In Defence of the "Gothic" Novel
The term “gothic” is falling out of common use. There was a time when the word was used frequently, but, now, when we read books like Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), we don’t call them “gothic”: we call them “horror” or “thriller” novels. For the most part, this is understandable. The word is tied to classic novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Yet there are certain advantages to the term “gothic”. Some books don’t fit either the “horror” or the “thriller” genres: they are a combination of both, containing elements of mystery, terror, and perhaps even “literary fiction.” At times such as this, the word “gothic” can be very useful, yet, unfortunately, and because it has fallen out of common use, its meaning is often confused. Readers don’t like to use words that they don’t understand, so they don’t use them at all. This is why I am writing in defence of the “gothic” novel. It is an important part of literary history, and, in many ways, it lives on in modern fiction.
The word “gothic” is not purely a literary term. Its origins can be traced back to the Goths, an East Germanic group of people who were at least partially accountable for the fall of the Roman Empire. This is not to say that the term “gothic” was regularly used during this period; the word, as we know it today, was popularised in the Romantic Period. During this time, the Medieval architecture that was associated with the Goths was rebuilt and reimagined; Medieval castles with twisted spires and gargoyles were restored. Such buildings came to be known as “gothic” because they reflected a much older period of history.
The word was first connected with literature when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto. He gave his novel the subtitle, “A Gothic Story”, which is why it is now called the first “gothic” book. It set the standard for many of the “gothic” novels that we read today; it features a large, dark castle filled with moving portraits, hidden passageways, and a terrifying dungeon. There is a slightly deranged patriarch who lusts over a young maiden, victimised women in white robes, a burgeoning hero, and, perhaps more important in terms of the narrative of The Castle of Otranto, there is an overarching political threat.
Many of these tropes can be seen in other books that we consider to be “gothic”. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there are a number of victimised women, but there are also illegitimate powers that resemble the political threat in The Castle of Otranto. This can be seen both in terms of Victor Frankenstein’s scientific knowledge and his Creature’s physical power. Together, they pose a huge threat to the carefully constructed society that surrounds them, and, considering The Castle of Otranto, this is arguably the most important trope of “gothic” novels. Equally, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is a quintessentially “gothic” castle, which, as in Walpole’s novel, forms a maze that is seemingly impossible to escape from. It also features victimised women, a sense of a burgeoning hero, and a political threat, which is why Dracula is a fantastic example of a “gothic” novel.
As so many classic novels are frequently called “gothic”, it is easy to believe that the genre is no longer relevant. Theorists such as David Punter and Fred Botting have, to an extent, strengthened this belief; they have argued that the “gothic” has diffused into other genres, for whilst its tropes appear in many modern books, these are not, according to some, pure “gothic” novels. They rarely reflect back to the Goths or the restoration of Medieval architecture, which, in many readers’ eyes, is the primary definition of the word “gothic”. To an extent, this is perfectly correct. There are few modern books that reflect on the Medieval Period in the same way as The Castle of Otranto. Yet why does this have to mean that “gothic” literature no longer exists? Why can’t it simply mean that the genre has evolved?
Common tropes of the “gothic” genre can be seen in many modern novels. Consider, for a moment, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: is Hogwarts not a perfect example of Medieval architecture? And what about those moving portraits? Walpole himself wrote about moving paintings in The Castle of Otranto. The series may be aimed at children and young adults, and, as a result, it may not convey the terror commonly associated with novels like Dracula, yet there are definite “gothic” tropes in the Harry Potter series. Another good example is Stephen King’s The Shining. In this novel, there is a “gothic” building with maze-like corridors that confuse its occupants. There is also a slightly deranged patriarch, a burgeoning hero, and an illegitimate power which takes the form of Danny’s ‘shining’.
Characteristics that once defined the “gothic” genre can be seen throughout these novels, which is why it seems perfectly valid to call them “gothic”. They may belong to numerous other genres, such as “fantasy” and “horror”, but are they not still – at least to an extent – “gothic” novels? It seems absurd to separate them from the genre, simply due to the time in which they were published. This is especially true when you consider the fact that The Castle of Otranto and Dracula were published 133 years apart, whilst only 80 years separate Dracula from The Shining. Surely this means that, if Walpole’s and Stoker’s novels can both be considered “gothic”, King’s can, too?
Books that I call “gothic” may not always feature Medieval castles or damsels in distress, but they all contain elements, tropes, and characteristics that can be traced back to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. I won’t deny that the genre has evolved; genres are always changing, and this one is no different. It’s diffusing, becoming entangled in romances, thrillers, horror stories, fantasy novels, and more books than I can count. This is why I see the “gothic” as an overarching way of categorising books. The word “thriller” may be more precise and it’s certainly more common, but can a book not be both “gothic” and a “thriller”?
I’m not supposing that the word is going to grow in popularity; it’s confusing, and it requires a knowledge of classic novels that not everyone cares to possess. That’s understandable, but what I will say is this: the next time that you read a book that features a damsel in distress, an old, Medieval building, or perhaps even a source of illegitimate power, just think. These literary tropes have a long history, and it is not one that I plan on forgetting any time soon.