The “Gothic” genre is probably my favourite fiction genre, and I’d say around 40% of all books I read have some element of the gothic about them. In fact, I love it so much that when my university announced a 3rd year English paper on “Theory & the Gothic” but I didn’t need any more papers for my degree, I snuck into the entire semester’s worth of classes and read all the course material, even though I got no credit for it. Yes, I am #nerd.
The first gothic novel is widely considered to be Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. In its second edition, Walpole subtitled the story “A Gothic Tale” and the term stuck. Gothic books began popping up in England with increasing regularity, and the genre grew in popularity during the 19th century with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The term Gothic refers to the architecture of the castles, manor houses, abbeys and other buildings that usually populate these tales, but has come to mean so much more.
I first read the Castle of Otranto at University when I found it in a volume of Gothic stories while hinting for Carmilla, which I’d heard was quite good. It was while reading this story and the accompanying academic notes – as well as the other stories in the collection – that I realised there was a name for this literature that I loved. I’d previously said that horror was my favourite genre, but that never seemed quite accurate.
There’s a kind of pleasing terror to gothic literature, a quiet unsettledness that has nothing to do with gore and shock. The style grew out of the Romantics, and you can feel the richness of their prose and their obsessiveness in every word. Most of the well-known gothic writers are well dead, but there are some remarkable writers of modern gothic that are keeping the style alive.
I could literally name 100 gothic tales I adore, but in the interests of keeping this blog post down to a manageble length, I’ve trimmed the list down to ten. I have not included Dracula, Frankenstein, or Poe, simply because I believe those are suck classics that if you haven’t read them, they’re the pretty obvious first choices.
1. The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole
I am, however, going to recommend this book. It’s such a vital text in the history of the genre, and it’s a genuinely chilling and enjoyable tale. The story came to Walpole in a dream. It follows the story of Manfred, Lord of the Castle, who has made a contract for his sickly son, Conrad, to wed the fair Isabella. But before the nuptials can take place, Conrad is killed, and Manfred decides to divorce his wife and marry Isabella herself. Of course, this is not the proper order of things, and so Manfred meets more resistance than he could ever imagine.
2. Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt of Mandalay again …” Considered by many to be the finest work of the gothic genre, Rebecca is a story of suspense, mystery, and a young girl’s struggle to find her own identity. Life for the orphaned heroine looks very bleak until she meets Maxin de Winter, a handsome widower whose sudden proposal of marriage whisks her from glamorous Monte Carlo to his brooding and bleak estate of Manderlay. But the memory of Rebecca still haunts the estate, and that’s not all …
3. The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper is actually a short story you can read in one sitting. Written in 1892, it follows the narrator’s slow descent into madness as she and her husband spend the summer in a large, gothic manor. Academically, the tale is considered an important feminist text, as it explores themes of male dominance, hysteria and women being trapped in the home. The authors other stories are also well worth a read.
4. Winterwood, Dorothy Eden
I recently discovered Dorothy Eden’s book, and have fallen utterly in love. It was pretty cool to find out she is actually a New Zealand author. In her 1969 Gothic masterpiece, Winterwood, she tells the tale of Lavinia Hurst, who accepts a position as a companion to young invalid Flora Meryon, and moves to Winterwood, the family’s isolated estate. But when Flora becomes heiress to a large fortune, and letters start arriving from a dead relative, Lavinia starts to suspect that ghosts haunt Winterwood. A powerful story of desire and suspense.
5. The Haunting of Gillespie House, Darcy Coates
Darcy Coates is an indie author who is storming up the horror charts with her unsettling gothic tales of haunted houses and ravaged ghosts. I just finished reading this book and adored it! (I’ve also been having nightmares about it, which is a sign of a great horror novel). Elle is thrilled to spend a month minding the beautiful Gillespie property, as the aging gothic mansion is ideal for someone seeking solitude. But things start to go very wrong. Scratching in the walls, slamming doors, whispers in the night, a locked room … what secrets are hidden in Gillespie house?
6. The Woman in Black, Susan Hill
Hill is a master of modern gothic. Written in 1983, The Woman in Black reads as a 19th Century gothic tale, and was recently made into a pretty decent horror film starring Daniel Radcliffe (and a sequel that I haven’t seen yet). Eel Marsh House stands alone, surveying the winswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Once, Alice Drablow lived there as a recluse. Now, Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor with a London firm, is summonded to tend her estate, unaware of the tragic and terrible secrets which lie behind the house’s shuttered windows. That is, until he glimpses a young woman with a wasted face, dressed all in black …
7. The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
Published in 1794, this book is considered one of the finest examples of female gothic gaze. Ann Radcliffe developed the technique of the explained supernatural, where events that have a seemingly supernatural cause end up having totally natural or human causes. (Conan Doyle and Scooby Doo have a lot to thank her for!). The Mysteries of Udolpho follows Emily St. Aubert as she suffers many misadventures, including the death of her father, supernatural terrors in a gloomy castle, and the machinations of an italian brigand.
8. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
When I met my husband, I had actually never read anything by the Brontë sisters. I mistakingly thought their books were all foolish, silly romances. The first time I went to his house (we weren’t even dating at this time), he pulled a beautiful edition of Wuthering Heights off his shelf and told me to read it. And when a cute boy gives you a book, you comply.
On the forbidding Yorkshire Moors, Wuthering Heights features ghostly apparitions and a Byronic hero in the sometimes demonic Heathcliff. I adored this book, although now Jane Eyre by Emily’s sister Charlotte is my favourite. Critics often talk of the Brontë sisters as writing the Female Gothic, a subversion of attempts to escape the restrictions and entrapments of women within domestic space.
9. Lost Souls, Poppy Z Brite
When I was a morose gothic teenager reading Anne Rice and dreaming of my own Louis, I read in an online forum about Poppy Z Brite. Apparently, her books were similar to Rice’s, but more erotic, more subversive, more fixated on the grotesque. So, of course I had to hunt them out. I found Lost Souls in a secondhand bookshop in St. Kevin’s Arcade on K’road, in Auckland, and devoured it in a day. There are a lot of elements crammed into the novel – a rock band! vampires! homoesexuality! New Orleans! Teenage Awakenings! Angst! Eternal Damnation! – but the imagery is so rich and the writing so potent that you kind of fall in love.
10. The Man in Black, Steffanie Holmes
Yes, I wrote this book. If I write the list, I can add my own book if I want to :) Both the title of this story, and some of the plot elements, are directly inspired by Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I’ve published ten books so far, and this story is my favourite, as well as being the best thing I’ve ever written. When Elinor arrives at a creepy gothic house to settle a client’s estate, she didn’t expect to meet a man with a wicked smile and the ability to float through walls. Can she fight her desires long enough to help Eric solve the mystery of his death?
So there you have ten excellent gothic novels to enjoy. I’ve missed so many great books, Poe, Oscar Wilde, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, Robert Bloch, Jane Austen, Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels, VC Andrews … sing out in the comments with your own favourites!
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