What Is a "Gothic Novel"? Explanation, History and Some Examples
The gothic novel is one of the oldest and most studied forms of 'genre' or 'formula fiction'. It got its start around the middle of the 18th century in Great-Britain and encompasses novels and stories that could be described as a mix of horror, mystery, adventure, psychological thriller and historical fiction.
The fact that gothic novels are 'genre' or 'formula fiction' indicates that they in contrast to 'literature', do not focus on original or realistic depictions of life, or certain moral or philosophical questions, but on entertaining and gripping portrayals of certain established tropes and themes. Indeed, in the past, gothic novels were also often called 'gothic romances', because before our current understanding of 'a romance', the term denoted all stories that focuses on 'fancy' (fantasy) rather than reality. Knowing how to work storylines and keeping well-established themes fresh was, moreover, more important than stylistic or linguistic prowess to gothic novel writers. This, however, also meant that, throughout literary history they have never been highly esteemed by literary elite.
Within gothic novels, especially these themes and tropes defined the genre:
- 'pure, good-natured' female heroines, who often find themselves in the hands of psychopathic individuals
- dumb, easily scared and lower-class servants
- remote locations (other countries in Europe) and times that have long gone by (which we must approach from the perspective of the first readers of these novels, so often the (early) middle ages)
- dark castles and creepy mansions
- corrupt Catholic clergy and old, ruined clerical buildings
- corrupt nobles
- uncaring family and 'friends'
- love interests that are far away
- mysterious situations like locked doors, secret hidden rooms, strange lights, eerie sounds and missing portraits
- supernatural events or characters
- wild, foreboding nature in the form of, for instance, violent storms or deep, dark forests
- oppressed or 'deviant' sexuality
Early Gothic Novels
The gothic novel trend started in 1764 with a little work by 4th earl of Orford, Horace Walpole, called The Castle of Otranto. This novel told the story of Manfred, count of Otranto, who want his son to marry Isabella, before the supernatural intervenes and crushed his son under a giant helmet falling from the sky. Because the alliance with Isabella's family is too important to give up and he fears an ancient prophecy, Manfred decides to make the drastic move of divorcing his own wife and marrying Isabella himself. When Isabella hears about this and escapes a plot is set into motion in which murder, revelation and terror are alternated and the actions of the count become more and more manic.
Because novel writing, like a lot of work that was paid, was in the 18th century seen as something unfit for nobility, Walpole first published The Castle as a story he had just found and not written. This claimed old and obscure origin only added to the interest of the story, however, and when Walpole revealed that he had actually made it up, it had become such a success that it did not even matter. A new genre had been born, which was replicated by many others.
Among these, there were a lot of well-educated lower- and middle-class women, who saw in the general upcoming genre fiction trend an opportunity to make a little bit of extra money for themselves. Among the most well-known of these was Clara Reeve, who wrote The Old English Baron, which relied heavily on its standards set by The Castle of Otranto. Others are Eliza Parsons and Isabelle de Montolieu. They propelled the genre even further with exciting narratives, but within the strict boundaries of the themes laid out by Walpole.
“Do I dream?” cried Manfred, returning; “or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, internal spectre! Or, if thou art my grandsire, why dost thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for—” Ere he could finish the sentence, the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him.
“Lead on!” cried Manfred; “I will follow thee to the gulf of perdition.”— The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole
Peak Gothic Mania
Then, around the turn of the century, just after the French revolution, when industrialization began gathering steam and romanticism emerged, the quality and quantity of gothic novel production went through the roof. First of all, Ann Radcliffe emerged, who is still seen as the best and most exemplary classical gothic writer. Her novels, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho, became exemplary for working with the already established tropes. Moreover, she introduced the technique of the explained supernatural. This means that she wrote many seemingly supernatural events that all got an explanation at the end, so the reader could find catharsis. Then The Monk was published, which shocked and excited readers with immorality and incest and introduced the trope of corrupt Catholic clergy. Radcliffe was so intimidated by its success that she wrote The Italian in reply. Additionally, there emerged writers like William Beckford, who expanded the possibilities of the genre by writing works like Vathek, a story about a demonic sheik, and used the form to represent hitherto unexplored feelings within culture, like unapologetic homoerotic lust. Lastly, writers like Francis Lathom made writing gothic novels their full-time occupation.
