John Giles Eccardt, 1754, with Strawberry Hill in the background

250 years ago a young man with a generous trust fund and a gilded macabre imagination invented modern gothic style and fiction as we know it. His name was Horace Walpole and his “spirit” flows through almost ever scary story and every bleak bannister. Horace Walpole was the son of essentially the first Prime Minister of England, Sir Robert Walpole, and used his privileged position in life to indulge his aesthetic sensibilities to the extreme.

His life’s work was a large country house called Strawberry Hill where he toiled for 50 years to perfect an interior of “gloomth,” a charming word he coined that’s still, sadly, only sparsely used. He completely redid the interior of the white box home with scraps from the past inspired by the hauntingly beautiful cathedrals and tombs he discovered on a youthful tour of Europe. He helped modernize gothic style by mixing and matching different concepts and playfully dark themes. For example, he had the wallpaper in his entranceway partially painted to resemble an aging tomb much like the faux flourishes we currently employ to make new things seem old. Recent restoration of the details have used the same methods available to Walpole at the time, so if you visit Strawberry Hill, you’ve get a very similar experience to the 18th century version of the Walpole’s castle.

“In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinement in luxury. The designs of the inside and outside are strictly ancient, but the decorations are modern.” – Horace Walpole

The creeping staircases and sweeping rococo archways of his glommthy “castle” inspired Walpole’s best literary endeavor The Castle of Otranto, which is also a new thing dressed in antiquity. He first sold the tale as “an Italian tale from the darkest Middle Ages” discovered in a remote library, but owned up to authorship once the story became popular. Some speculation is that he didn’t want to initially tie his name to the story in case it was panned, but the fictional background story also works as a titillating sales pitch.

The idea for the breathless, melodramatic book full of ghostly large floating body parts came to him one night in a dream inspired by Strawberry Hill. Walpole wrote about his revelation to Rev. William Cole in a letter dated March 9th, 1765

“I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate.”

This is the plot according a description on an Amazon listing: “After the grotesque death of his only son, Conrad, on his wedding day, Manfred determines to marry the bride-to-be. The virgin Isabella flees through a castle riddled with secret passages. Chilling coincidences, ghostly visitations, arcane revelations, and violent combat combine in a heady mix that is both chilling and terrifying.”

According to many critics the quality of the storytelling doesn’t hold up very well over the years, but the seeds of imagination for some of our most cherish tales like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the intense spidering of culture that sprang from them, were planted in this visionary book.

Walpole feared that his “buildings are paper…and will all be blown away in ten years after I am dead,’ But almost 250 years later both his beloved Strawberry Hill and his novel remain both in literal form, but also woven in the structure of our culture, literature and art.


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