If you didn’t already know this about me (and if you don’t it’s probably because you’re new here, in which case welcome! stick around and have fun!) I have both a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree in English literature. I worked myself to the bone for both of them and I am incredibly proud of myself as I have a right to be.
One area of literature that I always found myself excited to dive into and study is Gothic fiction, which I have studied a grand total of four times. Surprisingly, studying Gothic hasn’t hindered by love of the genre because if I hadn’t studied it in the first place, I never would have found the passion that I do have for it. Both of my final thesis were about the Gothic (well, vampires particularly, but what’s more Gothic than vampires?) and I would probably do a PhD thesis on it too if the whole idea of studying for a PhD wasn’t so intimidating, so I like to think I’m pretty well versed in it. And we’re allowed to have swelled egos sometimes.
For the next four weeks I will be sharing my knowledge of Gothic fiction in a way that I hope is beginner friendly and can serve as a sort of gateway to the genre, as I went through my notes from my MA that I still have and my brain almost glazed over with how much critical analysis stuff there was. Thankfully, I won’t be including any of that because this is supposed to be a fun blog post that doesn’t need to go into detail about psychoanalysis and Freud and all that stuff. But you should still put seatbelts on your brains because this might get info-dumpy.
WHAT IS GOTHIC?
Gothic is a genre of fiction that started in literature but has since branched out into movies, art, TV, and even music. Gothic stories are most famously known as horror stories but they can also be romance.
Some of the most famous Gothic novels include Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Jane Eyre, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Vampyre (one of my favourites, btw, it’s free on kindle), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While all of the books I have just listed were written and published before the 20th century, a story does not have to be a “classic” or just old in order to be Gothic, as there are plenty of Gothic novels, short stories, and movies that have been released after the end of the Victorian period and are just as Gothic as their predecessors.
WHAT MAKES A STORY GOTHIC?
There are actually a lot of elements that can make a story Gothic, and I personally think that’s what makes it such a flexible genre. Not every Gothic story is horror, and not every Gothic story is set in a spooky castle. All genres are flexible but because we like to categorise things, there tend to be certain iconic elements that we can use to identify a story as one genre or another.
Gothic stories can contain any of these things:
- Wild natural landscapes
- Family secrets
- Damsels in distress
- Mystery and suspense
- Gloomy weather/Pathetic fallacy
- Byronic heroes
- Death (i mean, duh)
- Religious imagery
- Forbidden romance
- The Uncanny
Obviously, a story doesn’t have to contain every single one of these things because it would get slammed so hard and declared “tropey” by people who don’t fully understand what tropes are and how they work. But that’s a rant for another time.
One story could have monsters, while another could only have humans in it and no supernatural elements at all, but that wouldn’t make it any less Gothic than the story with monsters and ghosts. And also, you could argue that a story doesn’t even have to be set in the typical “Gothic” setting of a medieval castle or in a rural setting. Most of the action of Dracula takes place in London, which at the time it was written is neither medieval or rural, and the setting works to an advantage. You could even have a Gothic story set in the future or in space because we could imagine other planets to have wild landscapes and space can get pretty lonely and dangerous. And who knows, maybe there are scary monsters lurking out there…
WHERE DID GOTHIC COME FROM?
Here’s a game for you all: I’m going to list some people and you have to tell me what they all have in common. Okay?
- Edgar Allen Poe
- Mary Shelley
- Bram Stoker
- Anne Rice
- Marilyn Manson
- Tim Burton
If you said that none of these people invented Gothic, congratulations! You win an imaginary prize! 🥳
The first Gothic novel ever written is generally agreed upon to be The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which was published in 1764. It tells the story of the lord of a castle and his family, and how his son is crushed to death by a giant helmet right before his wedding. It’s really camp and honestly, I don’t really recommend it. Reading about Walpole’s actual life is more interesting because he was quite the character (he was an MP, the son of the Prime Minister at the time, lived in a castle that looks like a cake, and was probably gay).
The term “Gothic” actually comes from the Gothic tribes of Western Europe, and also from the style of medieval architecture. Think of Notre-Dame of Paris. It doesn’t have skeletons and creepy things on it that would usually make people think of “gothic”, but it is a medieval building with a specific style of architecture that makes it Gothic.
You could say that Walpole called his novel “a Gothic story” because it takes place in a medieval castle and he also wanted to combine a medieval romance story with a modern story because he thought one was too unrealistic and the other was too realistic. I understand that feeling too well.
If we want to go a little deeper, we could say that Gothic fiction comes from Romanticism, which was the artistic movement of the time. Romanticism is a movement that focuses on powerful emotions that we feel from numerous different things and emerged as a reaction to the “enlightened” thinking of the time which focused a lot on realism. Enlightenment writing is boring as hell, don’t even bother looking it up.
Romanticism also featured a lot of nostalgia for medieval times, kind of like how there are likely modern Gothic writers out there who have a sort of nostalgia for the Victorian period despite being born in the 20th century, and featured lavish descriptions of “exotic” locations, particularly rural ones.
Another part of Romanticism, and arguably the most important, is the concept of the sublime. This refers to the use of language and descriptions that provokes excitement and emotions that are beyond ordinary experiences. If you’ve ever stood at the top of a mountain (or just a really big hill) and felt overwhelmingly small, you’ve experienced the sublime for yourself. This is featured a lot in Frankenstein, as Mary Shelley and her close circle were Romantic poets and takes place in Switzerland, which at the time would have been considered exotic to the English.
One thing to note is that it’s not just beautiful things that could be considered sublime, as grotesque things can provoke the same kinds of emotions. Going back to The Castle of Otranto, the supernatural elements could be considered sublime as these are not everyday occurrences and are extremely out of the ordinary.
I feel like I may have overloaded your brain, so I guess here is a good place to stop for now. Phew 🥵