Dracula. Siouxsie and the Banshees. That hound of the Baskervilles scaring people out on the moors. Tim Burton’s career. Joy Division and New Order. The entire industry of black cosmetics. All 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, by extension, everything that has ever expanded outward from it.
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 boredom with conventions popular at the time. Those conventions belong to the genre that today is referred to as Romance. Walpole’s major beef with the Romance fiction of his time was it all had come to seem ridiculously contrived and desperately uninspired. What he wanted to read himself were stories that imitated reality in a more authentic way that eschewed the insipid blandness of mere reportage. Keep in mind that 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 even bother trying to penetrate into the psychological imperative behind the commitment to those manners.
To put it in simple terms, what Walpole set out to do with The Castle of Otranto was to transport the concept of fiction as an imitation of reality from its contemporary stagnation of merely recording how people behaved into 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.
The result 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 an 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 an overwhelming amount of scenes taking place at night or in the darkness.
In other words, all the ingredients that readers have come to expect from gothic novels as diverse Jane Eyre, The Fall of the House of Usher, Rebecca and The Haunting of Hill House and beyond.