Gothic fiction  

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"For sheer terror the wild, fantastic witch-dance, seen through a Gothic window in the ruins of Kirk-Alloway, with the light of humour strangely glinting through, has hardly been surpassed. The Ballad-collections, beginning with Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), brought poets back to the original sources of terror in popular tradition, and helped to revive the latent feelings of awe, wonder and fear."--The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead

"The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse." --The Gothic Flame (1957) by Devendra Varma

"Sometimes I felt the bloated Toad, hideous and pampered with the poisonous vapours of the dungeon, dragging his loathsome length along my bosom: Sometimes the quick cold Lizard rouzed me leaving his slimy track upon my face, and entangling itself in the tresses of my wild and matted hair: Often have I at waking found my fingers ringed with the long worms which bred in the corrupted flesh of my Infant. At such times I shrieked with terror and disgust, and while I shook off the reptile, trembled with all a Woman's weakness."--The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis

"Then there are the new novels, nearly whose whole merit lies in magic and phantasmagoria, with the Monk at their head, which are not entirely without merit; they are the fruit of the revolution of which all Europe felt the shock. For him who knows the misery the wicked can inflict on mankind the novel became as difficult to write as it was boring to read; there was no one who did not undergo more misfortunes in five years than the best novelist could describe in a century; therefore hell had to be called in to help and interest, to find in nightmare merely what one knew ordinarily just by glancing over the history of man in this age of iron. But how many inconveniences this style offers ; the author of the Monk has not avoided them any more than Radgliffe (sic); there is the alternative of explaining the magic trickery, and then there is no more interest, or else of never lifting the curtain, which causes complete lack of verisimilitude. If a successful work appeared without being wrecked on either point, far from blaming the means employed we would offer it as a model."--"Reflections on the Novel" (1799) by Marquis de Sade, translated by Gorer

A photograph of a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe 1848, first published 1880
A photograph of a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe 1848, first published 1880

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Gothic fiction was a popular 18th century literary genre that began in England with The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. It depended for its effect on the pleasing terror it induced in the reader, a new extension of literary pleasures that has been a precursor to the dark variety of Romanticism.

Prominent features of gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses.

The stock characters of gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, revenants, ghosts, perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew and the Devil himself.

Important ideas concerning and regarding the Gothic include: Anti-Catholicism, especially criticism of Roman Catholic excesses such as the Inquisition (in southern European countries such as Italy and Spain); romanticism of an ancient Medieval past; melodrama; and parody (including self-parody).



The term "Gothic" was originally a disparaging term applied to a style of medieval architecture (Gothic architecture) and art (Gothic art). The opprobrious term "gothick" was embraced by the 18th century proponents of the gothic revival, a forerunner of the Romantic genres. Gothic revival architecture, which became popular in the nineteenth century, was a reaction to the classical architecture that was a hallmark of the Age of Reason.

In a way similar to the gothic revivalists' rejection of the clarity and rationalism of the neoclassical style of the Enlightened Establishment, the term "gothic" became linked with an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrill of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere. The ruins of gothic buildings gave rise to multiple linked emotions by representing the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations— thus the urge to add fake ruins as eyecatchers in English landscape parks. English Protestants often associated medieval buildings with what they saw as a dark and terrifying period, characterized by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious, fantastic and superstitious rituals.

The first gothic romances

The term "Gothic" came to be applied to the literary genre precisely because the genre dealt with such emotional extremes and very dark themes, and because it found its most natural settings in the buildings of this style — castles, mansions, and monasteries, often remote, crumbling, and ruined. It was a fascination with this architecture and its related art, poetry (see Graveyard Poets), and even landscape gardening that inspired the first wave of gothic novelists. For example, Horace Walpole, whose The Castle of Otranto (1764) is often regarded as the first true gothic romance, was obsessed with medieval gothic architecture, and built his own house, Strawberry Hill, in that form, sparking a fashion for gothic revival. Indeed Margaret Drabble suggests in the The Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed.; 5th & 6th edns) (1985, 2000), that the term 'Gothic' originally meant medieval, as in Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Tale.

