I had great fun in recent weeks reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, a Gothic novel described by my friend as “miserable people treating each other miserably in a miserable setting.” I loved it! First, there were moors for drowning.
Also, when a ghost scratched at a window, the narrator accepted her appearance as plausible before he got the explanation! Finally, Heathcliff is so wicked, so so wicked that I love him and hate him in equal measures. This reading got me thinking that I’ve never appreciated Gothic fiction the way I should, so join me on a journey of gratitude.
Gothic architecture, built in the Middle Ages, was so named after the barbaric tribe, the Goths, by snooty people who thought classical architecture was better. By the time Horace Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto in 1764, the British were fascinated by Gothic ruins, which they found mysterious and creepy…in an awesome way. Of course, no one writes in a vacuum, so Walpole credited Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet for inspiring him.
This happened as the Age of Enlightenment drew to a close, a period when scientific reason and rationality were celebrated. The response was Romanticism, which emphasized emotion and aesthetics as essential to the human experience. A sub-genre of this was Gothic literature, which emphasized horror, terror, and the scientifically inexplicable. Among many others, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Vampyre by John William Poliodori were written at this time.
In the Victorian era, writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters developed the genre further. Toward the end of the 1800’s, Gothic fiction was used to critique society, which is what much of horror has done since then. During this time, we got The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.
Those titles alone make it clear what role the early Gothics played in creating horror as we know it (and arguably all other genre fiction as well), but here’s a list of tropes you should recognize (for more, check out this list):
- The Virgin Maiden; The Hero–represent purity, goodness, and virtue
- Older, Foolish Woman–represents unappealing weakness and naive submission
- The Byronic Hero–this anti-hero represents rebellion, danger, and romance
- Clergy/people of faith–represent hypocrisy and evil
- The setting–represents dread and decay
The Legacy of Female Authors
In particular, Radcliffe, Shelley, and the Bronte sisters made headway in several areas through their writing:
- Acknowledging female sexuality (surprise! that’s a thing!)
- Explaining the supernatural (a.k.a. coming to grips with what you can’t understand in your life)
- Female character development (they wrote women who could grow from naivete to wisdom by accepting the supernatural through their perception and intuition)
- Critiquing a patriarchal society by colliding female protagonists with Byronic heroes
I would argue that many men in horror have also adopted these features for their writing. In fact, thank you, Gothic writers for giving us Buffy!
So, what great Gothic read is your favorite? Perhaps a Gothic #MidnightBooks is in our future…