Walpole's 1765 novel "The Castle of Otranto" is the story of Manfred, a power-crazed tyrant, seeking to secure the right of his lineage to the dominion of Otranto in Italy. Trying to avoid the end of his line, he attempts to marry his infirm and frail son, Conrad, to Isabella, the daughter of a rival family. The death of Conrad and subsequent manifestation of various gigantic body parts and relics, to wit, a helmet, leg, sword, and hand, seem to be harbingers of Manfred's prophesied demise.
The three most prevalent themes in the novel are the threats posed by male sexuality, misperception, and women. Male sexuality plays itself out in Manfred's frantic need for a specifically male heir, the indiscretions of Jerome, a priest whose son Theodore harbors an unfulfilled lust for Manfred's daughter Matilda.
Misperceptions abound in "The Castle of Otranto". There are constantly people doubting the truth of their own eyes and ears. Disguises and darkness prevent characters from knowing who is friend and who is foe, often with fatal results.
Women are consistently characterized as pseudo-angelic beings, whose virtues and fidelity, both filial and connubial, are secondary to their ability to produce male heirs. Hippolita, Manfred's wife, emerges as the story's true tragic figure, whose only crime as her family and dominions slip away, is that she could not produce a healthy son.
"The Castle of Otranto" is not particularly well-written - dialogue is often confusing to follow, and the characters are all fairly flat. However, the precedents for the gothic narrative style are wonderful to note. One can easily see the roots of stories from Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" to Wilde's "Picture of Dorian Gray" to Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in Walpole's work. This is a classic text, and one more people should read.