In Defence of the “Gothic” Novel

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.

14 thoughts on “In Defence of the “Gothic” Novel

  1. An interesting essay on the Gothic Novel. I like how you conclude that the literary tropes have been around for a long time. So true.
    If we read Matthew Lewis’s “The Monk” -1795- we find ghosts, zombies, vampires and spirits. Then there is the mysterious events, hullucination, and paranormal of Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” – 1794.

    Would you consider Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and “Rebbeca” by Daphne du Maurier
    as Gothic Romances? – or – Are they defined in the period they are published or by their dark content?

    I do agree that that the term is confusing and used in a different context from the 18c classics. I have heard modern detective – police procedurals being described as dark and gothic, when in my opinion they are dark, dull and depraved.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for reading and commenting; I’m glad that you enjoyed reading my thoughts on the gothic novel. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho are two more fantastic examples of gothic books! They both contain the threat of illegitimate power, the destabilisation of societal norms, and many more tropes that can be associated with the gothic genre.

      I would argue that Jane Eyre and Rebecca are both gothic novels, as are many similar romance novels published around the same time (such as the works written by the Brontë sisters). Yet I would argue that they are gothic because of their content and not because of the time in which they were published; it just so happens that, during and around the Victorian Period, the Gothic was a very popular genre. This is why it can be seen in most of the works published in this time, even in novels by authors whom you might not expect – like Charles Dickens!

  2. Love this! My favorite novel ever, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is both a parody and a celebration of the gothic novel. I’ve read a couple of the books you mention here, but now I’m inspired to read more gothic fiction this summer!

    1. Hi Rhonda,

      Thanks for reading my post! I read Northanger Abbey a couple of years ago, and I certainly found it interesting; it is my favourite of Austen’s novels, particularly as it is so ambiguous. I’m glad to hear that it is your favourite novel – good choice!

  3. This is a very interesting post! I still use the Gothic term as well!

    I shelve books on Goodreads as either Gothic or Horror. Some books fit both shelves, although it can get confusing when I try to decide whether a book is Gothic is not! Do you think that “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” and “Flowers in the Attic” are modern Gothic novels?

    1. Hi Shaz,

      Thank you for reading! Sorting books into two separate categories sounds like a good idea. I haven’t personally read either of the two books that you have mentioned, although from what I know of them, I would probably class them both as “gothic”. This is not to say that they don’t also belong to other genres, because they certainly do (e.g. historical fiction and horror).

    1. Hi and thanks for commenting!

      Yes, Wuthering Heights is most certainly a gothic book (as is Rebecca)! Wuthering Heights presents another great example of an old, potentially haunted building. Like the Castle of Otranto, it also focusses on issues of the family and inheritance.

  4. Love this post. That’s a very good argument about HP, and I also haven’t thought of The Shining this way. But I love your points. I also happen to be a fan of the gothic novel, so it’s an awesome thought to think that it’s not gone but merely evolved!

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