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Gothic Novel

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English Literature

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Gothic’? Perhaps, the images that come to mind include dark, dramatic makeup, medieval cathedrals, veiled apparitions, and stormy nights.

The term 'Gothic' is also the name for a genre of literature that evolved in the 18th century, drifted in and out of fashion during the 19th century, and has now taken off again. Over the course of the Gothic novel's development, it has also influenced horror, supernatural and mystery literature. So, what makes up a Gothic novel? Some mystery? A ghost or two? A bit of gore? All of these? Let's find out!

Gothic Novel: Definition

A Gothic novel can be characterised by its setting and content. Gothic novels are often set in a decaying castle, mansion, or abbey, and contain mystery, suspense, terror, or something otherworldly that cannot be rationally explained.

The setting in the Gothic novel is of utmost importance, as it sets the atmosphere for the story. Often, the castle, manor or estate seems to take a life of its own as it plays tricks with the minds of its inhabitants.Possible elements of Gothic novels (that you may have already come across!) include ghosts, mysterious aristocrats who can change into bats, paintings that come alive and invite you to step in, walking statues, shadows that have a will of their own, or objects that move by themselves. There may also be secret passages, underground labyrinths, and locked rooms that nobody may enter – or, if they do, they may never be heard of again.

What was the first Gothic Novel?

Horace Walpole is largely credited with writing the first Gothic novel: The Castle of Otranto (1764). It is set during the Crusades in Italy in a medieval castle that is home to Prince Manfred of Otranto. The story contains phantoms, visions, a family curse, and secret passages. Fittingly, Walpole wrote it as the result of a vivid dream he had.

In the story, Prince Manfred is desperate for an heir to continue the family line. His son is killed by a giant helmet falling from the sky, crushing him on the day of his wedding. Manfred decides to marry his son’s bride, Isabella, in his place. As he attempts to seize Isabella, however, the ghost of his father appears, distracting him. Isabella escapes with the help of a local peasant called Theodore who turns out to be the true heir of Otranto.

Although Walpole called his tale a Gothic tale in its second edition, he did not use the term again; the word ‘Gothic’ in this context came into use largely during the 19th century.

Gothic Novel: Characteristics

At its heart, Gothicism is fascinated with death and all its trappings – the afterlife, decay, and the undead. The Gothic also speaks to our secret fears, beliefs, and superstitions of the unknown, such as wearing garlic at the threat of a vampire, or pouring salt at your door to prevent spirits from entering the house.

Typical characteristics of the Gothic novel include:

  • Haunted houses/graveyards/ruined abbeys, castles or palaces.
  • An ancient curse.
  • Phantom(s)/the supernatural.
  • A mystery of some sort, such as a locked room or lost treasure.
  • The macabre.
  • The fantastic.

The macabre: something that represents or deals with death in a scary or gruesome way.

The fantastic: something supernatural or distanced from reality.

The Gothic novel evolved during the 18th century after the publication of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) and continued into the 19th century with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Other 19th century novelists who were influenced by 18th-century Gothic literature included Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontë sisters, and Bram Stoker.

Gothic fiction grew incredibly popular between 1764 and the 1840s. Its readership was mainly female at first, but it grew to include readers of all genders hailing from all walks of life. It offered an escape from the increasingly industrialised world and has since continued as a reaction to the materialism of everyday life.

Materialism: a concern with physical or 'material' objects such as money, clothes, houses, or cars.

American Gothic literature is primarily associated with Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s mystery tales take on Gothic influence with a vengeance; they are occasionally ironic, mostly macabre, and filled with vivid imagery. Some of his most iconic stories include:

  • 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839).
  • 'The Masque of the Red Death' (1842).
  • 'The Cask of Amontillado' (1846).
  • 'The Black Cat' (1843).

Recurring themes are live burial, isolation and superstition, infused with Poe’s unique mastery of atmosphere and suspense.

Bram Stoker's inspiration: Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, pixabay.

Examples of Gothic Subgenres

A fictional narrative is usually a blend of many genres. A paranormal tale may feature elements of romance, or a fantastical story may be peppered with elements of mystery and thriller. With the Gothic genre too, elements and tropes of other genres are highlighted, creating subgenres within the umbrella genre of Gothic fiction. Some of the important types of Gothic fiction include Gothic Romance, Gothic Horror and Modern Gothic.

