The gothic novel is a living tradition, a form that enjoys great popular appeal while provoking harsh critical judgments. It began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), then traveled through Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and many others into the twentieth century, where it surfaced, much altered and yet spiritually continuous, in the work of writers such as William Faulkner, D. H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, John Gardner (1933-1982), Joyce Carol Oates, and Doris Lessing and in the popular genres of horror fiction and some women’s romances.
The externals of the gothic, especially early in its history, are characterized by sublime but terrifying mountain scenery; bandits and outlaws; ruined, ancient seats of power; morbid death imagery; and virgins and charismatic villains, as well as hyperbolic physical states of agitation and lurid images of physical degradation. Its spirit is characterized by a tone of high agitation and unresolved or almost-impossible-to-resolve anxiety, fear, unnatural elation, and desperation.
The first gothic novel is identifiable with a precision unusual in genre study. Walpole (1717-1797), the earl of Orford, began writing The Castle of Otranto in June, 1764,; he finished it in August and published it in an edition of five hundred copies in early 1765. Walpole was a historian and essayist whose vivid and massive personal correspondence remains essential reading for the eighteenth century background. Before writing The Castle of Otranto, his only connection with the gothic was his estate in Twickenham, which he called Strawberry Hill. It was built in the gothic style and set an architectural trend, as his novel would later set a literary trend.
Walpole did not dream of what he was about to initiate with The Castle of Otranto; he published his first edition anonymously, revealing his identity, only after the novel’s great success, in his second edition of April, 1765. At that point, he no longer feared mockery of his tale of a statue with a bleeding nose and mammoth, peregrinating armor, and an ancient castle complete with ancient family curse. With his second edition, he was obliged to add a preface explaining why he had hidden behind the guise of a preface proclaiming the book to be a “found manuscript,” printed originally “in Naples in the black letter in 1529.” The reader of the first edition was told that The Castle of Otranto was the long-lost history of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. The greater reading public loved it, and it was reprinted in many editions. By 1796, it had been translated into French and Spanish and had been repeatedly rendered into dramatic form. In 1848, the novel was still active as the basis for successful theatrical presentations, although the original gothic vogue had passed.
Close upon Walpole’s heels followed Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin. These three authors, of course, were not the only imitators ready to take advantage of the contemporary trend (there were literally hundreds of those), but they are among the few who are still read, for they made their own distinctive contributions to the genre’s evolution. Radcliffe (1764-1823) was born just as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was being published. She was reared in a middle-class milieu, acquainted with merchants and professionals; her husband was the editor of The English Chronicle and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. She lived a quiet life, was likely asthmatic, and seems to have stayed close to her hearth. Although she never became a habitué of literary circles and in her lifetime only published a handful of works, she is considered the grande dame of the gothic novelists and enjoyed a stunning commercial success in her day; she is the only female novelist of the period whose work is still read.
Radcliffe’s works include The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Italian: Or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), and Gaston de Blondeville (1826). She also wrote an account of a trip through parts of northern Europe, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 Through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany (1795). Her remarkably sedate life contrasts strikingly with the melodramatic flamboyance of her works. Her experiences also fail to account for her dazzling, fictional accounts of the scenery of Southern Europe, which she had never seen.
Lewis, called Monk Lewis in honor of his major work, conformed in his life more closely to the stereotype of the gothic masters. Lewis (1775-1818) was a child of the upper classes, the spoiled son of a frivolous beauty, whom he adored. His parents’ unhappy marriage ended when he was at Westminster Preparatory School. There was a continual struggle between his parents to manage his life—his father stern and aloof, his mother extravagant and possessive.
Lewis spent his childhood treading the halls of large, old manses belonging both to family and to friends. He paced long, gloomy corridors—a staple of the gothic— and peered up at ancient portraits in dark galleries, another permanent fixture in gothic convention. Deeply involved with the literati of his day, Lewis (also homosexual) found an equivocal public reception, but his novel The Monk: A Romance (1796; also known as Ambrosio: Or, The Monk), an international sensation, had an enormous effect on the gothic productions of his day. Lewis died on board ship, a casualty of a yellowfever epidemic, in the arms of his valet, Baptista, and was buried at sea.
