A Modern Gothic

No one ever warned me that studying at a bona fide English castle could have downsides; being miles away from civilization can make you a bit stir-crazy, and I didn’t think cafeteria food could be worse until I tried Quorn, a meat substitute so artificial it is banned in North America. However, the worst part about studying at this castle was the possibility of being alone there at night.

The Castle is supposed to be haunted by the wife of a previous owner, usually called the Grey Lady, and a poor soul known as the Headless Drummer. Reportedly the Grey Lady was spotted in the Castle’s conference room a year or two before my stay there. I’m not exactly a believer in the supernatural, but it’s harder to remind myself that ghosts probably don’t exist when I’m alone in the dark. That castle is spooky enough without ghosts, and legend has it that Horace Walpole had it in mind when he wrote The Castle of Otranto.

Late one night I was studying in the small meeting room on the second floor of the Castle, when a custodian came by informing me that he was shutting off the lights, asking me to do the same when I left. I packed up a short time later, around 1:00 am. At this point I remembered the recent ghost sighting – which had happened in the adjoining conference room (not to mention that I was a floor above the entrance to the castle’s small dungeon). I decided to exit into the Elizabethan room, so named for a giant fireplace and old decorations meant to evoke that era. The stone and high ceilings in the Elizabethan room evoke the Gothic even in daylight, so in near-darkness it was simple to imagine Walpole’s Manfred or poor Matilda on the floor below. I took out my £9 phone, hoping its meagre light would help me get down the old wooden staircase. There was no way I was crossing the second storey platform to the enigmatically named Drummer’s Room; if any room in the Castle was haunted, it was that one. I descended the stairs and crossed the floor as quietly as possible, thinking the whole time of the passageways beneath the Castle of Otranto, casting myself as Isabella as I all but ran through the windowless passage that connects the Elizabethan room to the courtyard in the middle of the Castle.

The courtyard possessed an eerie quality, somehow cut off from time. Inside the Castle, one is surrounded by modern updates; electric lights, modern desks and chairs, placards labelling rooms. Outside, aside from some modern wooden benches, I imagine that little had changed since the last occupants of the castle had left or Walpole had perhaps visited. The paltry moonlight was obscured by the looming castle walls, and I could all but see a giant helmet before me, perhaps with Conrad’s body still beneath it.

I passed back into the interior of the Castle, where thankfully the reception lights are always on, and was greeted outside again by a thick English ground fog. “Stick to the road. Keep clear o’ th’ moors,” I snickered to myself. At least the moon wasn’t full – although that meant that there was almost no light aside from sparse streetlamps, reduced to halos in the fog. I walked (or more accurately, stumbled) through a grove of ancient and gnarled chestnut trees, the light on my phone being no help. I probably could have mused on the mood brought on by the trees, but I was too busy trying to find my footing to scare myself much. The brief paved path proved a respite, until I came to a dark wooded section of the walk. To make matters worse, the darkest part was also up a hill. I walked as fast as I dared, surrounded by night rustlings of various bunnies, badgers, birds, and who knows what else. Until I heard a sound not unlike a person feebly yelping. I quickened my pace, fleeing like Isabella from Manfred’s dread embrace, although my pursuer was most likely a screech owl.

At the top of the hill, the road was paved, streetlamps were numerous, and residence was in sight. I glanced back at the Castle once more. In the fog, it looked ethereal, stuck in time. During the day, it was a gorgeous place to learn; at night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something walked there, and it walked alone.

This was originally published as an assignment for ENGL 499, Queen’s University, Prof Yaël Shlick, October 12, 2012.

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