Horace Walpole (1717-97) wrote a ghost story, but not just any ghost story. The dire events and super-sized shade of Prince Alfonso in The Castle of Otranto spooked the reading public, and catapulted Walpole to literary fame.
Otranto was criticized for its thin characters, and outlandish machinations (Clery, Rise 84), but others, like Sir Walter Scott, found the story “grand, tragical, and affecting, (and concluded that) applause which cannot be denied to him who can excite the passions of fear and of pity must be awarded to the author of The Castle of Otranto” (Lewis 158). The new consumer reading public snatched up every copy, and publishers since then have printed over a hundred editions.
Otranto and its ghost contributed to the birth of an entirely new type of novel, a Gothic novel which combined “the ancient and the modern” (9), flaunting a supernatural twist that stood alone, free from the dictates of religious dogma, and wound down through the centuries, sprouting many literary branches on its way to our current age, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.
A distinct age of reason and enlightenment had seized the educated minds of Europe in the eighteenth century, so why would a privileged politician and part-time intellectual, albeit a dilettante, stir up a hornet’s nest, and bring back the so-called superstitious barbarism of the Gothic age when the literati had worked so hard to eliminate it, and the clerics claimed supernatural phenomena strictly their domain?
Walpole sidestepped the condemnation of clerics, and the censure of critics by going straight to the source: the reading public.
Otranto survived the criticisms because of the eighteenth century “rise of consumerism” (Clery, Rise 5). People bought the book, and the template for terror in Otranto inspired many later romantic novelists to copy its winning formula, the most famous example in the 1790s being The Monk by Matthew Lewis.
In Walpole’s opinion, “the great resources of fancy have been dammed up” (9). Walpole imagined an undeniable ghost the size of King Kong to break down that dam.
The Castle of Otranto was not the doodling of a delusional youth, but the product of a mature writer with an ax to grind. Before Otranto, Walpole published Anecdotes of Painting in England (1962), and was considered an expert on antiquarian artifacts and Gothic architecture (Lewis 167). Walpole was forty-seven when he wrote Otranto, and lived in a pseudo Gothic castle he had built from scratch. He claimed he saw a ghost in a nightmare, specifically “a gigantic hand in armour” (Clery, Intro vii). Within two months he wrote the story to keep his mind off politics with a passion likened to automatic writing (Lewis 161).
Two years before the ghost of Alfonso showed up in Walpole’s nightmare, a ghost of smaller proportions, the Cock Lane ghost of 1762, became “the talk of London” (Clery, Rise 13). Later demystified and exposed as a fraud, the ghost of a murdered woman supposedly scratched on the wall in response to questions, and attracted throngs of people from all strata of society day and night.
The event was likened to theatre and “commercial exploitation” (Clery, Rise 15). David Garrick’s successful play at Drury Lane, The Farmer’s Return, was representative of the enormous attention given to this ghost. Essentially, the play mocked the credulity of city-folk, a reversal of the belief that only ignorant country-folk believed in ghost stories (Clery, Rise 16).
Walpole believed that “a god, at least a ghost, was absolutely necessary to frighten us out of too much senses” (Walpole, Letters Vol. 3 381), a slam against didactic “sensibility” novels of the day, like the wildly popular Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. Many Englishmen agreed with Walpole. In a Preface to Faliero, Lord Byron praised author Walpole for not writing another “puling (whiny) love-play” (Walpole, Letters Vol. 1).
One can imagine the slightly built Walpole in a trance, hovered over his manuscript with a Victor Frankenstein-like intensity in the act of creating a monster. Sunlight filters through a gothic stained glass, casting an array of colors over Walpole’s shoulder as it inches across the floor on a summer evening in 1764. The room around him dims, until the only light is from an oil lamp shining on the page he feverishly scribbles on into the wee hours. He later writes his friend Cole that his “hand and fingers were so weary, that he could not hold the pen to finish the sentence” (Clery, Intro vii).
The intensity of physical pain and sexual tension in Otranto must have had a cathartic affect on Walpole, and offered a release for pent-up imaginative fantasies, or a sedative for his nerves and brain. Burke wondered if these fanciful thoughts were “a sort of delightful horror (or) exercise necessary for the finer organs” (Burke 123).
Even with all the praise, Walpole did not see the immediate success of the genre Gothic. He admitted to Mme du Deffand, “I have not written for this century, which wants only cold reason” (Lewis 161). Yet, under the guise of offering a new literature, Walpole indulged his creative urges, and in the process formed a template for a ghost, and a storyline that did not vaporize into the questionable ether, nor direct the reader’s loyalties toward a particular religious dogma. Some laughed at the ghost of Alfonso for its ‘machinations’, but Walpole was unmoved. “If I have amused you by retracing with any fidelity the manners of ancient days, I am content” (Walpole, Letters Vol. 3 378).
Walpole’s murderous shade is a device of dynamic “terror, the author’s principle engine” (6). With a ghost of such an “immense magnitude” (112), its existence cannot be ignored, or denied. The phantasmal ghost of Alfonso still lives on as a relic of an early attempt to scintillate, possibly scare, or simply entertain. Most likely, future generations will continue to be haunted by dank castles, creepy ghosts, miraculous events, and romantic terrors. The human need for romance and mystery seems bottomless.