Terror and Wonder: The Gothic imagination. I first discovered Gothic literature as a teenager when I read French writer Jules Verne's novel The Carpathian casle, and like many other readers, I quickly fell in love with the sublime scenery and the dark mysteries of medieval castles perched atop lonely and perilous mountains that are so frequent in Gothic fiction (and for those of you who might not know it, the Transylvanian castle in Jules Vernes' novel actually served as the model of Dracula's castle in Bram Stoker's novel). Since then, I have read a few other books belonging to this particular genre, and become quite a fan of Gothic, so the poster at the British Library immediately roused my interest.
The exhibition started with The Castle of Otranto, the novel which is generally considered as the precursor of the Gothic literary genre. Originally published in 1764 under the guise of a translation of an old Italian text printed at Naples in 1529, and supposedly discovered in the library of "an ancient Catholic family in the north of England", the novel is set in the Middle Ages and tells the story of Manfred, prince of Otranto. Hoping to avert an ancient prophecy according to which his dynasty would come to an end, Manfred plans to marry his son Conrad, heir to the house of Otranto, to Isabel, the daughter of the marquis of Vicenza. However, on the day of the wedding, his son is mysteriously crushed to death beneath a gigantic helmet adorned with black feathers. The vile , cruel and scheming Manfred accuses a young peasant of having murdered his son, and he determines to divorce his current wife Hippolita and marry his son's bride himself to perpetuate his bloodline. This unnatural union is cursed, and soon a series of supernatural omens threaten the doomed marriage…
I enjoyed reading this eigtheenth-century classic because it helped me understand the origin of the tropes of Gothic fiction: the settings, which usually include ancient medieval castles or houses standing in a remote and desolate landscape with an uncanny and supernatural feeling; the characters, which typically involve a confrontation between a vulnerable virgin and an obscene, aristocratic patriarchal figure full of lust; and finally the dominant theme of a male sexual desire perceived as overwhelming and threatening, from which the heroin must flee to save her life, and which ultimately destabilizes the world order and causes a tragedy that was announced by disruptive supernatural forces from the afterlife.
The exhibition at the British Library quite rightly established and described the filiation between The Castle of Otranto and other works of literary fiction (Count Dracula and Dr Frankenstein's creature, in a way, are but later incarnations of Manfred), but also other types of media in contemporary popular culture, such as the more recent Twilight and The Walking Dead movies and TV shows. Without consciously knowing it, quite a few of us are actually indirectly readers of Horace Walpole's classic novel.