The Roots of Gothic Literature

The term “Gothic” (with a capital G) refers to an era of literature and its accompanying trend in architecture during the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century. Both the literary and architectural movements were characterized by a return to medieval aesthetics. Fashionable English aristocrats, such as Horace Walpole, began to fill their estates with highly ornamented turrets and towers reminiscent of medieval churches.

Gothic church photo 1
Cathedral of St. John the Divine–a church with Gothic elements

Meanwhile, many authors began to abandon the Enlightenment principles of rationality and reason in favor of exploring the pleasure that can be found in emotions like terror. The original Gothic stories featured Gothic castles, abbeys, and ruins of the sort that were now being recreated and were often set in a vaguely medieval past. They generally included elements of the supernatural in reaction against the recent trend of realism and were characterized by melodrama, mystery, and suspense. Listed below are some of the seminal works of early Gothic fiction.

1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)

Castle of Otranto coverHorace Walpole is regarded as the originator of the Gothic genre. In addition to setting new architectural trends, Walpole wrote what is considered to be the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. The story begins quite improbably with a giant helmet falling from the sky and crushing a poor young gent on his wedding day. After the death of his son, the boy’s father—Manfred—decides that he will marry newly widowed Isabella himself in order to produce an heir. Havoc ensues, including ghosts, love triangles, subterraneous passages, murder, and more!

2. The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve (1778)

The Old English Baron coverA little over a decade later, Clara Reeve was inspired by Walpole to write a Gothic novel of her own. With The Old English Baron, Reeve hoped to tone down the absurdity found in The Castle of Otranto and bring the genre more in line with 18th century realism. The novel features a medieval knight named Sir Philip Harclay who returns home to England only to find that the castle of his good friend has been usurped. When he goes to check things out, Sir Philip meets a young man named Edmund who is hated by the other inhabitants of the castle. Sir Philip and Edmund go about solving the mysteries of the castle, involving ghosts, secret passages, lost relatives, etc. With this novel, Reeve initiated the long-standing tradition of women being heavily involved in the Gothic genre.

3. Vathek by William Beckford (1786)

Vathek coverOriginally written in French, this novel was nonetheless first published in English. Unlike the other Gothic novels of its time, Vathek is set in the Arabian Peninsula rather than in Europe—combining the Gothic genre with Orientalism, an obsession with the exotic East. It tells the tale of an Arabian tyrant, Caliph Vathek, who engages in black magic with his mother and gets entangled in dangerous deals with a man called the Giaour in pursuit of supernatural power, knowledge, and wealth.

4. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)

The Mysteries of Udolpho coverAnn Radcliffe is the queen of Gothic novels, having published several wildly popular books at the end of the 18th century. One of her most famous works is The Mysteries of Udolpho. This novel stars a young girl named Emily St. Aubert who is imprisoned in a castle by her aunt’s new husband after the untimely death of her father. Emily must evade unwanted suitors, foil the plots of her greedy and violent guardian, and uncover the mysteries of the castle before she can be reunited with her true love.

5. The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)

The monk coverSet in Madrid, The Monk features a corrupted abbot named Ambrosio, led astray by his devil-worshiping lover, who plots to rape the beautiful young Antonia. Another subplot features a pregnant nun who has allegedly been killed by her prioress, as well as a violent crowd that attacks the convent.  In this book, sexual perversion and mob violence compete for the role of chief horror, reflecting some of the most common anxieties of the era.

From these original Gothic novels evolved the later incarnations of the genre, such as Dracula and Frankenstein. From there, other genres developed including the modern day horror, paranormal romance, mystery, thriller, and many of the others that you’ll find me discussing in my regular book reviews.

Have you read any of these classic Gothic novels? Which one is your favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *