Monday, March 19, 2012

Thoughts On The Gothic Genre

Some people view gothic novels as tacky and without merit because they often include sinister settings, tempestuous romances and supernatural elements. But that’s far from the truth. Gothic novels have their roots firmly planted in the finest of literary fiction.  

I’m not saying that there aren’t novels which fall into the gothic subgenres of romantic suspense and gothic horror which have mediocre writing and are formulaic, but there are also tons of classics and skillfully written stories.

The novel which is often sighted as being the origin of the gothic genre is Horace Walpole’s THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO (1764). Moving into the nineteenth century there’s Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (1818), John William Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE (1819) and works by Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters and Edgar Allan Poe. In the twenty century gothic novels were written by many well-known authors: H.P. Lovecraft, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Daphne du Maurier, Anne Rice …. and many more, including Southern gothic author William Faulkner.  A more recent gothic, THE THRIRTEENTH TALE (2006) by Diana Setterfield, is one of my all time favorites--and I’m very much looking forward to Sarah Ree Brennan’s UNSPOKEN which is coming out this September.

Gothic novel heroines are sometimes accused of being melodramatic, wilting damsels in distress, often governesses or young brides who fall in love with melancholy and borderline abusive men in positions of power. While on the surface this impression may appear to be correct, the heroines more often aren’t that shallow. They are admirable, moral and intelligent women who find themselves embroiled in dark and mysterious settings—and they take action to overcome their circumstances.

No matter if the story is a romance or about death or madness, it is the setting and tone which are the core characteristics of the gothic genre. Ancient castles with dudgeons and secret passages, sprawling dark manor houses with locked towers and widow walks, ancient ruins, monasteries, alleyways, flickering candles and lamp light, overgrown graveyards, cliff tops, moonlit gardens…I get excited just thinking about all the wonderful and terrifying settings which make gothic novels a favorite of mine.

Another reason I love the gothic genre is that it represents a montage of subgenres limited only by the author’s imagination—which is the reason the genre includes writers like Mary Shelley and William Faulkner.

Now, it’s your turn.  What gothic novels have you read? Which ones stick in your mind—the classics, pulp fiction, romantic suspense…?


  1. Wow, I had no idea gothic as a genre included so many classics! But, it makes sense. When a setting is so dramatic and intense, it lends itself well to great stories!

  2. And those covers! I can see yours now :0)

  3. I agree that some gothic novels are amazingly well written. I think some people just forget that some of the most well-known novels are actually gothic novels.

  4. Jane Eyre: the original English governess and melancholy employer.

    Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen's laugh out loud satire of Gothic novels

    More recently: Kate Morton's books (House at Riverton, Forgotten Garden, The Distant Hours)

    Sigh. I want to write something gothic . . .

  5. Kelly, I think you're exactly right. A lot of people lump classics into one big pile and never stop to realize they fall into other categories as well. Books now and two hundred years ago were intended to entertain and make money for the publisher (and that's what spooky and sexy is all about).

    Laura, you should write something gothic next. I love it--though I am having a hard time allowing myself to let go and be as dramatic as I should.

  6. Gothic literature assumes that deeds in this world have reverberations in other worlds, and there is a seamless crossing between worlds. Hence the dead leave residues, or cross-over. It's a literary spiritual perspective, and I'm a fan.
    Of course every perspective has tacky aspects and cheap versions.

  7. I hadn't thought about it, Mirka, but that spiritual perspective is probably why I'm drawn to the genre as well.

    Actually, your comment helped me with the revision I'm working on :)

  8. I guess I haven't read much of it, but I did read (and love) Northanger Abbey and Jane Eyre.

  9. inluvwithwords, you may not have read a lot of gothics, but you've read some of the finest :)

  10. I love Gothic novels. It's one of my favorite genres. Have you read Woman in White? It's excellent!

  11. I'm familar with Woman in White, but haven't read it. Thanks for the suggestion, Alice.