After the death of her mother, Mary Yellan is sent north to live with her aunt. It’s been many years since she’s seen Aunt Patience and Mary now finds her to be the wife of the landlord of Jamaica Inn. The place is notorious throughout Cornwall as being the seat of a wrecker gang — men who lure ships into the rocks, kill the crew, and steal their cargo. Patience is a broken woman with dog-like devotion to her husband Joss, despite his cruelty.
Mary confides in Joss’s estranged brother Jem and Francis Davey, vicar of nearby Altarnun. Jem is an unrepentant horse thief, but he prides himself that at least he’s no murderer. Davey is an albino, but his physical appearance isn’t the only thing strange about him. His cold and almost derisive demeanor is not in keeping with his profession.
The story comes to a head on Christmas Eve when Joss’s drunken carelessness catches up with him and his gang wrecks a ship too close to daybreak and has to scatter in chaos before being discovered. Joss plans to flee the country. Mary escapes the house and goes to Davey, but finding him not at home, continues to the squire to raise the alarm. When they arrive at Jamaica Inn, they find that Joss and Patience are both dead — stabbed in the back. It would seem that Joss was not the ringleader of the gang and that the actual boss had cut his loses.
But who is the boss? Mary, who’s been taken to the vicarage, isn’t long in suspense. Davey would seem not to be a very good Christian. In fact, he holds more faith in the old gods of the Druids. He abducts Mary and intends on taking her to Africa, but Jem has figured him out and leads a manhunt that ends in Davey’s death and Mary’s rescue.
Mary at first intends on going south to her home town, where she’s sure to find welcome by many friends, but at last throws caution to the wind and follows Jem wherever his lawless wanderings may take him.
Manfred is the Prince of Otranto, but a mysterious prophesy suggests that he may not be so much longer. He is not well liked and the legitimacy of his rule is in question. He wishes to secure his power by marrying his son to Isabella, the assumed closest descendant of Prince Alfonso, the beloved original Prince of Otranto. Suddenly, a giant supernatural helmet appears and crushes Manfred’s son to death. The blame is publicly pinned on a stranger Manfred accuses of witchcraft, but personally, Manfred fears the prophesy is coming true and he rushes to enact plan B: divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself. Then Isabella’s hitherto presumed dead father appears at the castle and, spurred on by a reanimated skeleton sent from God, forbids the alliance. Then the giant helmet joins giant armor and kicks down a large part of the castle, proclaiming that the accused peasant is the lawful prince — who, it turns out, was the long-lost grandson of Alfonso.
A secret society issues a demand on the British government for £100 million with the threat that, if they are denied, they will begin destroying all the major cities of Europe. At first, the demand is ignored as a hoax or the ravings of madmen, then suddenly a large part of London is reduced to ashes by means of a chemical explosive unknown to all of the nation’s top scientists.
Meanwhile, a mysterious French count ingratiates himself with an English cabinet member and, under the guise of removing them to a place of safety outside of London, abducts his daughter and son-in-law.
There are tantalizing clues scattered about and the corners of the mystery are chipped away, but don’t expect some detective character to step forward and explain everything at the end. The characters who survive learn very little of what has happened or why it happened and neither does the reader.
The novel begins as would a traditional mystery, but as it progresses, it becomes more of a gothic horror.
An intricate story with a great many subplots that all eventually tie into one another, but in outline, a young woman becomes the ward of a evil man after her father’s death who keeps her imprisoned in a possibly haunted castle in a effort to steal the estates she inherited from her aunt, who was also briefly her guardian and was also evil, but not as evil. What shocking thing did she see behind the black veil? You won’t find out until the very, very end. What terrible phrase did she glance at before burning the papers? You never really know.