Walpole's novel arose out of this obsession with the medieval. He originally claimed that the book was a real medieval romance he had discovered and republished. Thus was born the gothic novel's association with fake documentation to increase its effect. Indeed, The Castle of Otranto was originally subtitled "A Romance" — a literary form held by educated taste to be tawdry and unfit even for children, due to its superstitious elements — but Walpole revived some of the elements of the medieval romance in a new form. The basic plot created many other gothic staples, including a threatening mystery and an ancestral curse, as well as countless trappings such as hidden passages and oft-fainting heroines.

It was however Ann Radcliffe who created the gothic novel in its now-standard form. Among other elements, Radcliffe introduced the brooding figure of the gothic villain, which developed into the Byronic hero. Unlike Walpole's, her novels, beginning with The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), were best-sellers, although along with all novels they were looked down upon by well-educated people as sensationalist women's entertainment (despite some men's enjoyment of them).

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days – my hair standing on end the whole time." [said Henry]
"I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. " [replied Catharine]
— Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (written 1798)

The Gothic novel, le roman noir and the Schauerroman

Contemporaneously to English Gothic, parallel Romantic literary movements developed in continental Europe: the roman noir ("black novel") in France (including such writers as François Guillaume Ducray-Duminil, Baculard d'Arnaud, and Madame de Genlis) and the Schauerroman ("shudder novel") in Germany (e.g. Christian Heinrich Spieß's Das Petermännchen, 1791/92) - which were often more horrific and violent than the English gothic novel.

The fruit of this harvest of continental horrors was Matthew Gregory Lewis's lurid tale of monastic debauchery, black magic and diabolism The Monk (1796). Though Lewis' novel could be read as a sly, tongue-in-cheek spoof of the emerging genre, self-parody was a constituent part of the Gothic from the time of the genre's inception with Walpole's Otranto.

Lewis' tale appalled some contemporary readers; however his portrayal of depraved monks, sadistic inquisitors and spectral nuns, and his scurrilous view of the Catholic church was an important development in the genre and influenced established terror-writer Ann Radcliffe in her last novel The Italian (1797). In this book the hapless protagonists are ensnared in a web of deceit by a malignant monk called Schedoni and eventually dragged before the tribunals of the Inquisition in Rome, leading one contemporary to remark that if Radcliffe wished to transcend the horror of these scenes she would have to visit hell itself (Birkhead 1921).

The Marquis de Sade used a gothic framework for some of his fiction, notably The Misfortunes of Virtue and Eugenie de Franval, though the marquis himself never thought of his work as such. Sade critiqued the genre in the preface of his Reflections on the novel (1800) which is widely accepted today, stating that the gothic is "the inevitable product of the revolutionary shock with which the whole of Europe resounded". This correlation between the French revolutionary Terror and the "terrorist school" of writing represented by Radcliffe and Lewis was noted by contemporary critics of the genre. Sade considered The Monk to be superior to the work of Ann Radcliffe.

Other notable writers in the continental tradition include Jan Potocki and E.T.A. Hoffmann.


The excesses, stereotypes, and frequent absurdities of the traditional Gothic made it rich territory for satire. The most famous parody of the Gothic is Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey (1818) in which the naive protagonist, after reading too much Gothic fiction, conceives herself a heroine of a Radcliffian romance and imagines murder and villainy on every side, though the truth turns out to be much more prosaic. Jane Austen's novel is valuable for including a list of early Gothic works since known as the Northanger Horrid Novels. These books, with their lurid titles, were once thought to be the creations of Jane Austen's imagination, though later research by Michael Sadleir and Montague Summers confirmed that they did actually exist and stimulated renewed interest in the Gothic. They are currently all being reprinted.

Another example of Gothic parody in a similar vein is The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett (1813). Cherry Wilkinson, a fatuous female protagonist with a history of novel-reading, fancies herself as the heroine of a Gothic romance. She perceives and models reality according to the stereotypes and typical plot structures of the Gothic novel, leading to a series of absurd events culminating in catastrophe. After her downfall, her affectations and excessive imaginations become eventually subdued by the voice of reason in the form of Stuart, a paternal figure, under whose guidance the protagonist receives a sound education and correction of her misguided taste.

