The Caste of Otranto was not just one of the earliest Gothic novels—if not, indeed, the very first to truly be deserving of called such—it was actually among the first wave of literary works experimenting with this newfangled way of constructing stories in prose. Poetry was king of all the literary world when Horace Walpole wrote his ghost story and verse reined so high and mighty that it never for a moment feared deposition at the hands of the ungainly little upstart. A couple of centuries needed to pass for the novel finally was considered to be more than a punky kid brother to poetry. As a result, many of the first novelists felt the compulsion to kick off their lowly regarded tales with the inclusion of a preface. Today, of course, a preface seems distinctly out of place in a work of fiction. That was the point.
Authors engaged the preface as a sort of tricky roundabout way to create a sense for the reader that it was just within the realm of possibility that the events described in the novel might actually have taken place. Novels were distinguished from lofty poetry not only by virtue of being recorded in prose, but by being populated with average characters. Average being extremely relative; the characters in most of the earliest English novels were hardly average, but they were a lot closer to the typical reader than the gods and royalty which populated nearly every poem and play. With such a stark divergence, novelists often turned to prefatory material for purposes more related to modern day marketing than any actual literary necessity.
Take, for instance, the preface to The Castle of Otranto that Horace Walpole inserts before the story proper begins. Here is an example of a preface with a very specific marketing goal in mind: to suggest to the reader still trying to get a handle on just what this whole “novel” thing was really getting that the story he was about to read had actually been created sometime during the Middle Ages. Which just so happens to be the period of history in which the story they are about to read takes place. Why try to convince readers they were reading a tale set in the Dark Ages that was created during the Dark Ages? To lend it a greater sense of realism.
With this preface, Walpole aims to suggest that his story filled with clearly unrealistic supernatural elements is actually an example of realism because it portrays characters living during an age of widespread belief that every one of those supernatural aspects of the story were absolutely real. The preface lays out the promise to readers that they will be reading a story written during a time when people really would have acted exactly in the way that the characters in the story acted. Essentially, the addition of the preface transforms the story that Walpole created of people responding to unrealistic events in unrealistic ways into a story of people responding realistically to events they would have believed to be real. A subtle differentiation, to be sure, but also one that makes all the difference.
Lest one think that this differentiation is so subtle as to make no difference and that Walpole’s readership must have been highly suggestible to even consider a moment that the preface might lend some sense of realism to his supernatural tale, consider modern movie audiences. Before you automatically reject the power of Walpole’s prefatory addition to impact the realism of The Castle of Otranto, ask yourself whether you or someone you know were one of those people who went to the theater to watch The Blair Witch Project thinking it actually was the authentic video footage of real life events that its brilliant viral marketing program convinced so many it was.