Gothic Fiction 101
Gothic Fiction is a genre where stories primarily focus on the feeling of terror or mystery. Stories usually take place in an unsettling setting, such as ruins or old buildings and castles (Britannica). The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole was the first story published to be considered gothic fiction (Pagan). Since then, it has grown widely as a genre. Stephen King's works are considered contemporary gothic.
Several different elements exist in gothic fiction and stories will often utilize multiple of these elements. Prophecies, curses, and omens are among common elements in gothic stories. Supernatural and paranormal activities are also common elements that are present and are shown in a couple of the books listed below (“The Top 10…”). Stories also contain intense emotions in their characters (Pagan). Below is mix of classic and more modern examples of gothic fiction.
The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole
The Castle of Otranto starts off the book with a tragedy and an ancient prophecy. The story begins as Lord Manfred’s son, Conrad, marries Princess Isabella. When Conrad is crushed shortly after the wedding, it is revealed that there is an ancient prophecy where the current family line of the castle will die out when it is no longer suitable for the castle. Menfred becomes determined to marry Isabella in hopes of producing more sons to help keep the family line alive. Secrets are uncovered and truths are revealed as Isabella attempts to escape the marriage and Menfred is still determined to marry her. Many elements of gothic fiction exist in this book, and it is the first published story of gothic fiction. On top of the ancient prophecy, there is also an ominous setting with the threat of the prophecy looming above them. Death is apparent in this book along with a woman in distress. High emotion is also present as Lord Manfred is dealing with the possible end of his family line and his desperation to continue it and marry Isabella. All these elements are common in gothic fiction.
Mexican Gothic – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Mexican Gothic is full of mystery as the protagonist, Noemí, goes to visit her cousin who suspects that her husband is slowly poisoning her. When Noemí gets there, there is an unwelcoming and unsettling atmosphere in the home, and the people that live there don’t help the situation. Dark family secrets are uncovered as it’s revealed the family has a troubling past. When Noemí becomes affected by visions, the horrifying truth of the family is revealed and it becomes fight to escape the house, and the family, with her life. Taking place in an unwelcoming and ominous setting with a dark mystery to be uncovered, this book is a good, modern, example of gothic fiction. The visions also fit in with the theme of gothic fiction and the suspense of Noemí trying to escape with her life adds suspense that the genre is also known for. The woman in distress aspect with Noemí’s cousin is also a common element of gothic fiction.
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Dracula is probably one of the most well-known examples of gothic fiction, if not the most well-known, which makes it easy to help connect with the genre. Leaning more
into gothic horror, right off the bat the book checks off the supernatural mark with Dracula himself. The book immediately starts off with horror as Dracula leaves a gentleman to die in his castle where three vampire women are. He moves to London, causing the crew on the ship he was traveling on to disappear, and begins to stalk a woman named Lucy. This causes changes to happen to Lucy and the men in her life begin to hunt down the cause of it. Fear is a big part of this book as Dracula hunts his victims and the humans must find the cause to everything that has been happening. The fear and violence mean that this story falls more under gothic horror, which is a subgenre to gothic fiction that focuses more on fear than anything else.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louise Stevenson
The main character alone in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde falls under gothic fiction. Dr. Jekyll is in a battle with himself as he has bad impulses and vices that he wants to act upon but doesn’t want to damage his character. Thus, he makes a serum that transforms him into Mr. Hyde that allows him to act upon those impulses, resulting in Mr. Hyde becoming a villain that attacks other people. The local community becomes determined to stop Mr. Hyde from hurting anyone else. The book directly explores his inner battle and nature of man as they struggle between their good and bad impulses, and the fear that happens when the bad eventually begins to take over. This struggle that the book shows represent another element of gothic fiction where characters struggle with good vs. evil.
The Little Stranger – by Sara Waters
The Little Stranger is a story teeming with supernatural elements as the setting, a crumbling estate, is haunted by ghosts in the 18th Century. Faraday, a doctor, experiences the strangeness of this estate when he goes to treat one of the house maids and ends up becoming a family friend after staying to treat the son, Roderick, who suffers from his time in WWII. Mysterious things begin to happen when the once gentle family dog mauls a girl at a party thrown by the family and Roderick claims that something appeared in his room wanting to harm him but proves to threaten the entire family and their way of life, without the family realizing the full extent. Filled with suspense, tragedy, and supernatural themes, The Little Stranger is a modern example of gothic fiction. The reader is left on the edge of their seat the entire story as the family has to overcome several strange instances that can’t easily be explained, even leading the reader to question exactly what happened at the end. It also plays with strong emotions as Faraday and Caroline, the daughter, struggle with their romantic feelings the entire novel before the end where the reader is thrown for a loop.
These are just a few examples of gothic fiction. There are so many other books to check out that would fall under it. If you’re unsure, looking for any of the common elements is a good way to start.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Gothic novel". Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/art/Gothic-novel. Accessed 20 March 2022.
Pagan, Amanda. “A Brief History of Gothic Horror.” New York Public Library, 18 Oct. 2018,https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/10/18/brief-history-gothic-horror. Accessed 20 March 2022.
“The Top 10 Elements of Gothic Literature.” invaluable, https://www.invaluable.com/blog/elements-of-gothic-literature/. Accessed 26 March 2022