Gothick Dreams

An 1835 illustration for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

“I waked one morning [in 1764] from a dream, of which, all I could recover, was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write…”
— Horace Walpole, in a letter

At the heart of early Gothick literature — I use the spelling ‘Gothick’ to differentiate it from historical or architectural meanings of Gothic — broods The Castle.

And when I say ‘Castle’ I mean those edifices, usually ancient abbeys or mansions, with a clutch of qualities which we immediately recognise, namely antique origins, some of which may be ruinous, harbouring histories of romance, the supernatural, even horror, and — at its heart — mysteries in the form of eldritch scandals or objects, accessed via secret passages, tunnels, caves, crumbling staircases and hidden doors.

The attraction of stories that include these edifices is twofold: first, the intellectual satisfaction that comes from following a confusing trail that may or may not lead to answers; and second, the curiosity that has its roots in psychology, dreams, even nightmares, with an inkling that the skull may itself be the castle and that, within it, the brain’s convolutions hide the ultimate mystery. Let’s have a look at these two aspects.

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill mansion, Twickenham

Whence the template of the Gothick Castle? Revenge tragedies, perhaps; the acknowledged epitome of the genre must surely be Hamlet. Here, in the corridors and chambers of Elsinore lurks the concealment of a murder; here, on the battlements, manifests a ghost crying for justice; here, behind tapestries and in poisoned chalices, lurks death. Both Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe own up to the debt they owe to the play, and that legacy will filter down through the centuries.

Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (published on Christmas Eve, 1764) is the progenitor of the genre, combining the tropes of wicked rulers and defenceless damsels, secret passages and crypts, and supernatural happenings and tempestuous weather. Walpole realised his fictional Italian castle mirrored aspects of the Gothick residence he’d had built for himself at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, and “the towers, the gates, the chapel, the great hall” were unconsciously based on one of the Cambridge colleges he was familiar with in his student days which he had used “as the plan of my Castle without being conscious of it myself.”

The early novel of one of his successors, Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance (1790), added wild scenery and colourful imagery to Walpole’s elements, accentuated by the liberal use of adjectives such as romantic and picturesque. The strange lights in the unused southern range of the Castle of Mazzini on the north coast of Sicily are believed to be from a ghost, and the duplicitous Count leads us to believe that a dark deed in the distant past has led him to shut off that part. But his supernatural explanations dissemble, for he has secrets to hide.

Blaise Castle, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

In 1798 Jane Austen began writing what was to become Northanger Abbey (though it was not published till after her death in 1817); in this she references several Gothick authors and their works, in which the young heroine Susan, later renamed Catherine, immerses herself before visiting the Tilney residence. Encouraged by Henry Tilney to indulge her romantic fantasies about the place she is frankly disappointed that the former religious house converted into a residence is so modern in appearance and taste. She would have done better to have visited Blaise Castle outside Bristol which was, in fact, a newly built folly which would have fitted all her expectations, as Austen slyly tells us.

William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey

In fact, follies and mock medieval residences were one way to have a more or less instant fix of Gothick, and Walpole was not the only person with land and money to indulge himself. William Beckford built Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire between 1796 and 1813, though most of it fell down in 1825, demolished by 1845. The Scottish author Sir Walter Scott had completed Abbotsford in the Gothick style by the time Fonthill collapsed, and that of course still survives, as does the fairytale structure of Neuschwanstein built by Ludwig II on the Rhine. But the structures that live on in the memory are the ones that we find constructed in books.

Still from Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle

The castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is described as vast and ruined, and those key elements — medieval architecture, the supernatural, horror, ruins, secrets — are found down through the succeeding centuries into the 21st: think of the castle in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, Château d’Eppstein by Alexandre Dumas, Charlotte Bronte’s Thornfield in Jane Eyre, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and J K Rowling’s Hogwarts, even hinted at in the title of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. For instance, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (1946) introduced us to the Gormenghast domain, its denizens, and their dark deeds. At the start of the sequel called Gormenghast (1950) he reminds us of where we’d left off previously:

“Titus the seventy-seventh Heir to a crumbling summit : to a sea of nettles : to an empire of red rust : to rituals’ footprints ankle-deep in stone.

Gormenghast.

Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra : the immemorial masonry : the towers, the tracts…”


So, why this fascination with the idea of a castle? Can psychology explain the attraction? Perhaps we might get an idea from dreams, such as that which led to Walpole writing his novel. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) Carl Gustav Jung described a dream he’d had — in India — of an island off the coast of Britain:

“On the rocky coast at the southern end of the island was a medieval castle. We stood in its courtyard, a group of sightseeing tourists. Before us rose an imposing belfroi, through whose gate a wide stone staircase was visible. We could just manage to see that it terminated above in a columned hall. This hall was dimly illuminated by candle-light. I understood that this was the castle of the Grail […].”

