (or John) Leland’s Longsword, Earl of Salisbury: An Historical Romance (1762), which some overzealous historians and critics claim is the true founding work of the Gothic novel. But while Longsword is of some interest as perhaps being the first British historical novel—it is set in the time of Henry III—its influence on subsequent Gothic literature appears to be minimal. As K. K. Mehrotra wrote long ago, Longsword “was surprisingly negligible as a stimulating and inspiring force” (52). There is, in fact, not a single mention of Longsword in any of the tens of thousands of surviving letters written by Walpole. Aside from the fact that there is nothing supernatural in Longsword, the mere fact that it deals with a usurper to a noble title who is ultimately overthrown does not seem sufficient to serve as a central influence on The Castle of Otranto. The editor of a recent edition of the novel, John C. Stephens, writes with charitable enthusiasm that “virtually all of the stock romantic devices—that would be repeated ad nauseam in the Gothic tales of terror—are present in more or less prominence in Longsword” (xviii), but, as Mehrotra points out, the fact that the novel was not reprinted until 1831, after the Gothic movement had already fizzled out, makes one doubt its direct influence on any writer aside perhaps from Clara Reeve, who consciously acknowledged a debt to it.

We are still no nearer to Walpole’s motivations in writing The Castle of Otranto, and perhaps they can never be known. But Walpole’s casual mention in the original preface to the novel that supernatural phenomena “are exploded now even from romances” may offer a clue. This idea is picked up in an important passage in the second preface:

It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if in the latter species Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old romances. The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion. (43)

Here again one can sense Walpole’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too. It is, however, difficult to imagine how he is adhering to the canons of “modern” romance, except by his assertion (and that is all it is) that he is attempting a faithful, “realistic” depiction of life in the mediaeval era. But Walpole is manifestly responding to those many critics who, in the wake of the realistic novels of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett (all of whose works he disliked), condemned the use of anything fantastic or supernatural as beyond the pale. Samuel Johnson was prototypical in this regard:

The works of fiction, with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind… . Its province is to bring about natural events by easy means, and to keep up curiosity without the help of wonder: it is therefore precluded from the machines and expedients of the heroic romance, and can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles. (Rambler No. 4 [31 March 1750])

This could have been written as a review of The Casle of Otranto, and indeed many reviews of the novel took exactly this tack in criticising it. But the importance of Walpole’s statement in the second preface is precisely in his vaunting of “imagination” over mundane reality; for in this way Walpole makes clear that, for him, the supernaturalism in his novel was manifestly meant to serve a variety of aesthetic purposes and that neither he nor his readers were expected to take it literally. This is exactly the perspective from which genuine weird literature has been, and must be, written: as I have already stated, the supernatural (in literature) cannot exist without a concrete conception of the natural. And Walpole was, by all accounts, exactly the sort of hard-headed eighteenth-century rationalist who, on the surface, would be least likely to write a supernatural novel. But in fact it was his hard-headed rationalism that led him to write it as a gesture of imaginative liberation.

It may also be worth pointing out that Walpole was likely influenced by Richard Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762), which not only attempted a defence of the Middle Ages as something other than an era of dense ignorance and religious obscurantism but also sought to interpret the supernaturalism of mediaeval literature symbolically—seeing giants, for example, as representative of oppressive feudal lords, savages as their hapless dependents, and so forth. Whether Walpole wished a directly Hurdian interpretation of the supernaturalism of The Castle of Otranto is unclear, but his comment on the underlying “truth” of his scenario seems to point in this direction.

From this perspective, it is highly interesting to learn, as E. J. Clery has shown, of Walpole’s interest in the so-called Cock Lane ghost of 1762. This nine-days’ wonder—a ghost that purportedly made rattling noises in the room of a young woman who had died there—enthralled London for a time, and many notables took occasion to investigate the matter for themselves. Walpole was one of them, but he did so purely as a lark, in the hope that witnessing the ghostly phenomena might provide him with transient amusement. He wrote with bland cynicism in a letter:

The house, which is borrowed, is wretchedly small and miserable; when we opened the chamber, in which were fifty people, with no light but one tallow candle at the end, we tumbled over the bed of the child to whom the ghost comes, and whom they are murdering there by inches in such insufferable heat and stench. At the top of the room are ropes to dry clothes—I asked, if we were to have rope dancing between the acts?—we had nothing; they told us, as they would at a puppet-show, that it would not come that night till seven in the morning—that is, when there are only prentices and old women. We stayed, however, till half an hour after one. (Letter to George Montagu, 29 January 1762; quoted in Clery 25)

Those “prentices and old women” are exactly analogous to the people of the “darkest ages of Christianity” who, in Walpole’s mind, would have swallowed the surface events of The Castle of Otranto. (There is a further irony in all this, in that the religiously tormented Samuel Johnson desperately hoped that the Cock Lane ghost was a real phenomenon, since he among others hoped it might counteract the spread of religious scepticism that he found so baleful. Alas, the Cock Lane ghost was revealed to be a hoax about a month after its announcement.)

