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A Mountain of Sable Plumes

January 22, 2014 | by


Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s Gothic revivalist manor, in Twickenham.

Earlier this week, to commemorate Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, Flavorpill found ten Gothic short stories for our delectation, and I must say, they’re really hitting the spot. January is especially well suited to the tint of the Gothic mindset—nothing helps you settle into the winter doldrums like an unceasing parade of bloodied knives, thousand-yard stares, disemboweled corpses, creaking doors, and shrieking virgins. It’s enough to make you want to sunder a frilled shirt and drink rancid port from a tarnished silver chalice, muttering all the while about the gloaming, the gloaming, the gloaming

And let’s not forget the funereal knell of church bells. You’ll want those, too.

If you really want to whip yourself into a Gothic froth, I recommend The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, widely regarded as the forebear of the Gothic proper. It’s not “good,” exactly—you won’t find independent booksellers foisting it on you as a forgotten classic—but it packs a lot of senseless murk into a slim volume, and it features one of my favorite opening scenes in all of literature: a homely young man is crushed to death by a giant helmet, which seems to have fallen from the sky. His father, Prince Manfred, comes upon the disaster:

The first thing that struck Manfred’s eyes was a group of his servants endeavoring to raise something that appeared to him a mountain of sable plumes. He gazed without believing his sight.

“What are ye doing?” cried Manfred, wrathfully; “where is my son?”

A volley of voices replied, “Oh! my Lord! the Prince! the Prince! the helmet! the helmet!”

Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily,—but what a sight for a father’s eyes!—he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.

The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune had happened, and above all, the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the Prince’s speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it. He touched, he examined the fatal casque; nor could even the bleeding mangled remains of the young Prince divert the eyes of Manfred from the portent before him.

And so on. It’s a turn that seems straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, but without the fart sounds. You can read all of Otranto here; it goes on to include ghosts, brazen trumpets, and walking portraits, among other oddities. If you’re not engrossed, you may be, at least, instructively perplexed. And when, after a few hours in the hysteria and gloom, you raise your heavy eyes, the winter will be that much closer to its end.




  1. Meaghan | January 23, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Never much cared for Otranto, even in a silly context. It’s just too weird. I do, however, highly recommend and equally obscure Gothic novel called WIELAND, by Charles Brockden Brown. It’s psychological, creepy, romantic and is based on real murders in 1781 America.

  2. Dan Piepenbring | January 23, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    I’m sold. Adding to my to-read list.

  3. Beatrice Winner | September 15, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    I think this novel is hilarious; as funny as Monte Python. Am I the only one?

  4. Nix | April 20, 2016 at 4:45 am

    Clearly Beatrice you are not “the only one” if your read the above review.

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