The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole
is the Gothic that inspired them all, establishing the common denominators of the genre: a greedy, controlling villain; a sweet, innocent heroine (or even two); a brave hero with a mysterious past; exotic medieval European locations; a castle with many secrets; and a plethora of supernatural occurrences guaranteed to keep audiences turning the pages, their hair standing on end the whole time.
The master of Castle of Otranto, Manfred, has a weakling son, Conrad, upon whom he has pinned all his hopes. He neglects his excellent wife and good daughter, and contracts a marriage for Conrad with the beautiful, rich orphan, Isabella. On the day of the marriage, Conrad is found in the courtyard of the castle crushed under a giant helmet. Could this have something to do with the mysterious ancient prophecy about Otranto, which stated that when the current family had grown too large for the position, they would fall from power? A young peasant suggests that the helmet looks like it came from a statue of Alfonso the Great, a former prince of Otranto, that stands in the village church. The helmet proves to be missing from the statue, and in his rage, Manfred accuses the peasant of using sorcery to crush Conrad with the helmet, and locks him up.
In order to secure himself an heir, Manfred determines to put aside his wife, Hippolita, and marry Isabella himself. Unwilling to go along with this plan, Isabella manages to escape the castle via a subterraneous passage to a neighboring church, assisted by a mysterious stranger. The stranger turns out to be the very peasant whom Manfred had locked up, and who had managed to escape. Manfred's daughter, Matilda, notices that the young man greatly resembles the portrait of Alfonso the Great. Manfred sentences the youth to execution, and when Father Jerome arrives to hear the young man's confession, he realizes that the young peasant is his long-lost son, Theodore.
Accidental murder, a prince thought to be dead, a love triangle, mysterious sightings of parts of the giant statue of Alfonso, and the true heir of Otranto are all sorted out, though not without the sacrifice of most of the characters.
Penguin Books Ltd
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The Mysteries of Udolpho
by Ann Radcliffe
Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of The Mysteries of Udolpho, is the sort of picture of perfection that makes everyone sick and wicked. She always thinks right and does right; scolds her maid for superstitious fears, whilst herself swooning when faced with anything even mildly strange or frightening, like a marriage proposal; plays her lute like an angel; writes sonnets to the glories of nature, such as a mountain climber plunging to his death in an Alpine crevice; and manages the very tricky heroine's feat of staying true to her man even while spurning him when he shows some human weakness.
After the death of her parents, Emily goes to live with her aunt, who is married to the evil Count Montoni, at Castle Udolpho. Udolpho is a mysterious place full of black veils hiding dreadful things, moving corpses, and other fearsome supernatural phenomena, though Emily manages to find satisfactory non-mysterious explanations for everything (after she is revived from her inevitable swoon, that is).
In the best tradition of Gothic villains, Montoni locks up his wife until she dies. Since Emily inherited her aunt's property, Montoni then turns his attentions to her. Emily manages to escape Castle Udolpho and meets up with Blanche de Villefort and her amusing and sarcastic brother, Henri. (If this sounds familiar to Janeites, we think it not entirely a coincidence.)
At this point, Emily retires centre stage to Blanche, who is a much more interesting character anyway, and Blanche embarks on her own romance. Radcliffe remembers Emily in time to allow her to inherit a fortune and marry Valancourt tho' he has managed to gamble away his own fortune. And they all live happily ever after...
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Margaret C. Sullivan is the webmistress of Tilneys and Trap-doors and AustenBlog, and shares more with Catherine Morland than an appreciation for horrid novels; namely, an appreciation for Henry Tilney.
Her upcoming novella, There Must Be Murder will be published exclusively on this website beginning in January, 2007.