Today’s Iconic Character of Horror Fiction hails from the first Horror novel ever written: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Many scholars believe this novel started the entire horror genre (I disagree with that, but that’s the subject of another article). It is definitely the earliest work that can inarguably be classified as a horror story, at least of the ones I’m familiar with. Since it’s a very early novel, many of the conventions we take for granted – quotation marks and paragraph breaks for different speakers during dialogue, for example – are missing, which can make it a difficult read. It has many elements that harken back to Renaissance plays like Macbeth and Hamlet, as well as medieval ballads of knights and chivalry. The result is a very surreal novel that may be too strange to scare most modern readers, but is still an incredibly interesting read if you can pass through the grammatical barrier.
There are many spectral apparitions in the story, but I’m focusing on perhaps the most iconic one of the lot, even if it’s a fairly mundane spook by modern standards. One of the heroic characters in the book, Frederic, is charged with a holy duty to bring peace to the titular castle of Otranto by a dying monk. When Frederic finally gets to the castle, he is tempted by the villain into straying from the virtuous path. Frederic later stumbles into the ghostly form of the monk in the castle, whose rotting skeleton warns him that he shall suffer great misery if he continues to shirk his duty. It’s an interesting moment because the monk is the first ghost who has no true connection to the Castle, being an outsider for the most part, and it implies that supernatural forces beyond the restless dead of Otranto are trying to set things right.
Now, you may be disappointed to find out there isn’t much more to the skeleton than that. He appears, gives a warning, and disappears from the narrative altogether. However, you have to remember that this was one of the first Horror stories ever written, and the sudden, inexplicable appearance of this decaying monk was apparently such a shocking development that it was one of the most often illustrated moments of the novel. This spooky scary skeleton, as barebones as he is, was an icon in his time, and paved the way for many more horrific and ghastly apparitions to come. Though he may not be the most interesting character Horror fiction has ever devised, he is nonetheless an incredibly important one, and his influence is felt to this day whether we realize it or not.