Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; Frankenstein (Horace Walpole)

The Gothic novel, which flourished from about 1765 until 1825, revels in the horrible and the supernatural, ...
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MichaelWischme yer

Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; Frankenstein (Horace Walpole) 4

I was new to the Gothic genre when I first encountered this Dover publication some years ago. At that time I considered the plot for The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole to be farfetched, almost ludicrous. The mystical Oriental tale, Vathek (1782), by William Beckford seemed endless. Only the short story titled The Vampyre (1819, by John Polidori) met my expectations.

My opinion today is quite different. I have gradually become familiar with Gothic literature, and I now appreciate just how innovative these three stories were, and to how great an extent these tales influenced later writers. I give four stars to this collection.

The eighteenth century was clearly a period of philosophical and scientific progress. And yet, many readers were immediately intrigued and entertained by the supernatural, bizarre elements in The Castle of Otranto. Hundreds of authors subsequently imitated Walpole's Gothic style. Although many of these later stories had little literary merit, the Gothic novel remained immensely popular for the following century.

Today, it is true that the supernatural aspects in The Castle of Otranto may be overworked, the dialogue is often stilted, and the plot relies too much on coincidences. Nonetheless, The Castle of Otranto remains quite entertaining and suspenseful. The lengthy introduction by Sir Walter Scott (included in the 1811 edition) illustrates the remarkable impact of "this new species of literary composition".

William Beckford's Vathek is so original that it hardly fits even the Gothic genre. Beckford, a noted scholar of early Arabian literature, provided more than fifty pages of explanatory end notes. For some reason he first published Vathek in French. Later it was translated and published in English without his approval. I still find Vathek to be overly long, but this time I was intrigued with its mystical Arabian Nights motif, its chilling characters, and its vivid portrayal of evil.

In an introduction to The Vampyre the author John Polidori claimed (possibly to increase sales) that Lord Byron had created the plot at the same literary soiree in Geneva in which Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein. Lord Byron disputed Polidori's claim and produced his own notes from that famous gathering. Regardless, The Vampyre is fascinating short story.

E. F. Bleiler edited this collection and provided a lengthy, interesting introduction to three authors that were instrumental in developing the Gothic novel.

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Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; Frankenstein (Horace Walpole) 5

This volume is an excellent introduction to four
works of the Gothic mindset, which hit England at
the end of the 1700s and lasted on into the early
Romantic period, all the way up to the late decadence
of the 1890s, winding up in Robert Louis Stevenson's
Oscar Wilde's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1891), and
Bram Stoker's DRACULA (1897).
These are four of the earliest of this Gothic genre.
The volume includes Horace Walpole's THE CASTLE OF
OTRANTO (Christmas Eve, 1764); William Beckford's
VATHEK (1786); John Polidori's VAMPYRE (1819); and
a Vampire Fragment by Lord Byron (1819), "which was
published at the end of MAZEPPA in 1819."
The list of Gothic NOVELS (rather than stories)
in chronological order which make the grade are:
Horace Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO (1764), Clara
Reeve's THE CHAMPION OF VIRTUE (1777), William
Beckford's VATHEK (1786), Ann Radcliffe's THE
MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO (1794), Matthew Gregory Lewis's
THE MONK (1795), Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN (1818),
John Polidori's VAMPYRE (1819), Charles R. Maturin's
There are excellent introductions to each of the
writers and their works at the beginning of the book.
In speaking of THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO, Bleiler says:
"This novel has been called one of the half-dozen
historically most important novels in English. The
founder of a school of fiction, the so-called Gothic
novel, it served as the direct model for an enormous
quantity of novels written up through the first
quarter of the 19th century.... It was probably
the most important source for enthusiasm for the
Middle Ages that suddenly swept Europe in the later
18th century, and many of the trappings of the early
19th century Romantic movement have been traced to
it. It embodied the spirit of an age."
There is included a series of impressive "Notes"
to the novel VATHEK: An Arabian Tale. The novel
begins in an interesting fashion: "Vathek, ninth
caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son
of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun al Raschid.
From an early accession to the throne, and the talents
he possessed to adorn it, his subjects were induced to
expect that his reign would be long and happy. His
figure was pleasing and majestic: but when he was
angry, one of his eyes became so terrible, that no
person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon
whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and
sometimes expired. For fear, however, of depopulating
his dominions and making his palace desolate, he but
rarely gave way to his anger."
And here is a sample bite from John Polidori's
VAMPYRE: "There was no colour upon her cheek, not
even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about
her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life
that once dwelt there: --upon her neck and breast
was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth
having opened the vein: -- to this the men pointed,
crying, simultaneously struck with horror, "A
Vampyre! a Vampyre!"

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Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; Frankenstein (Horace Walpole) 4

This is a fabulous collection representing the beginning of Gothic fiction. Otronto is the very first such work, and is a perfect illustration of the basic themes and plotlines predominant in Gothic. Although not the most polished work of fiction, it's often so bad it's funny, and definitely worth reading. The other stories are much more professional, albeit a bit drier reading. I'm especially fond of Vathek, as it more clearly represents fear fiction as it was to become. Dr. Polidori's piece is particularly intersting as he was a physician and present at the famous ghost-story-telling session(s) of Byron and the Shelley couple.

On the whole, this collection is the ideal glimpse into the genre at its rudimentary level.

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