Gothic Literature

And Then There Was Poe

Horace Walpole
Author 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, fear, and dread. Often, a Gothic novel or story will revolve around a large, ancient house that conceals a terrible secret or 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 to entertain their readers. The type is a subgenre of Romantic literature—that's Romantic the period, not romance novels with breathless lovers with wind-swept hair on their paperback covers—and much fiction today stems from it.

Development of the Genre

Gothic literature developed during the Romantic period in Britain. The first mention of "Gothic," as pertaining to literature, was in the subtitle of Horace Walpole's 1765 story "The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story" which was supposed to have been meant by the author as a subtle joke—"When he used the word it meant something like ‘barbarous,’ as well as ‘deriving from the Middle Ages." In the book, it's purported that the story was an ancient one, then recently discovered. But that's just part of the tale.

The supernatural elements in the story, though, launched a whole new genre, which took off in Europe. Then America's Edgar Allen Poe got ahold of it in the mid-1800s and succeeded like no one else. In Gothic literature, he found a place to explore psychological trauma, the evils of man, and mental illness. Any modern-day zombie story, detective story, or Stephen King novel owes a debt to Poe. There may have been successful Gothic writers before and after him, but no one perfected the genre quite like Poe.

Major Gothic Writers

A few of the most influential and popular 18th-century Gothic writers were Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1765), Ann Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794), Matthew Lewis (The Monk, 1796), and Charles Brockden Brown (Wieland, 1798).

The genre continued to command a large readership well into the 19th century, first as Romantic authors such as Sir Walter Scott (The Tapestried Chamber, 1829) adopted Gothic conventions, then later as Victorian writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886) and Bram Stoker (Dracula, 1897) 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 (1818), Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831 in French), and many of the tales written by Edgar Allan Poe such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843).

Influence on Today's Fiction

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 reworked 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 as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner transplanted Gothic preoccupations—threatening mansions, family secrets, doomed romance—to the American South. And in his multigenerational 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.

Similarities With Gothic Architecture 

There are important, though not always consistent, connections between Gothic literature and Gothic architect. Gothic structures, with their abundant carvings, crevices, and shadows, can conjure an aura of mystery and darkness and often served as appropriate settings in Gothic literature for the mood conjured upthere. Gothic writers tended to cultivate those emotional effects in their works, and some of the authors even dabbled in architecture. Horace Walpole also designed a whimsical, castle-like Gothic residence called Strawberry Hill.

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Kennedy, Patrick. "Gothic Literature." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Kennedy, Patrick. (2021, February 16). Gothic Literature. Retrieved from Kennedy, Patrick. "Gothic Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).