Does The Castle of Otranto actually amount to much, judged purely as an aesthetic entity? Perhaps it is unfair to gauge it in light of the subsequent supernatural tradition that it helped to foster, although this seems to be exactly what H. P. Lovecraft did when he urged a friend in 1927:

Have you read The Castle of Otranto? If not, don’t! Let the summary in [Eino] Railo[’s The Haunted Castle] continue to give you a “kick”, for the original certainly won’t! Walpole was too steeped in the classical tradition of the early 18th century to catch the Gothic spirit of the latter half. His choice of words and rhythms is the brisk, cheerful Addisonian one; and his nonchalant and atmosphereless way of describing the most prodigious horrors is enough to empty them of all their potency. Thanks to the second-hand way in which you received it, you have become the first reader to get a genuine shiver from Otranto since the days of Sir Walter Scott! (Selected Letters 2.231—32)

There is some truth to this, especially as regards the “cheerful, Addisonian” prose; but no doubt Lovecraft would have agreed that the spareness of the novel’s prose led to a compactness and absence of floridity that more prolix writers like Francis Lathom, Charlotte Dacre, and even M. G. Lewis could not have imagined. The great drawback of most Gothic novels—The Castle of Otranto, Frankenstein, and a very few others excluded—is their appalling length; even the greatest of them, Melmoth the Wanderer, is nearly crippled by this failing.

What Lovecraft complained of was Walpole’s unwillingness—it is an open question whether it was an inability—to lay the emotional groundwork for the supernatural. The events simply happen, coming quite literally out of thin air. The immediate effect upon the reader is presumably startlement and wonder, but repeated doses of this kind of thing merely lead to incredulity: whatever sense of reality the novel may initially have had—and it cannot have had much—breaks down rapidly. Walpole, of course, has covered himself by his elaborate preface whereby he has himself eschewed belief in the supernatural manifestations, but this is a feeble aesthetic excuse that cannot conceal the implausible plethora of supernaturalism in a work of scarcely 40,000 words.

Walpole’s other creative works need not detain us long. The Mysterious Mother (1768) is a non-supernatural and rather unpleasant drama about mother-son incest, while the six (or seven) stories that make up Hieroglyphic Tales (1785?) are all very amusing parodies of the Arabian Nights and fantastic romance in general; but as the volume was only privately published in a minuscule number of copies, its influence on subsequent weird fiction was nil.

Although The Castle of Otranto was popular—there were three editions in the first two years of its publication—it did not, as I have stated, immediately inspire widespread imitation; a point emphasised by the fact that a full sixteen years passed between the third edition of 1766 and the fourth edition of 1782. Walpole is explicitly and cordially mentioned in Anna Letitia Barbauld’s essay “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror” (1773), but the “fragment” that she appends to the essay as an instantiation of its basic principles, “Sir Bertrand,” seems to owe little to The Castle of Otranto. This potent bit of supernaturalism is a pure nightmare in which Sir Bertrand stumbles into an apparently deserted “antique mansion” (46), is startled by all manner of bizarre occurrences—including a blue flame that recedes as he approaches it—and then, when the flame is suddenly extinguished: “A dead cold hand met his left hand, and firmly he grasped it, drawing him forcibly forwards—he endeavoured to disengage himself, but could not—he made a furious blow with his sword, and instantly a loud shriek pierced his ears, and the dead hand was left powerless with his” (47). This scene remains effective today, and is not deflated by the rather curious ending (if it can be called that) where Sir Bertrand comes upon a sumptuous banquet tended by nymphs. The overall effect of this work is really that of a fairy tale or folktale; if De Quincey had written it, we would have called it a drug-delirium.

