#WitchWeek2020 Day 1: Gothick Dreams

Happy Halloween to all!

My first guest blogger is my co-host, Chris, who blogs as Calmgrove on WordPress, where for eight years he’s been exploring the world of ideas through books by way of reviews and discussions. Today Chris has taken on the challenge of setting the mood, so to speak, for our week of dark mysteries. 

What was that thump I heard on the stairs behind you?

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

A castle in Herge’s Tin Tin series

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. 

Arrival of a Dutch three-master at Kronborg Castle, by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom.

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 [modern-day Kronborg Castle], lies 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 Strawberry Hill. 18th-century watercolour by Paul Sandby

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 that his fictional Italian castle mirrored aspects of the Gothick residence he’d had built for himself at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, whose “towers, gates, chapel, great hall” were unconsciously based on one of the Cambridge colleges he became familiar with in his student days. He had used the college building “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.

Henry Tilney discovers Catherine Moreland exploring a mysterious wing of Northanger Abbey, Ferdinand Pickering, 1810-1889

In 1798 Jane Austen began writing what was to become Northanger Abbey (though it was not published until 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 Blaize Castle outside Bristol which was, in fact, a newly built folly which would have fitted all her expectations, as Austen slyly tells us.

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, the rest 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. 

Fonthill Abbey. View of the west and north fronts from John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill (1823)

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 Brontë’s Thornfield, Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and 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.


Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra : the immemorial masonry : the towers, the tracts…

Crickhowell folly. Photo credit: Chris @ Calmgrove

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 […].

Bannerman Castle, Hudson River, NY. Photo credit: Lizzie Ross

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. 

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Castles and towers, Gothic, Mystery, Witch Week and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to #WitchWeek2020 Day 1: Gothick Dreams

  1. Daphne Lee says:

    Reblogged this on head shoulders knees & toes and commented:
    Castles or just all large houses …

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: #WitchWeek2020 Day 1: Gothick Dreams – Calmgrove

  3. Lory says:

    What a wonderful post! I would love to reblog this on Entering the Enchanted Castle but I don’t seem to be able to do that. In the meantime, I will read it again and enjoy wandering through all the ruminations and reflections on this topic that fascinates me as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Calmgrove says:

      So glad you enjoyed this, Lory, I tried to evoke a sense of why castles have this deep attraction for us, even if I only just scratched the surface. I can appreciate why you entitled your new blog the way you did! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      I second Chris’s appreciation, Lory. I’m not a person who enjoys heights, but whenever I see a tower or castle wall, I’m compelled to explore. I hope you enjoy the rest of our posts this week as well!
      (BTW, I, too, am having WordPress challenges — something not quite right with the WP/computer interface, I think.)

      Liked by 2 people

  4. etinkerbell says:

    Splendid post. It is very tempting indeed to read the castle as the symbol of our mind with its dark spaces and unconfessed secrets. I was thinking about Mr Rochester’s Thornfield, and the meaning of its final burning: the purging fire which eventually eases his soul after the disclosure of the secret of Bertha Mason.🤔 Tempting indeed.
    Thank you Chris.


  5. Jeanne says:

    The first time I visited Warwick castle I thought it was the most impressive and complete castle I’d ever seen, although parts of it were in ruins. When I took my children there, years later, it had more of a theme park feel and some of it had been built into attractions–I think there was a dungeon with torture implements, and there was a tower you had to pay extra to see because the tv show Merlin was popular and the tower had interactive exhibits based on that show.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Calmgrove says:

      I too visited Warwick long ago but seeing publicity for it over the years it seems to have got more and more commercialised, so I’d much rather keep my fading memories of it as an atmospheric building. Such a shame that these places seem to be “de-authenticated”.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful post! I’m fascinated by the idea of considering the castle as representative of the human mind (all those crumbling Gothic(k) castles functioning as representations of their dastardly owners’ mental domains and their crumbling, ruinous mental states)… you’ve given me a lot to think about! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kristen M. says:

    This is really interesting to me as a person who has never seen/been to a castle in real life. All castles to me are literary and, honestly, I question if one will ever live up to what is in my imagination now after years of gothic and fantasy reading! (I do plan to see a castle or two someday.)
    That said, nothing works better to set a gothic tone than a castle — except perhaps for a blowing, freezing, dark rain storm. I just finished reading a mystery, Castle Skull, and the castle was possibly the most frightening character in the story. Castles certainly have something special that brings them to life in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Calmgrove says:

      I think, Kristen, that North America must have plenty of castle substitutes — Victorian Gothic Revival homes and colonial mansions inspired by European examples — old enough to have the requisite rambling corridors, suite of rooms and spooky vibes to qualify! After all, following Walpole’s example so many follies and mock medieval houses were built in the 19th and even 20th centuries, in Britain and the rest of Europe, to satisfy the urge for pleasurable chills, so the US and Canada won’t have been immune!

      Isn’t the stately home of so many classic Hollywood films (‘Citizen Kane’, for example, or ‘Sunset Boulevard’) also proof that the New World can do Gothic Castle stand-ins as well as the real thing?! 🙂 Still, I hope you get to fulfil your fantasy of entering the genuine thing…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m suddenly reminded of one of my favorite Margery Allingham mysteries, Look to the Lady, which is one of her really off-the-rails stories, involving a tower with a secret room, a thousand-year-old chalice, and a Guardian. Great stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Beautiful and evocative: what a fantastic start to your celebrations!

    Liked by 1 person

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