For a few weeks now, the majority of the books I have read are of the Gothic genre. I had put novels aside while I dedicated myself to non-fiction books, but after reading The Monk by Matthew Lewis I became eager to explore other similar works. The Monk remains my favourite, with Zofloya, or The Moor and The Mysteries of Udolpho not far behind. However, today I’m sharing my thoughts on The Castle of Otranto and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
Regarded as the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto was first published in 1764. It was presented as the content found in an old chest, and a story based on a collection of letters originated in Italy between the eras of the First and last Crusades. Some aspects of this story reminded me of Le Fanu’s Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess; secret passages, a young woman in distress, the mighty man with dark intentions behind his seemingly friendly facade, etc. The story relates the lengths pursued by a sire to secure his bloodline when faced by the prophecy which means to claim his reign. There is also a romantic tangent to awaken the reader’s sympathy towards certain characters and their destiny. Although the story provokes the reader’s curiosity, the execution of the plot is not as distressing as some of the pieces that followed Walpole’s work. The Castle of Otranto is a mystery that incorporates controversial and frightening aspects with a touch of supernatural.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
The blurb on the Oxford World’s Classics edition describes this novel as “sardonic and terrifying”, which is somewhat deceiving if the reader is expecting a gruesome and graphic tale. In fact, I expected it to explore more of religious fanaticism and bloody crimes, but most of it happens behind the scenes, with the reader being merely informed of the events. There are two parts in this novel; the editor’s narrative and the main character’s narrative, which is a combination of a publication and a handwritten journal. The story focuses on George Colwan/Wringhim, the second son of the Laird of Dalcastle who is sent to live with his mother’s religious advisor (a man suggested to be his true father). George’s self-righteousness and obsession with Christianity acquaint him with a man known as Gil-Martin – who possesses the ability to change his appearance on command and, although George believes him to be Peter the Great of Russia, is implied to be the devil. It is hard to say if such a man existed within the story or if he was a figure of George’s imagination. At times, it seems like George and Gil-Martin are a single person, and George’s madness was the source of his dual personality, but mentions of angels and demons also hint to a supernatural theme that does not exclude the presence of the devil in this novel. The plot surrounds George’s early life, his acquaintance with Gil-Martin, his crimes, and the consequences of his actions up until his death. It is clear that this book inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the aspects that explore good and bad, right and wrong were intriguing. I was, however, expecting more details on how George executed his crimes. The reader should bear in mind that, although it touches controversial topics, the story itself more of a psychological mystery with postmodernist ideas.
If you’d like to explore Gothic Novels as well as other Classics with a small group of people, do check my new group on Goodreads, Analysing and Discussing Classics. The aim is to read a book every other month focusing on themes, structure, motifs, language, style, context, etc. and start a discussion on the designated topic in the forum. Our first book is The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, which is to be read during November as the discussion takes place on the last weekend of the month.