Gothic Romance Novels

'Gothic Romance' is popularly used to describe the early Gothic novels of the 18th century. These were filled with both adventure and mystery, and they quickly grew in demand. A typical romance would be character-driven, and would feature a quest for love or some form of 'happily ever after.'

Gothic Romances added a twist to the typical romance, often by featuring a distressed heroine haunted by memories or melancholia, or perhaps a Byronic hero whose grand journey to unite with his love is filled with tragedy. Gothic Romances also lend a dark atmosphere and add a sense of foreboding to the narrative.

When it comes to Gothic Romances, suspense and sensation were also key ingredients – ingredients that would also come together in the development of the Sensation novel in the mid to late 19th century.

The Sensation novel was a popular and controversial genre in Victorian Britain known for causing 'sensations' or reactions in their readers such as shock, fear, or excitement. Wilkie Collins' is an important figure who wrote numerous sensation novels including The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

Wuthering Heights

This novel is widely considered a key text in the canon of the Gothic Romance genre, and the Western literary canon as a whole. The novel broke free from Victorian literary expectations by exploring psychological depth in the narrative for both female and male characters.

The story opens in 1801 as Mr Lockwood visits his landlord who lives at Wuthering Heights. Snowed in, Lockwood is obliged to stay the night and is haunted by the phantom of Catherine Earnshaw. When Lockwood is confined to bed after catching a cold on the Yorkshire moors, he asks his housekeeper to tell him about the resident of Wuthering Heights. The housekeeper, Nelly Dean, then describes the intense and stormy relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff. Catherine died in childbirth some twenty years earlier and haunts Heathcliff. Lockwood recovers and leaves the area. Less than a year later, he visits Wuthering Heights and learns that Heathcliff has died, and the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine have been seen on the moors.

Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe was instrumental in developing the Gothic novel genre, but despite the terror and suspense of her novels, Radcliffe had a shy, retiring nature, and never visited the countries her novels are set in. Her works include The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794):

  • The Romance of the Forest Set in 17th century France, the novel contains a ruined abbey with secret rooms and mysterious objects including a skeleton, a manuscript, and a rusty dagger, adding to the novel's atmosphere of the macabre. In the novel, the heroine, Adeline, takes refuge in the abbey but discovers that her wicked uncle, the Marquis de Montalt, murdered his own brother to usurp the property and Adeline’s inheritance.
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho The novel is set in late 16th century France and Italy in a medieval castle that contains many ghastly omens and a typically Gothic villain, Montoni. The orphaned Emily St Aubert leaves France to live with her aunt in Italy. Her aunt’s new husband, the sinister Montoni, imprisons Emily and her aunt in the castle. However, his plans to seize their fortunes are thwarted and Emily escapes to be reunited with her lover Valancourt.

Gothic Horror Novels

Ann Radcliffe helped define the Gothic novel by distinguishing between ‘terror’ and ‘horror.’ She suggests that terror 'expands the soul' while horror 'freezes' it.1 Based on this, it is possible to distinguish Gothic Terror, which holds the reader in suspense, and horror gothic, which aims to shock the reader.

Gothic Horror relies on evoking a sense of fear among the readers and does so with a backdrop of a bleak, perhaps even haunted setting, and a dark mood that is enhanced by paranormal figures. Gothic Horror engages with the psyche of its main characters, and relies on hallucinations, tricks played on the mind, and often disturbing pasts and back stories to 'freeze' its readers.

Typically, in a Gothic Horror novel, questions of morality, philosophy and religion would be raised. Good and evil would battle it out with 'good' being represented by human figures and 'evil' traditionally represented by unhuman or paranormal forces.

