Gothic Literature: A History

It’s Gothic Horror month here at The Midnight Society. There have already been some fabulous posts like Both Things I Know About Gothic Horror I Learned from Jane Austen Who Learned from Ann Radcliffe from Erica Davis and My Favorite Gothics from Jenna Lehne.

Today I wanted to talk about Gothic literature and tell you a little more about it. There’s so much I could say about this subject, as it includes most of my favorite stories and authors, but for the sake of not rambling, I tried to keep my wits about me.

But first, let me share my Gothic literature mood board I made with pins I found on Pinterest to you know, get you in the mood…for a Gothic discussion!

If you want to peek at the source of these pictures, just click on the board.


What is Gothic literature?

Gothic literature is a movement and a subgenre of fiction. It focuses on death, terror, chaos, passion, and ruin, and at times romance, and was a response to the surroundings (historical, psychological, etc.) of the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Gothic literature is known for featuring the supernatural, blending horror and romance, and the emphasis on setting, feeling, and atmosphere. It’s common to find ghosts and other paranormal phenomena in Gothic literature as well as mystery, fear, suspense and a healthy dose of melodrama.

The Gothic period is roughly known to have occurred between 1764 – 1840, overlapping with the romantic era (1800 – 1850), but obviously its influence can still be seen today. The Romantic movement was said to have made Gothic literature even more popular, as Romanticism was characterized by its focus on emotions, glorification of the past, and emphasis on nature.

The Romantic movement focused on emotion and the experience of emotions, such as apprehension, terror, and horror. During the Romantic movement, reason was least valued. It was believed that things could not always be explained by reason and instead could be discovered with imagination and the healing power of nature. This turn to mystery and the inexplicable, left doors open for the overlapping Gothic movement to take hold.


Key Elements, Themes, or Tropes of Gothic Literature

Atmosphere: mystery, suspense, and fear

Battle: of good (morally good, virtuous, or pious) vs. evil (morally wrong, immoral, wicked)

Clergy: portrayed often as weak and/or evil

Death: usually appears in one way or another, whether it is an actual death, a graveyard, etc.

Inexplicable Events: Elements of the supernatural or paranormal

Melodrama: aka high emotion

Mystery: This is usually present even if the mystery later can be explained and ends up not being fantastical

Omens: or foreshadowing of things to come, especially in the form of dreams

Setting:  Gothic architecture plays an important role like a castle or large manor and/or caves / wilderness.

Supernatural: this is present in many ways, whether it is the devil, a villain, a haunting, etc.

Virginal Maiden in Distress: Our heroines are often orphans, abandoned or without guardian, leaving them open to become prey by the traditional Gothic villain (usually powerful men)


Gothic Literature Reading List

The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole  <- Known as the start of the genre

The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford

The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe

The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis

Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley

Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin

Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo

Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson

Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker

What is Gothic Horror?

It’s one of the oldest horror genres around. It’s known to be dark and edgy, playing on one’s fears and thrilling the audience with atmosphere, or as someone online put it, it’s known for a “pleasing sort of terror”, which is a description I enjoyed very much.

I hope you enjoyed this little segment and learned a little bit. I’d love to leave you with Meghan Harker’s podcast Courting Casualties, where she talks…you guessed it, GOTHIC FICTION!

Jolene - Midnight Society Signatures






For a list of Literary Glossary of Gothic Literature Terms from Department of Literature and Philosophy of Georgia Southern University, click here!

Sources: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

  • Jenna
    June 13, 2016

    I love this. I really feel like I learned something.

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