A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction. Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole. Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre. Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts. I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter. The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts. “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it. We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.” Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.
Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times. A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages. Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic. Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle. All pretty straightforward. Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear. One aspect, however, does hold horror. The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men. They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.
It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder. We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate. Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case. Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history. The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run. Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals. My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls. Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?