Gothic horror and literature – what it is and where to start
This is a pretty big topic, and one I could talk about for aeons. We’ll keep it short-ish, for now, eh? As a follow up to our Horror Novels article, we are taking a walk through the Gothic.
Gothic literature, and culture provide the basis for pretty much all of the things we are spooked by today. From its beginnings hundreds of years ago to its legacy today, we can’t have an October without going a bit Goth. Come with us, we’ll show you the ropes…
What is Gothic?
It’s not a phase, mom. “Gothic” as an umbrella term has a rich and extensive history of which I will spare you the details (for now…). We’ll stick with literature. Gothic literature came about around the second half of the 18th Century and experienced further success throughout the 19th. This genre combines elements of the Romantic movement with the scary, morbid parts of the Middle Ages. Cool, right? The main hook of Gothic literature, however, is its emotional aesthetic.
Edmund Burke put it better than I ever could in On the Sublime and Beautiful; the Gothic is fuelled by the Sublime, Terror, and Obscurity.
The Sublime, he says, is the “strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling“. The Sublime, in turn, is most easily and readily evoked by Terror. In order to cause this Terror, we need Obscurity. If we know everything about the thing that is scaring us, it isn’t really that scary any more. All makes sense, right? As a result, this triforce of emotional requirements create a strong aesthetic that can be applied to pretty much any Gothic novel. Easy as 1, 2, 3!
The Gothic Skeleton
The most common and enduring themes in Gothic literature are not great in number, but in scope. You can vaguely and roughly come up with five main themes present in the majority of Gothic literature:
Mystery and wonder
The world was getting smaller, maps were getting fuller, and the wonder was disappearing from the 18th/19th Century. Those with a vivid imagination could fill in the gaps, and make up for the impending realism. It was classic escapism through an over-active collective imagination – what’s not to love? Wonder, terror, the unknown; all were there for the exploring.
Castles, monsters, a lot of untimely death; Medieval times have long been the crucible of many a fantasy setting. Gothic literature is no exception. A shared past and a will to reclaim it through the ruins, imposing castles, and religious iconography found throughout Gothic art and culture is a common and gorgeous theme.
Some literature leans more heavily upon the truly macabre than others. While many authors offered us up deeply psychologically unsettling tales (Edgar Allan Poe, for example), others would err more toward the truly morbid and macabre. This was especially common in more European Gothic ventures, particularly in Italy. Death, decay, morbidity – oh, it’s good to be a Goth.
Thanks, Mr. Burke! We’ve been through this one – the whole aesthetic of Gothic is iconic and irrefutable. From churches, to books, to clothes, to music. I told you, it’s not a phase.
Between the English Civil War, uprisings, and the Jacobite rebellions, there was a plethora of political inspiration for the Gothic authors to draw upon. As is the case with much great literature, Gothic literature took common contemporary social fears and spun them into stories.
A far better way to explore these themes than my painfully brief explanations (damn the word count) would be to recommend a couple of classic Gothic horror novels, right? Well rest assured that is exactly what I am going to do…
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1890)
Dorian Gray is rich and beautiful, and is having his portrait painted by Basil Hallward. Basil quickly becomes obsessed with Dorian’s beauty and after meeting Basil’s friend Henry Wotton, Dorian is then swept up into Henry’s hedonistic and carefree world. As a result of his new lifestyle, Dorian learns that his beauty is not everlasting, and as such he agrees to sell is soul in order to preserve it – his portrait growing older instead. Easily has some of the best lines in Gothic literature, this one.
The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole (1764)
Walpole’s novel is largely credited with being the progenitor of Gothic literature. Manfred, Prince of Otranto, is terrified of an ancient prophecy, and consequently tries to do everything in his power to prevent it. His sickly son, Conrad, died on the morning of his wedding day, and so Manfred made it his mission to marry Isabella, the bride-to-be. Creepy. Fleeing through secret passages of the grand castle, Isabella meets ghosts, violence, and general Gothic goodness.
Dracula – Bram Stoker (1897)
Big thanks to Mr. Stoker for introducing Count Dracula and most of the classic vampire tropes to the world – this novel is beyond a classic, it’s an icon. Told through diary entries and newspaper articles, Dracula is the story of Jonathan Harker, a visitor of the now infamous Count in Transylvania. Harker quickly realises that he is a prisoner in Dracula’s castle, and soon enough his fiancee and her friend become embroiled in the drama…as does a certain Mr Van Helsing…
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James (1898)
If you have seen the classic horror film The Innocents, you known the plot of Henry James’s novella. Upon becoming responsible for his niece and nephew, a wealthy man hires a governess to care for them. Slowly but surely, our governess becomes aware that this babysitting gig was not quite as advertised. Filled with creepy child ghosts, scary castles, and spooky beaches, The Turn of the Screw has been adapted many times for TV and film (just in case you don’t fancy the book).
Phew…and they were only a few. Thanks for coming on a whistle stop tour of Gothic literature with us. Now, go put on copious amounts of eyeliner and dye your hair black for me, yeah?
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