Great Moments in Gothic Fiction: A History in 13 Books

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Last week we looked at our favorite scary Gothic houses from literature; there are so many, and they are all so interrelated, that it seemed like a good idea to go deeper and offer a timeline of great moments in the development of Gothic fiction.

Of course, every major book and era isn’t covered, but from the first uncanny houses and rampaging creatures to today’s goosebump-rife era, here are some highlights.

18th Century: Birth of the Gothic

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, generally considered to be the first Gothic novel, opens with the fatal fall of a cursed helmet from the rafters of a castle and goes on to feature mistaken identities, imprisonment, etc. What made this novel unique was the way it married fantastical romance elements found in poetry and other forms with the realism of the new novel form. Walpole placed real people in fantastical situations, which is the basis of most contemporary horror.

Regency Era: Horror vs. Terror

The end of 18th century led to a mini-boom in Gothic novels, which were divided by critics into two categories: horror, which is fear of gore you see; and terror, which is fear caused by the suggestion of something sinister. As a wise professor once explained to me, behind the curtain in horror is a decaying body. Behind the curtain in terror is another curtain.

Matthew Lewis’ wildly successful The Monk (1796) is the epitome of the early “horror” genre, which was considered more masculine. It’s an incredible read even today, with more rape, murder, Satan worship, and women locked in dungeons than you can imagine. And there are plenty of moldering bodies and grisly scenes.

The Monk‘s gore and sexual explicitness were contrasted with the feminine-labeled terror mastered by Ann Radcliffe, whose popular novels — The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, and the Romance of the Forest — featured innocent young women caught up in intrigue plots involving forced marriages, absconded inheritances, and imprisonment in exotic castles with suspicious noises and mysterious goings-on. There is plenty of innuendo in her novels, and even some violence, but it is mostly the element of the unknown which makes them so scary.

19th Century: Manmade Monsters

Everyone knows the origin story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which was published as part of a “creep each other out” contest with Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Dr. Frankenstein’s manmade monster — a symbol of hubris, of scientific ambition gone awry, and of the punishing effects of cruelty and misunderstanding — has stomped his way through the popular consciousness ever since, inspiring movies, sequels, spoofs, literary homages, and more.

One of the obvious literary descendants of Frankenstein and his monster is Mr. Hyde, the “other nature” of Dr. Henry Jekyll, who appeared half a century later in 1886’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Another well-meaning scientist whose plans went too far and unleashed evil and murder on the world.

Late 19th Century: Vampires

Around the same time that manmade monsters entered the canon, vampires crawled out of ancient myths and legend and into novels. They’ve never left since. The first vampire, the titular subject of J.S. Le Fanu’s Carmilla, was a proto-lesbian bloodsucker, a predecessor of the sexy vampires who litter literature today.

Carmilla was followed a few decades later by Count Dracula himself, the debonair Eastern European gentleman whose courtly veneer hides sheer menace.

Over in America: Poe, Poe, Poe

Far away from his Victorian contemporaries, American Edgar Allan Poe wrote poems and stories to cater to the popular tastes. The body of work he completed in his short, 40-year life was prodigious. His living entombments, reanimated corpses, sinister animals, inquiring detectives, and tragically dead beauties, from “The Raven” to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” are instant classics that combine the best of terror and horror elements. Today they’re read by grade-school students and grad students alike, and have inspired more pop culture imitators than we can count.

High Victoriana: “Sensation Novels”and the Brontës

Borrowing from early Gothic fiction like Radcliffe and Walpole as well as true-crime “Newgate” novels, sensation novels were all about scariness and suspense without the supernatural elements. Instead, their authors relied on forgeries, switched identities, and family secrets — matched with intense psychological realism popularized by contemporaries like Charles Dickens and George Eliot. The major work of this movement is Wilkie Collins’ masterpiece, The Woman in White, but other novels like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Collins’ The Moonstone set the stage for detective fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle and the capers and heists we love to read about and watch on our screens more than a century later.

Meanwhile, at Haworth Parsonage, the three Brontës were writing their own dark love stories, following in Radcliffe’s footsteps by using the gothic elements to comment on the state of women, but in an explicitly feminist way. The desolate moors and mansions of Jane Eyre, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Wuthering Heights are “haunted” by patriarchy, inheritance laws, and the confinement of marriage.

20th Century: Southern Gothic

Taking elements of Gothic fiction from the previous century and channeling them into dark, modernist social critique, writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor,Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers used crime, decaying plantations, perverted family relationships, and rural communities to show how “haunted” society is by the sins and crimes of slavery, violence, bigotry and small-mindedness.

Gothic Literature Today: From Postmodern to Popular

While many of the classic Gothic stories from centuries past are continually reinvented on film and TV, novels have branched out in many directions. Books like Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching and Sarah Waters’ twisted literary playgrounds use Gothic tropes to create postmodern pastiches.

Meanwhile, popular YA and adult series about witches, ghosts, vampires, and zombies range from the macabre and epic to the corny and sentimental (see: Twilight). And in their own hybrid zone, prolific authors and genre maestros like Stephen King and Anne Rice churn out new permutations of scary novels all the time, keeping their fright-seeking readers in steady supply.