After a hiatus in his dream he understands that

“the Grail was not yet in the castle and still had to be celebrated that same evening. It was said to be in the northern part of the island, hidden in a small, uninhabited house, the only house there. I knew that it was our task to bring the Grail to the castle […].

He sets off across the island, but just when he is almost in reach of his goal he wakes, his quest incomplete; the now conscious dreamer is left wondering about the dream’s true significance.

The grail is just one of many relics or magical objects that many narratives employ as a symbol, the key to the opening of a door, its finding leading to a resolution. I wonder, then, whether we should imagine the castle or similar structure as somehow symbolic of the mind? I’m almost tempted to see the folds of the brain as corridors leading to doors, with doors concealing steps leading down to a chamber hiding secrets.

Not all secrets are pleasant, of course — we may hope that what may be revealed won’t be like the secrets concealed in Bluebeard’s bloody chamber. Instead it may turn out to be what one unconsciously hopes for — love, possibly, or a treasure, some healing, a revelation, or a definitive answer to a nagging question. Thus might the trope of the Gothick Castle satisfy on both an intellectual and an emotional level.


A post written for Witch Week 2020 and first published on Lizzie Ross’s blog on 31st October; most links are to my book reviews

12 thoughts on “Gothick Dreams

  1. I like this piece. There is something bewitching about these buildings. I’ve read about Fonthill before but this is the first time I’ve seen a picture of the doomed building. We covered Gothick at university back in the early 80s. Otranto, The Monk, Frankenstein etc.. I’ve read Brideshead, Northanger, Jane Eyre, and a few more since. I think I may have to sort out a revisit sometime in the near future. Excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Simon, glad this resonated with you. All those classic Gothick titles really rely on suitable environments, even if there’s no castle in Frankenstein there is at least the scholar’s garret, the doomed bridal chamber, the captain’s cabin to compensate. 🙂 There are by the way contemporary plans, elevations and engravings of Fonthill online — all very atmospheric!

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  2. I visited Helsingor castle (the basis for Hamlet’s Elsinore) last year, and found it almost disappointingly un-creepy. That being said, I was there in glorious sunshine, and a good dose of fog on a chilly night might well have proved the right setting for a ghostly apparition.
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Isobel! Though I’ve only seen extracts from it, didn’t Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet film use Helsingor for its location shots, interior and exterior? It definitely didn’t have the same Gothic feel as, say, Olivier’s or Gibson’s versions, but perhaps was closer to the play’s Jacobean origins.

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      1. Several adaptations filmed on location at the castle, yes – there was a photo exhibition about it when I was there, but I don’t remember too many details (although I think photos of Olivier at Helsingor were featured too?)

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        1. Just had a browse online: Branagh’s film used Blenheim for outside locations, interiors in a studio,while Gibson’s used exterior shots from Scottish castles and at Dover Castle. Olivier and others all acted stage versions at Kronborg Castle but no English language movies, as far as I can see, were shot there. So my earlier speculations were entirely off the mark — but that doesn’t stop me envying your visit to Helsingor!

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          1. Oh dear, I was completely misinformed! Great how quickly a search engine can put that right.
            Would recommended a visit to the castle if you get the chance – I went on a sunny spring day and took the ferry from Sweden, really making a day of it.

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  3. Alyson Woodhouse

    I have always been curious about dreams, my own being very specific and structured. They seem all too plausable sometimes, as they are usually about people and places I know. It is a very strange feeling when I wake up partly through a dream and the narrative has been interupted. I’ll need to start reading into Jungian psychology, thank you for such a thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the interruption of the dream narrative is how we remember any vivid details, otherwise so many of our dreams will be lost in the depths of profound sleep.

      I’m sure there are easy primers about Jungian psychology, Alyson, as the ones I’ve got (which I used to avidly dip into years ago) are quite dense and hard to summarise.

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  4. A wonderful article. All the castle references from literature that came to my mind you included. I have been fascinated by castles since childhood, maybe after seeing Beauty and the Beast animation. They are magical, dark places and there is a feeling there is something unholy going on within. But also, as in Howl’s Moving Castle, they can be viewed as places of safety and wonder. I also love stories where castles stand symbolically for something, as in Pamuk’s The White Castle and, maybe more obviously, in Kafka’s The Castle.

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    1. Thanks very much, Diana, it was very much a quick romp through a few select castles rather than comprehensive list of literary examples. Though I should have me tion the Kafka novel, of course! I read it many years ago but have a yearning to revisit it now. I don’t know the Pamuk, I shall have to seek that out.

      I agree castles have a dual aspect, one sinister and the other benign, along with their symbolic role. I like to think the child in each of us would want to explore a castle, however ruinous, whether they’re a Blyton type of castle with villains hiding in underground tunnels or a Narnian edifice like Cair Paravel where one becomes a king or queen. I wish I was more familiar with European literary fortifications because I’m sure there are a many examples.

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