Jane Austen's novel is valuable for including a list of early Gothic works since known as the Northanger Horrid Novels:

These books, with their lurid titles, were once thought to be the creations of Jane Austen's imagination, though later research confirmed that they did actually exist and stimulated renewed interest in the Gothic.

The Romantics

Further contributions to the Gothic genre were provided in the work of the Romantic poets. Prominent examples include Coleridge's Christabel and Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci which feature mysteriously fey ladies.

The poetry, romantic adventures and character of Lord Byron, characterised by his spurned lover Lady Caroline Lamb as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' was another inspiration for the Gothic, providing the archetype of the Byronic hero. Byron features, under the codename of 'Lord Ruthven', in Lady Caroline's own Gothic novel: Glenarvon (1816). Byron was also the host of the celebrated ghost-story competition involving himself, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John William Polidori at the Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816. This occasion was productive of both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori's The Vampyre (1819). This latter story revives Lamb's Byronic 'Lord Ruthven', but this time as a vampire. The Vampyre has been accounted by cultural critic Christopher Frayling as one of the most influential works of fiction ever written and spawned a craze for Vampire fiction and theatre (and latterly film) which has not ceased to this day. Mary Shelley's novel, though clearly influenced by the gothic tradition, is often considered the first science fiction novel, despite the omission in the novel of any scientific explanation of the monster's animation and the focus instead on the moral issues and consequences of such a creation.

A late example of traditional Gothic is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin which combines themes of Anti-Catholicism with an outcast Byronic hero.

Victorian Gothic

Though it is sometimes asserted that the Gothic had played itself out by the Victorian era and had declined into the cheap horror fiction of the "penny dreadful" type, exemplified by the serial novel Varney the Vampire, in many ways Gothic was now entering its most creative phase - even if it was no longer the dominant literary genre. The greatest re-interpreter of the Gothic in this period was Edgar Allan Poe who opined that 'terror is not of Germany, but of the soul’. His story "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) explores these 'terrors of the soul' whilst revisiting classic Gothic tropes of aristocratic decay, death and madness. The legendary villainy of the Spanish Inquisition, previously explored by Gothicists Radcliffe, Lewis and Maturin, is revisited in "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842). The influence of Ann Radcliffe is also detectable in Poe's "The Oval Portrait" (1842), including an honorary mention of her name in the text of the story.

The influence of Byronic Romanticism evident in Poe is also apparent in the work of the Bronte sisters. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) transports the Gothic to the forbidding Yorkshire Moors and features ghostly apparitions and a Byronic anti-hero in the person of the demonic Heathcliff whilst Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) adds the madwoman in the attic (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar 1979) to the cast of gothic fiction. The Brontë's fiction is seen by some feminist critics as prime examples of Female Gothic, exploring woman's entrapment within domestic space and subjection to patriarchal authority and the transgressive and dangerous attempts to subvert and escape such restriction. Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Cathy are both examples of female protagonists in such a role (Jackson 1981: 123-29).

Elizabeth Gaskell's tales "The Doom of the Griffiths" (1858) "Lois the Witch" and "The Grey Woman" all employ one of the most common themes of Gothic fiction, the power of ancestral sins to curse future generations, or the fear that they will.

The gloomy villain, forbidding mansion and persecuted heroine of Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas (1864) shows the direct influence of both Walpole's Otranto and Radcliffe's Udolpho. Le Fanu's short story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872) includes the superlative vampire tale Carmilla, which provided fresh blood for that particular strand of the Gothic and influenced Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). According to Terry Eagleton, Le Fanu, together with his predecessor Maturin and his successor Stoker, form a sub-genre of Irish Gothic, whose stories, featuring castles set in a barren landscape, with a cast of remote aristocrats dominating an atavistic peasantry, represent in allegorical form the political plight of colonial Ireland subjected to the Protestant Ascendancy (Eagleton 1995).

