Gothic Literature

Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole. Rischgitz/Getty Images

In the most general terms, ​Gothic literature can be defined as writing that employs dark and picturesque scenery, startling and melodramatic narrative devices, and an overall atmosphere of exoticism, mystery, and dread. Often, a Gothic novel or story will revolve around a large, ancient house that conceals a terrible secret or that serves as the refuge of an, especially frightening and threatening character. Despite the fairly common use of this bleak motif, Gothic writers have also used supernatural elements, touches of romance, well-known historical characters, and travel and adventure narratives in order to entertain their readers.

Similarities With Gothic Architecture 

There are important, though not always consistent, connections between Gothic literature and Gothic architecture. While Gothic structures and decorations were prevalent in Europe for much of the Middle Ages, Gothic writing conventions only assumed their present, recognizable shape in the 18th century. Yet with their abundant carvings, crevices, and shadows, standard Gothic buildings can conjure an aura of mystery and darkness. Gothic writers tended to cultivate the same emotional effects in their works, and some of these authors even dabbled in architecture. Horace Walpole, who wrote the 18th-century Gothic narrative ​The Castle of Otranto, also designed a whimsical, castle-like Gothic residence called Strawberry Hill.

Major Gothic Writers

Aside from Walpole, a few of the most influential and popular 18th-century Gothic writers were Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and Charles Brockden Brown. The genre continued to command a large readership well into the 19th century, first as Romantic authors such as Sir Walter Scott adopted Gothic conventions, then later as Victorian writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker incorporated Gothic motifs in their stories of horror and suspense. Elements of Gothic fiction are prevalent in several of the acknowledged classics of 19th-century literature—including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and many of the tales written by Edgar Allan Poe.

Today, Gothic literature has been replaced by ghost and horror stories, detective fiction, suspense and thriller novels, and other contemporary forms that emphasize mystery, shock, and sensation. While each of these types is (at least loosely) indebted to Gothic fiction, the Gothic genre was also appropriated and re-worked by novelists and poets who, on the whole, cannot be strictly classified as Gothic writers. In the novel Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen affectionately showcased the misconceptions and immaturities that could be produced by misreading Gothic literature. In experimental narratives such The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner transplanted Gothic preocccupations—threatening mansions, family secrets, doomed romance—to the America South. And in his multi-generational chronicle One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez constructs a violent, dreamlike narrative around a family house that takes on a dark life of its own.