Gothic Fiction: Its Past and Present Defined

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Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay

I seem to be picking up a lot of Gothic fiction and using that term quite often in my reviews, so it’s time for a brief explanation. The genre was invented in late 18th-century Europe and has since both persevered and transformed for the pleasure of modern audiences. Let’s look at its origin, key features, and 21st-century representations.

Where did the Gothic genre come from?

Romanticism was all the rage in the late 1700s, an artistic movement that rejected the conventional, rational, and industrial, while celebrating imagination, inner emotion, rural life, the beauty of nature and ideal human virtue. The Gothic novel emerged from this trend, a darker, more frivolous offshoot.

Horace Walpole started it all when he published The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story in 1764. The tale is filled with supernatural, uncanny, and medieval features as the protagonist, Manfred, becomes obsessed with possessing his dead son’s intended bride to protect his failing lineage.

A lot happens in this bizarre story, but what’s important is that the novel set a standard that many famous authors of the 1790s and beyond followed and enhanced. A British Library article by John Mullan highlights a few key publications:

  • Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
  • Matthew Lewis, The Monk (1796)
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

These and other works were responsible for shaping the Gothic genre and its characteristic, not to mention timeless, elements.

What makes a Gothic story?

Each work of Gothic fiction plays with some or all of these features.

  • Extreme psychological states, especially terror, sorrow, and isolation.
  • Supernatural and uncanny features that may or may not result in a natural / rational explanation.
  • The use of doubles / doppelgangers, often fighting each other.
  • Dark, labyrinthine settings, typically involving a big gloomy house of some kind. Medieval and Victorian times are favourite choices.
  • Sublime scenes and concepts.
  • A persecuted heroine.

As eras and cultures progressed, social and religious issues were mixed in to shocking effects. Monstrous women. Lustful monks. Vampires. Demons. Deals with the Devil. Fun stuff!

The Gothic Today

Such stories haven’t changed much. Historical fiction alone is still very popular, so it’s no surprise that a sprinkling of ghosts or witches alongside a dark mystery and winding plot would attract plenty of readers.

Fortunately, the 21st century has added some flair of its own. Think of Joe Hill’s Horns (2010) or Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River (2018), each putting their own spin on Gothic storytelling.

You could say that this centuries-old genre is simply today’s dark fantasy. But isn’t it fun spotting those clear Gothic features that survived through the ages? Or is that just me…?

It’s also true that without those original wacky authors many characters we love today may never have braved the spotlight. Dracula, the Headless Horseman, Lestat, Jack Torrance, the Corpse Bride, Lucifer…

Gothic fiction lives on in every enchantingly twisted tale that finds its way before our eyes, whether in the form of literature, cinema, or TV entertainment.

Don’t forget to share your love for this truly special genre!

And continue discovering great modern Gothic tales…

Author: Electra Nanou

Wordy weirdo supporting authors

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