Dracula. Siouxsie and the Banshees. Jane Eyre, The Fall of the House of Usher, Rebecca, and The Haunting of Hill House. That Hound of the Baskervilles scaring people out on the moors. Tim Burton’s career. Joy Division and New Order. All of these and more might not exist today, had Horace Walpole not published The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Most literary experts agree that The Castle of Otranto created the genre of gothic fiction and influenced numerous novels, poems, and other works of art in its own century and beyond.
Walpole claimed he had a dream one night at his Gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill, which compelled him to write the novel. He then practiced automatic writing and parsed his dreams as he wrote the manuscript over the next two months. He later explained, “I gave reign to my imagination; visions and passions choked me. I wrote it in spite of rules, critics, and philosophers; it seems to me the better for that. I am even persuaded that in the future, when taste will be restored to the place now occupied by philosophy, my poor Castle will find admirers.”
The stimulus behind Walpole’s invention of a brand-new literary genre was, as is usually the case in these things, a deep and enduring dissatisfaction with conventions popular at the time. Those conventions belong to the genre that today is referred to as neoclassicism. Walpole’s major issue with the neoclassical, realist fiction of his time was it had come to seem ridiculously contrived and desperately uninspired. What he wanted to read were stories that imitated reality in a more authentic way, eschewing the insipid blandness of mere reportage. Much of the most popular fiction at the time Walpole starting composing The Castle of Otranto were those excruciatingly detailed books about manners that painted a portrait of reality that was only accurate on the surface and did not bother trying to penetrate into the psychological imperative behind the commitment to those manners.
What Walpole set out to do with his novel was to alter the concept of fiction as an imitation of reality and its stagnation of merely recording how people behaved, instead putting forward a more imaginative exploration of reality by analyzing how people behaved. The most authentic means of getting at the raw root of behavior was to push characters out of the mundane reality of everyday life and into situations of such extraordinary conditions that the true nature of one’s character could no longer be concealed. He wanted to move beyond the realist nature of novels of his day, exemplified by the writings of Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson.
The result of Walpole's efforts was The Castle of Otranto. Within this brand-new type of novel, readers would confront a gloomy and mysterious castle where the decay of age symbolized the degeneration of the humans inhabiting it. Other elements to be found in Walpole’s prototype of gothic fiction include a portentous and menacing forecast of the fates of the characters, labyrinthine corridors beneath the castle, people locked behind closed doors in difficult-to-reach rooms, a supernatural patina covering the entire narrative, apparitions, a sense of doom, pervasive dread, and a multitude of scenes taking place at night or in the darkness. Walpole’s friend Thomas Gray stated the novel made “some of us cry a little, and all in general afraid to go to bed o’nights." Contemporary literary critic Sophie Missing wrote for The Guardian, “although undeniably melodramatic, it is saved from absurdity by its playful tone. It established both the stock characters of the genre (evil tyrant, virtuous maiden, noble peasant) and its motifs (the supernatural, incest, mistaken identity). By turns lurid, sensational and amusing, it remains an imaginative tour de force.”
Walpole published the novel under the name “William, Marshall, Gent” in 1764 as an alleged translation of a medieval Italian manuscript. A year later, a second edition explained that he was in fact its author, but some thought this claim was actually a ruse.
The novel was profoundly popular, selling out in three months. It would eventually go through 115 editions. Imitations came almost immediately, the first being Clara Reeve’s 1778 Old English Baron. Ann Radcliffe helped transform the genre in the 1790s with her famed The Mysteries of Udolpho.
In 1781 the Covent Garden Theatre staged a performance of the play, adapted by the Irish playwright Robert Jephson. In 1964 Salvador Dali contributed illustrations to an edition of the novel. In 1979 a Surrealist film by Jan Švankmajer took the novel for its subject and was structured as a pseudo-documentary.