The Book: The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
The Challenge: A book on Northanger Abbey's "Horrid Novels" list
The novel centers around the orphan Matilda Weimar, who runs away from her uncle when she finds out he's bent on an incestual marriage. In her flight, she makes it to the titular Castle of Count Wolfenbach, which is supposedly haunted but, of course, isn't. There she learns about the tragic Countess of Wolfenbach, whose abduction leads Matilda to Paris. From there, the story treks all over Europe and parts of the Mediterranean Sea, as Matilda seeks to find either the truth behind her heritage or a proper nunnery where she can hide from her uncle and the rich, handsome, dashing, super nice count that wants to marry her despite her lack of place in society.
Though I understand why The Castle of Wolfenbach and stories like it were scandalous and terrifying at the time they were written, I found this novel to be wonderfully, unintentionally hysterical. Matilda is one of those characters who is so innocent and pure that it's a wonder she doesn't glow. She also spends much of the novel swooning for various reasons, my two favorite being: her rival for her "beau's" heart frowns at her from across the room (seriously), and pirates attack the ship she's on, causing her uncle to attempt to murder her. The latter is made extra humorous by her uncle's failure to notice that her arm is draped across her heart, which means that he gives her a flesh wound instead.
In true Gothic fashion, practically every major character has an almost ludicrously tragic back-story that is given in detail, sometimes multiple times. The Countess of Wolfenbach (the secondary main character) is locked in the castle and then abducted by her jealous, murderous lunatic of a husband; Matilda's uncle is a murderer, seducer, and a fraud; and, perhaps my favorite, even the Mother Superior of the nunnery Matilda escapes to has had a rough life. Basically, each one of the major characters could have a Hammer Horror film based around them. The murder of the Chevalier alone is worthy of a Vincent Price movie.
If you enjoy Northanger Abbey, I would heartily recommend this book, entirely on the basis of gaining a greater appreciation for Jane Austen's novel. My sister and I have joked that you can't seriously read something after you've read or seen a parody of it. I must say, this holds true for The Castle of Wolfenbach.