Frankenstein

A sea voyager writes about how he has rescued a dying scientist called Frankenstein, who then tells his story of how he created a monstrous being he calls ‘the Creature.’ The story flashes back to Frankenstein’s days as a student, which he spent discovering the secret of life. Frankenstein builds a man from body parts he obtains from dissection rooms and brings him to life. Horrified by what he has created, Frankenstein rejects the Creature, who then disappears into the outside world. After several murders and much travelling, Frankenstein dies at the end of the story. The sea captain closes his narration with him having met the Creature who, informed of Frankenstein’s demise, disappears on a raft across the waves until he is ‘lost in darkness and distance’ (chapter 24).

Dracula

Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, travels to Transylvania to settle a sale of land with a client called Count Dracula. He discovers that Dracula is a vampire, capable of turning into a bat. Harker narrowly escapes the Count’s clutches and falls into a fever at a convent, where his fiancee Mina joins him. They travel back to England, only to discover that Dracula has bought the old Abbey near Mina’s home. Mina’s friend Lucy comes under the influence of Dracula and is ‘turned’ into a vampire herself. She dies as a human, but returns as a vampire. Aided by Dr van Helsing, a vampire hunter, they dig up Lucy’s body and decapitate her. Harker, Mina, and three of their friends unite with Dr Helsing in bringing down the Count.

The Woman in Black

This is a ghost novel in the gothic tradition about a malignant phantom that haunts a small coastal town in England. Whenever the ghost is seen, it means a child will soon die. She is seen several times by a young lawyer who has been sent to tie up the paperwork and estate of a deceased client. Deaths of the children soon follow, and the lawyer is caught up in unravelling the connection with the deceased client and the phantom of the Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black has been adapted for radio, television, film, and stage; the stage version is so far the second-longest running play in the West End.

Modern Gothic Horror Novels

While the Gothic genre has its roots in 17th century fiction, over the last few decades, the Gothic genre has overlapped with other narrative techniques that have transformed the genre. Modern Gothic aims to weave in aspects of modern storytelling, which may involve flashbacks, aspects of magic realism, and the exploration of the character's psyche. This tapestry woven with thematic storytelling techniques, which nod to the genre of Gothic Horror are central to works of modern Gothic fiction.

Daphe DuMaurier

The modern Gothic novel saw a revival in the 20th century with Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier. The novel focuses on the narrative of a young woman, who marries widower Max de Winter and is taken to live at his mansion (Manderley) on the Cornish coast. In a twist on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), the bride also discovers a secret from her husband’s past in a gradual, increasingly unsettling sequence of reveals, and the novel climaxes, as does Jane Eyre, in a great fire. However, du Maurier’s voice is distinctive and unique and the novel has never been out of print since its publication. It has been adapted for both screen and stage.

Most of Du Maurier’s work contains Gothic elements, including her other Cornish novels Jamaica Inn (1936) and My Cousin Rachel (1951).

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's Beloved features Gothic elements, especially concerning generational trauma and melancholia that seem to haunt the protagonist. The titular Beloved is the murdered daughter of a former slave, whose ghost haunts her mother while unfolding her tragic life. While one can certainly locate the elements of Gothic Horror in Beloved, such as a distressed female lead, a morbid setting, and a haunting past, these are thematically woven with magic realism, where the reader is confronted with the realities of racism experienced by a slave crossed with the 'fantastical' haunting by a ghost.

Stephen King

Stephen King is also considered a master of modern Gothic Horror. He has written numerous novels featuring Gothic attributes including Salem’s Lot (1975) and Pet Sematary (1983).

  • Salem’s Lot The novel is a direct homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A vampire, Kurt Barlow, arrives in Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine and proceeds to feed off the local inhabitants until a small group of residents hunt him down. King deliberately ‘borrowed’ scenes from Dracula and rewrote them for his own novel.
  • Pet Sematary uses an ancient burial ground as a place of resurrection. The burial ground lies behind the Pet’s Sematary, a graveyard created by local children for their dead pets. The ancient burial ground has magical properties, due to which a dead cat buried there comes back to life. A man loses his son in an accident, and in his despair, buries the child in the ancient burial ground. The child returns, only not as it was. Events spiral out of control until the boy’s father burns the house to the ground and escapes.The original 'sematary' did, in fact, exist. Some incidents inspired King to go down the route of 'what if', and he wrote Pet Sematary as a result. When he read it after finishing, he found it 'so startling and so gruesome that I put the book in a drawer, thinking it would never be published.'2

Did you know: Pet Sematary has been adapted for film several times: Pet Sematary (1989) and Pet Sematary II (1992) directed by Mary Lambert, and Pet Sematary (2019) directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer.

