December 24: Goth before Goth

2016/12/24 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1764 The Castle of Otranto was first published.

Horace Walpole’s little book was like nothing that had ever been written.  Neither history nor fanciful historical embellishment; nor was it like other novels or plays strung up on a didactic framework of moralizing instruction.  The Castle of Otranto  was a spooky story, one that was set in an eerie medieval castle (oops, spoiler!) in which the churning of characters’ interiors were as important as what they did in the actual physical setting of the place.  Pages and pages might pass explaining the increasing creeping-out of a fair damsel stuck in a dark cellar, knowing someone was down there with her, but not knowing if it were friend or foe.

Now pretty typical boiler-plate fodder for ghost stories and scary movies, Walpole’s approach is pretty much the start of the genre that would become known as Gothick.  In addition to its literary impact, the bestseller also inspired the gloomy and quirky medievalizing style in decorative arts and architecture that swept through the second half of the eighteenth century.  It starts, properly enough, with his own house, Strawberry Hill.  Granted, the villa looks now like the love child of a wonky medieval orphanage and the world’s biggest petit-four (especially after this recent amazing restoration project).  A bit of a carnival, the villa launched a thousand flights of fancy, most notably Edmund Burke’s ridiculously sublime Fonthill Abbey.

Image: illustration from the book; if you don’t know what it’s about, you’ll have to read it!  (from this source)


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