The genre also reached its peak at this time, as shown by its earliest parodies and criticisms not soon after. One of the most important of these is Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. In this novel, Austen shows the obsession with gothic novels of the time period in the form of a young heroine who though her love of all things gothic is deceived into thinking that people and places are more dangerous and deceitful than they really are. Another important contribution of this novel is that it gave us a list of popular 'horrid novels', which have become famous as being representative of gothic fiction. These novels are Eliza Parsons' The Castle of Wolfenbach and The Mysterious Warning, Regina Maria Roche's Clermont, Karl Friedrich Kahlert's The Necromancer, Francis Lathom's The Midnight Bell, Eleanor Sleath's The Orphan of The Rhine and Marquis de Grosse's Horrid Mysteries.
“Towards evening, they wound down precipices, black with forest of cypress, pine and cedar, into a glen so savage and secluded, that, if Solicitude ever had local habitation, this might have been "her place of dearest residence”— The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
Late Gothic Novels and Gothic Influence
After its peak, the sturdy assembly of tropes that was the gothic novel largely crumbled, but all its parts remained successful. There were more scathing parodies, like Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey, but the novel crumbled as well from within. Gothic narratives began to include more original settings, plots and themes and thus watered down. Examples of such late, less gothic gothic novels are Dracula, which included a contemporary time period, effectively bringing the gothic past into the here and now, Wuthering Heights, which focused on realistic social horror and Frankenstein, which introduced moral and philosophical questions and a science theme. Moreover, borders between the genre and other genres began disappearing with, for instance, poetry borrowing from the gothic and poets like Byron becoming a new type of gothic hero. Finally, the gothic began to subdivide into subgenres, with genres like Southern gothic (for creepy stories in the USA's antebellum South) emerging.
During the Victorian age and the 20th century, the lines moreover also blurred because of a host of new genres taking aspects from the gothic novel. Ghost stories became popular and writers like Charles Dickens and Sheridan Le Fanu used many gothic tropes in them as well. Penny dreadfuls initially also leaned heavily on gothic novels, for instance in The Mysteries of London, before becoming more obsessed with Jack The Ripper-like crime. Psychological thriller, fantasy and crime drama early on also took from the gothic, which can, for instance, be seen in the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Lastly the Wilkie Collins- style mystery novel and sensationalist novels, such as Lady Audley's secret relied heavily on gothic aspects for their popularity as well.
“Now I should rather suppose there is no reason for it: it is the fashion to be unhappy. To have a reason for being so would be exceedingly commonplace: to be so without any is the province of genius.”— Nightmare Abbey, Thomas Love Peacock
The Gothic Today
Today, the gothic can primarily be seen as an element within other genres and within specific stories. Most people, however, would not refer to these elements as 'gothic' but rather as 'creepy', 'mysterious', 'ghostly', 'Victorian', 'romantic', 'horror' or even 'Tim Burtonesque'. This shows how later genres borrowing from the gothic have completely taken over. Stories that are clearly gothic often are reinterpretations or adaptations of original gothic novels, like Dracula, but even those are not categorized under ‘gothic’ anymore.
Many people, however, clearly still enjoy the gothic as a genre. Classical gothic books are still widely read and gothic themes are still popular elements to include in horror movies or Halloween decoration. The gothic still speaks to so many that an entire subculture has sprung up dressing adhering to a gothic style. Among the study of literature, 'the gothic novel' has been one of the most widely studied popular genres. The gothic novel's themes and tropes seem to speak to some core aspects within humanity’s psyche.
Even if the genre of the gothic novel is by now dead and buried, its influence still haunts our everyday culture. From party decor to Harry Potter, we can find it everywhere, if we have the eye for it. It shows us like no other, like Faulkner said, that ‘The past is never dead. It is not even past.’
© 2018 Douglas Redant