The Gothic Novel today

The Gothic novel has grown from its humble origins into a wide-ranging genre that continues to be popular today in both literature and film. For as long as the human mind seeks distraction and escapism with a thrill, the Gothic novel will continue to hold an important place in literary fiction.

Gothic Novel - Key takeaways

  • A Gothic novel is a tale of terror set in a decaying castle, mansion, or abbey
  • Gothic fiction usually contains a mystery, suspense and something otherworldly that cannot be rationally explained
  • The major features of the Gothic novel are:
    • Haunted houses/graveyards/ruined abbey, castle or palace.
    • Phantom(s)/the supernatural.
    • A mystery of some sort.
    • The macabre and the fantastic.
  • The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is identified as the first Gothic novel.
  • Gothicism is fascinated with death, including the afterlife, decay, and the undead.
  • 18th-century Gothic fiction influenced 19th-century novelists such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontë sisters, and Bram Stoker.

1 Ann Radcliffe, 'On the Supernatural in Poetry.' The New Monthly Magazine, 1826.

2 Stephen King, 'Introduction.' Pet Sematary, 2000.

Gothic Novel

A Gothic novel is a tale of mystery, suspense, and terror containing something otherworldly that cannot be rationally explained.

A decaying castle, mansion, or abbey.

The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole.

A Gothic novel must contain a sense of suspense and mystery.

  • Haunted houses/graveyards/ ruined abbeys, castles or palaces.
  • Phantom(s)/the supernatural.
  • A mystery of some sort.
  • The macabre and the fantastic.

Final Gothic Novel Quiz

Question

What is a Gothic novel?

Show answer

Answer

A Gothic novel is a tale of mystery, suspense, and terror concerning something otherworldly that cannot be rationally explained.

Show question

Question

Where do Gothic novels take place?

Show answer

Answer

A decaying castle, mansion, or abbey. 

Show question

Question

What was the first Gothic novel?

Show answer

Answer

The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole.

Show question

Question

How to write a Gothic novel?

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Answer

A Gothic novel must contain a sense of suspense and mystery.

Show question

Question

What are the major features of Gothic novel?

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Answer

  • Haunted houses/ graveyards/ruined abbey, castle or palace
  • Phantom(s)/the supernatural
  • A mystery of some sort 
  • The macabre and the fantastic

Show question

Question

Complete: The modern gothic novel saw a revival in the _____ century with _____ (1938) by Daphne du Maurier.


Show answer

Answer

The modern gothic novel saw a revival in the 20th century with Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier.

Show question

Question

Complete: A gothic novel is a tale of _____ set in a _____ castle, mansion, or _____. 


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Answer

A gothic novel is a tale of terror set in a decaying castle, mansion, or abbey.

Show question

Question

The major features of the Gothic novel include


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Answer

haunted houses

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Question

Complete: Gothicism is fascinated with _____, the afterlife, _____, and the undead.


Show answer

Answer

Gothicism is fascinated with death, the afterlife, decay, and the undead.

Show question

Question

True or false? 18th century Gothic fiction influenced novelists of the 19th century such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontë sisters, and Bram Stoker.


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Answer

True

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Question

Complete: Poe’s mystery tales take on _____ influence with a vengeance; they are occasionally _____, mostly macabre, and filled with vivid _____. 

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Answer

Poe’s mystery tales take on Gothic influence with a vengeance; they are occasionally ironic, mostly macabre, and filled with vivid imagery.  

Show question

Question

Complete: _____ statues, shadows that have a will of their own, _____ that move by themselves are all possible _____ of the gothic novel. 


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Answer

Walking statues, shadows that have a will of their own, objects that move by themselves are all possible elements of the gothic novel.

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Question

Choose: There may also be secret passages, underground _____, locked rooms which nobody may enter (or they may never be heard of again).


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Answer

cellars

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Choose: Some of Poe's most iconic stories include:

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Answer

'The Fall of the House of Usher'

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