A later work did indeed draw upon Walpole, although not in a manner that pleased him. I refer, of course, to Clara Reeve’s The Champion of Virtue (1777), retitled in the 1778 edition as The Old English Baron. The original title in fact more faithfully reflects the character of the work, for it is heavily moralistic and its one (or two) supernatural episodes only seek to underscore its moral message. To the extent that Walpole’s own supernaturalism does very much the same thing, Reeve can be considered a genuine disciple of him; but Reeve and Walpole each avowed a mutual dislike of the means that the other used to achieve their effects.

In her preface to the second edition, Reeve announces that her novel is indeed “a literary offspring of the Castle of Otranto” (3) and, alluding to its subtitle (“A Gothic Story”), calls it “a picture of Gothic times and manners” (3). But she goes on to deliver a gently worded but no less severe condemnation of the excessive supernaturalism in Otranto:

… the machinery is so violent, that it destroys the effect it is intended to excite. Had the story been kept within the utmost verge of probability, the effect had been preserved, without losing the least circumstance that excites or detains the attention.

… When your expectation is wound up to the highest pitch, these circumstances take it down with a witness, destroy the work of imagination, and, instead of attention, excite laughter. I was both surprised and vexed to find the enchantment dissolved, which I wished might continue to the end of the book; and several of its readers have confessed the same disappointment to me. The beauties are so numerous, that we cannot bear the defects, but want it to be perfect in all respects. (4—5)

This is really quite remarkable—particularly her taking up Walpole’s term “imagination” and using it against him. Walpole had his revenge, at least in private correspondence, when he wrote: “I cannot compliment the author of The Old English Baron, professedly written in imitation, but as a corrective to The Castle of Otranto. It was totally void of imagination and interest; had scarce any incidents; and though it condemned the marvellous, admitted a ghost—I suppose the author thought a tame ghost might come within the laws of probability” (letter to William Cole, 17 August 1778).

In all honesty, both Reeve and Walpole are largely correct—Walpole especially so. The Old English Baron does not read well, largely because Reeve’s flaccid prose and heavy-handed moralism never allow the tale to come to life. Set in the “minority of Henry VI” (7)—i.e., around 1422—it duplicates The Castle of Otranto in having a tyrannical usurper (Sir Walter Lovel), a man of evidently low birth who is in fact the rightful heir to the castle (Edmund Twyford), and sundry other features that are clearly meant to recall Walpole’s novel.

Where Reeve apparently prided herself was in restricting herself to a single supernatural episode, in which the ghost of the original owner of the castle, Lord Lovel, appears to Edmund as he has taken up the challenge of spending three nights in the deserted wing of the castle where, it turns out, Lovel was murdered. Actually, this supernatural phenomenon is presented in the form of a dream that Edmund experiences during his first night in the deserted wing—but of course, if it is thought to have been a dream rather than an actual apparition, the dream itself could be considered supernatural in its prophetic quality. This entire episode is cleverly prepared for by a previous incident in which Lady Lovel, after being told by Sir Walter that her husband had been killed in battle, later “broke out into passionate and frantic exclamations; she said, that her dear Lord was basely murdered; that his ghost had appeared to her, and revealed his fate: She called upon Heaven and earth to revenge her wrongs; saying, she would never cease complaining to God, and the King, for vengeance and justice” (34). For her pains she is herself killed by Sir Walter after she refuses to marry him; this, in fact, is why the wing is deserted:

Soon after [the death of Lady Lovel], it was reported that the Castle was haunted, and that the ghosts of Lord and Lady Lovel had been seen by several of the servants. Whoever went into this apartment were terrified by uncommon noises and strange appearances; at length this apartment was wholly shut up, and the servants were forbid to enter it, or to talk of any thing relating to it: However, the story did not stop here; it was whispered about, that the new Lord Lovel was so disturbed every night that he could not sleep in quiet; and, being at last tired of the place, he sold the Castle and estate of his ancestors, to his brother-in-law the Lord Fitz-Owen, who now enjoys it, and left this country. (34—35)

So, in reality, there are several supernatural incidents, even if they all stem from the central crime of the murder of Lord Lovel; for the appearance of his ghost to his wife is manifestly supernatural and not merely the product of mental perturbation as a result of her grief; and the servants’ witnessing of the ghosts of the two of them is also clearly suggested to be real and not delusional. It is worth noting that, as Eino Railo long ago pointed out, the one innovation in The Old English Baron is the introduction of the deserted wing of section of a castle, and its subsequent haunting.

Walpole’s and Reeve’s novels inspired any number of imitations, adaptations, and so on; but by the late 1780s a new force emerged that would take the Gothic novel in a very different direction.