Three Tales You MUST Read if you Like Gothic Fiction…

…but you probably won’t enjoy.

I don’t know. Maybe you will. But I think this is a case of Important Reading not equalling Fun Reading or even Good Reading.

This month has been Read Scary Stuff Month. This summer I read the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales, Vols. 1 and 2. I followed that up with a little Poe, and then a collection of Lovecraft stories. Then, feeling frisky and academic, I decided to reach back to what many consider the starting point of the Gothic movement: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. It sat on my shelf for years as one of my many library book sale I-Should-Read-This-Someday finds. I knew it was an Important Story, having taken a course on Romantic Literature and Art in college. And as a fan of the Gothic, I knew I had to see the Granddaddy of Gothic Tales.

Well, Grandaddy may be the oldest in the family, but he ain’t the strongest.

The Castle of Otranto was written in 1764 by Horace Walpole. Set in Italy (as many Gothic tales were), the story focuses on Manfred, the Prince of Otranto, who has a son named Conrad and a daughter named Matilda. Conrad, on his wedding day, is crushed to death by a massive helmet (no spoiler alert here; it happens on the first page). What follows is a story filled with who-marries-who, ascendancy questions, unengaging prose, and histrionics. Conrad the Ghost makes a few appearances, and this formula became a template for many of Walpole’s later imitators.

Even the Foreword admits that The Castle of Otranto isn’t a great novel, and that later writers did far more with the Gothic attitude. And to be fair, it wasn’t a horrible novel. It just wasn’t a really good novel, either. Part of the problem may have been the conventions of prose. In the mid-eighteenth century, dialogue wasn’t always separated by paragraphs. As a result, conversations between characters become heavy blocks of text that are visually daunting. But I think more than anything, it just wasn’t that scary. Conrad the Ghost is pretty much mute and benign.

So overall, I read The Castle of Otranto, and I can say I did it. I don’t really plan to read it again, unless I’m pursuing a Ph.D or a coma.

But wait. There’s more.

The Castle of Otranto was in a collection with two other key early Gothic stories. Since I was already halfway through the volume, I thought, “Why not?”

Well, after reading William Beckford’s Vathek and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, I found myself kind of missing Otranto.

I must make a confession. I could not finish Vathek.

Vathek, a tale about a corrupt Caliph who descends into debauchery,  wasn’t just boring (though it was that). It was badly written. I could pull a dozen examples out, but here’s one:

“The caliph, notwithstanding his habitual luxury, had never before dined with so much satisfaction. He gave full scope to the joy of these golden tidings, and betook himself to drinking anew.”

Is it the vague language (“so much satisfaction,” “habitual luxury”)? The clunky syntax (“betook himself to drinking anew”)? Imagine sentence after sentence of this, working to squeeze some meaning or enjoyment from the text. Eventually, I realized I wouldn’t get more out of it than I put in, and I put it down.

Which brought me to The Vampyre by John Polidori. Polidori was Lord Byron’s personal physician, and often moody and disagreeable.  The tale is about an Englishman named Aubrey who befriends the weird and spooky Lord Ruthven, who–surprise–turns out to be a vampire. It wasn’t a terrible story, but it was clearly the work of a cranky doctor who pals around with writers, rather than the work of a writer.

I might actually gives these stories another try someday. Maybe I just didn’t give them the time or energy they required. But for now, they will return to my shelf, while I round out the month with the work of a more talented writer.

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2 thoughts on “Three Tales You MUST Read if you Like Gothic Fiction…

  1. Matt Hissong says:

    I read the Castle of Otranto as well. It was a very strange story, and I think every student of writing should read it because of just HOW fantastically odd it is. Why is it so odd? The whole blessed thing is driven by prophecy with a kind of “this is happening whether you like it or not” vibe that the characters have to deal with. It’s honestly like a natural disaster happening to the characters where the tornado hits this part of town at 1 AM, moves and hits another at 1:30, etc. Except instead of a natural disaster it’s pieces of prophecy. For example, a central character gets squashed by a giant helmet in the first five pages, if memory serves. I mean literally flattened.

    …things like this go on for the whole book. If you study how it was written, you find out the author had a dream and that became the book. Hence the forceful nature of the events, their implacable progress. If you find the process of writing or inspiration interesting, you should read this. But as Adam said, the text is going to throw you; particularly the dialogue. “There are no paragraph breaks between dialogue.” “No, not at all.” “And so it becomes a bit of a mess.” “A clusterf***, really.” “Mmmm, yes. Would you like a bit of tea?” “Oh yes, quite.”

    …what? It’s an English novel, bugger off.

  2. Also, at that point in history, the novel was not at all a reputable writing form. “Real” writers wrote essays or poetry. Walpole probably didn’t set out to create a work of capital-L Literature. Judging Walpole harshly against the Great Novelists would be like criticizing my approach to the fourth hole at Taylor’s Tiny Town Mini-Golf against the PGA Championship play of Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods.

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