Supernatural Horror In Literature: III. The Early Gothic Novel

Michael O. Varhola

Read H.P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature: II. The Dawn of the Horror-Tale

The shadow-haunted landscapes of “Ossian” (right), the chaotic visions of William Blake  (below left ), the grotesque witch-dances in [Robert] Burns’s “Tam O’Shanter” , the sinister daemonism of [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge’s  (below left of center Christabel and [The Rime of the Ancient Mariner  (below right of center ), the ghostly charm of James Hogg’s  (below right “Kilmeny”, and the more restrained approaches to cosmic horror in  Lamia and many of [John] Keats’s other poems, are typical British illustrations of the advent of the weird to formal literature. Our Teutonic cousins of the Continent were equally receptive to the rising flood, and [Gottfried August] Bürger’s “Wild Huntsman” and the even more famous daemon-bridegroom ballad of “Lenore” — both imitated in English by [Walter] Scott , whose respect for the supernatural was always great — are only a taste of the eerie wealth which German song had commenced to provide. Thomas Moore adapted from such sources the legend of the ghoulish statue-bride (later used by Prosper Mérimée in “The Venus of Ille” , and traceable back to great antiquity) which echoes so shiveringly in his ballad of “The Ring”; whilst [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe’s deathless masterpiece  Faustcrossing from mere balladry into the classic, cosmic tragedy of the ages, may be held as the ultimate height to which this German poetic impulse arose. 


But it remained for a very sprightly and worldly Englishman — none other than Horace Walpole  (below left ) himself — to give the growing impulse definite shape and become the actual founder of the literary horror-story as a permanent form. Fond of mediaeval romance and mystery as a dilettante’s diversion, and with a quaintly imitated Gothic castle as his abode at Strawberry Hill ( below right ), Walpole in 1764 published  The Castle of Otranto ; a tale of the supernatural which, though thoroughly unconvincing and mediocre in itself, was destined to exert an almost unparalleled influence on the literature of the weird. First venturing it only as a translation by one “William Marshal, Gent.” from the Italian of a mythical “Onuphrio Muralto”, the author later acknowledged his connexion with the book and took pleasure in its wide and instantaneous popularity — a popularity which extended to many editions,