Vivaldi falls madly in love with Ellena when he sees her and her aunt walk home from church one day, but Ellena is just some orphan with only a small villa in Naples, while Vivaldi is the only son of the Marchese, who cares more for his family’s honor than for anything else, and the Marchesa, who more than that even cares for money. The Marchese forbids it, and the Marchesa goes a bit farther. Schedoni, a monk and her confessor, plots with the Marchesa to have Ellena murdered. She’s abducted and taken across the country to the monk’s usual murder site, but just as he draws the stiletto, he see’s a miniature portrait of himself around her neck and realizes she’s his daughter.
Vivaldi, meanwhile, has arrested by the Inquisition on charges trumped up by Schedoni. It looks bleak, but then a strange friend appears in the form of a monk who might also be a ghost — Vivaldi is half of that opinion until he appears to the others at the tribunal. He delivers a strange tale of intrigue: Schedoni murdered his brother, the Count di Bruno, so that he could marry his wife, but believing her to be unfaithful to him, killed her in a jealous rage. At the confessional, he told of his crime to the monk Anslado — who, turns out, was the very man he suspected she was unfaithful with. Spalatro, Schedoni’s accomplice, on his deathbed confessed this to Nicola di Zampari — Vivaldi’s ghostly monk.
I’ve left out numerous subplots, one of them introducing a nun called Olivia, who it turns out is actually Countess Olivia, Ellena’s mother (who’s less dead than Schedoni believed). She and Schedoni did have a daughter, but she died in infancy. Ellena’s father was the murdered Count di Bruno. Schedoni never learns his error, though, as he poisons himself (and Nicola) in prison rather than face execution. Vivaldi is freed. With Ellena now known to be of noble blood, the Marchese consents to her and his son’s marriage. The Marchesa previously died in a subplot I omitted.
There are a few short stories appended to Dora Thorne. This is a very short Gothic horror set in a German castle. The Baron Waldrec’s wife disappeared nineteen years ago. Frederic Enstein stands to inherit almost all his fortune. Sir Rudolph angles to capture it by marrying his daughter Theresa to him. Slight hitch — he’s already engaged — but Euphemia disappears too. I haven’t mentioned that the castle is haunted, but it is, by the Spirit of the Hartz Mountains. The spirit turns out to be the baron’s wife, who Rudolph attempted to drown, but was rescued by a fortune teller. Also, she was pregnant and Euphemia is her daughter. The spirit is apparently a role one takes a vow to fulfill — the fortune teller was the previous spirit, then the baron’s wife became the spirit — and one has to maintain the vow until it’s necessary to disclose yourself to save a life. Rudolph had sealed Euphemia up in a hidden panel in the hall. All this happens in 20 pages.
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.
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.