The genre was also a heavy influence on more mainstream writers, such as Charles Dickens, who read gothic novels as a teenager and incorporated their gloomy atmosphere and melodrama into his own works, shifting them to a more modern period and an urban setting. His most explicitly Gothic work is his last novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). The mood and themes of the gothic novel held a particular fascination for the Victorians, with their morbid obsession with mourning rituals, Mementos, and mortality in general.

The 1880s, saw the revival of the Gothic as a powerful literary form allied to fin de siecle decadence. Classic works of this period include Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) , Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), George du Maurier's Trilby (1894), Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the stories of Arthur Machen. The most famous gothic villain ever, Count Dracula was created by Bram Stoker in 1897. Stoker's book also established Transylvania and Eastern Europe as the locus classicus of the Gothic.

In America, two notable writers of the end of the 19th century, in the Gothic tradition, were Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers. Bierce's short stories were in the horrific and pessimistic tradition of Poe. Chambers, though, indulged in the decadent style of Wilde and Machen (even to the extent of having a character named 'Wilde' in his The King in Yellow ).

The Victorian Gothic fictionalized contemporary fears like ethical degeneration and questioned the social structures of the time.

Post-Victorian legacy

Notable English twentieth century writers in the Gothic tradition include Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, M. R. James and Hugh Walpole. In America pulp fiction magazines such as Weird Tales reprinted classic Gothic horror tales from the previous century, by such authors as Poe, Arthur Conan-Doyle, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and printed new stories by modern authors featuring both traditional and new horrors. The most significant of these was H. P. Lovecraft who also wrote an excellent conspectus of the Gothic and supernatural horror tradition in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1936). Lovecraft's protégé, Robert Bloch, penned the gothic horror classic, Psycho, which drew on the classic interests of the genre. From these, the gothic genre per se gave way to modern horror fiction, although many literary critics use the term to cover the entire genre, and many modern writers of horror (or indeed other types of fiction) exhibit considerable gothic sensibilities -- examples include the works of Anne Rice, as well as some of the sensationalist works of Stephen King.

In the twentieth century the Romantic strand of Gothic was taken up in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) which is in many ways a reworking of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Others of her books, such as Jamaica Inn (1936), also display Gothic tendencies. Du Maurier's work inspired a substantial body of 'Female Gothics,' concerning heroines alternately swooning over or being terrified by scowling Byronic men in possession of acres of prime real estate and the appertaining droit de seigneur [1].

Gothic Romances of this description became popular during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with authors such as Joan Aiken, Dorothy Eden, Dorothy Fletcher, Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels, Clarissa Ross, Mary Stewart and Jill Tattersall. Many featured covers depicting a terror-stricken woman in diaphanous attire in front of a gloomy castle. Outside of companies like Lovespell, who carry Colleen Shannon, very few books seem to be published using the term today.

The genre also influenced American writing to create the Southern Gothic genre, which combines some Gothic sensibilities (such as the Grotesque) with the setting and style of the Southern United States. Examples include William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and Flannery O'Connor. A contemporary American writer in this tradition is Joyce Carol Oates, in such novels as Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance and short story collections such as Night-Side. The Southern Ontario Gothic applies a similar sensibility to a Canadian cultural context. Another writer in this tradition was Henry Farrell whose best-known work was the Hollywood horror novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960). Farrel's novels spawned a sub-genre of 'Grande Dame Guignol' in the cinema, dubbed on the wikipedia as the Psycho-biddy genre.

A notable contemporary British writer in the Gothic tradition is Patrick McGrath.

The themes of the literary Gothic have been translated into other media such as the theatre and had a notable revival in twentieth century gothic horror films such the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s, Hammer Horror and Roger Corman's Poe cycle. Twentieth century popular music also drew on Gothic themes, eventually resulting in gothic rock and the goth subculture surrounding it. Themes from gothic writers such as H.P. Lovecraft were also used among Gothic Rock and heavy metal bands, especially in black metal, thrash metal, death metal and gothic metal. More recently, the gothic tradition has been expanded to new media forms on the internet. As example, with the rise of internet literature, G.E. Graven's: Grotesque, A Gothic Epic (Online Novel) is freely available as hypertext gothic fiction.

Prominent examples

Gothic satire

See also

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