Lewis’s bibliography is as frenetic as his biography. Although his only gothic novel is the infamous The Monk, he spent most of his career writing plays heavily influenced by gothic conventions; he also translated many gothic works into English and wrote scandalous poetry. Among his plays are Village Virtues (pb. 1796), The Castle Spectre (pr. 1797), The East Indian (pr. 1799), Adelmorn the Outlaw (pr., pb. 1801), and The Captive (pr. 1803). He translated Friedrich Schiller’s The Minister (1797) and August von Kotzebue’s Rolla: Or, The Peruvian Hero (1799). He became notorious for his poetic work The Love of Gain: A Poem Initiated from Juvenal (1799), an imitation of Juvenal’s thirteenth satire.
Maturin (1780-1824) is the final major gothic artist of the period. He was a Protestant clergyman from Dublin and a spiritual brother of the Marquis de Sade. He also was a protégé of Sir Walter Scott and an admirer of Lord Byron. His major gothic novel is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), as shocking to its public as was Lewis’s The Monk. An earlier Maturin gothic was Fatal Revenge: Or, The Family of Montorio (1807). His other works include the novel The Milesian Chief (1812); a theological novel, Women: Or, Pour et Contre (1818); a tragedy, Bertram: Or, The Castle of St. Aldobrand (pr., pb. 1816), produced by Edmund Kean; and the novel The Albigenses (1824).
Among the legions of other gothic novelists, a few writers (especially the following women, who are no longer generally read) have made a place for themselves in literary history. These writers include Harriet Lee, known for The Canterbury Tales (1797-1805), written with her sister, Sophia Lee, author also of The Recess: Or, A Tale of Other Times (1783); Clara Reeve (The Champion of Virtue: A Gothic Story, 1777; also known as The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story); Regina Maria Roche (The Children of the Abbey, 1796); Charlotte Smith (Emmeline: Or, The Orphan of the Castle—A Novel, 1788); Charlotte Dacre (Zofloya: Or, The Moor— A Romance of the Fifteenth Century, 1806); and Mary Anne Radcliffe (Manfroné: Or, The One Handed Monk— A Romance, 1809).
Critics generally agree that the period gothics, while having much in common, divide into relatively clear subclassifications: the historical gothic, the school of terror, and the Schauer-Romantik school of horror. All gothics of the period return to the past, are flushed with suggestions of the supernatural, and tend to be set amid ruined architecture, particularly a great estate house gone to ruin or a decaying abbey. All make use of stock characters. These will generally include one or more young and innocent virgins of both sexes; monks and nuns, particularly of sinister aspect; and towering male and female characters of overpowering will whose charismatic egotism knows no bounds.
Frequently the novels are set in the rugged mountains of Italy and contain an evil Italian character. Tumultuous weather often accompanies tumultuous passions. The gothic genre specializes in making external conditions metaphors of human emotions, a convention thought to have been derived in part from the works of William Shakespeare. Brigands are frequently employed in the plot, and most gothics of the period employ morbid, lurid imagery, such as a body riddled with worms behind a moldy black veil.
The various subdivisions of the gothic may feature any or all of these conventions, being distinguished by relative emphasis. The historical gothic, for example, reveals the supernatural against a genuinely historical background, best exemplified by the works of the Lee sisters, who, although their own novels are infrequently read today, played a part in the evolution of the historical novel through their influence on Sir Walter Scott. The school of terror provided safe emotional titillation— safe, because the morbidity such novels portray takes place not in a genuine, historical setting, but in some fantasy of the past, and because the fearful effects tend to be explained away rationally at the end of the respective work. Radcliffe is the major paradigm of this subgroup. The Schauer-Romantik school of horror, best represented by Lewis and Maturin, did not offer the reassurance of a moral, rational order. These works tend to evoke history but stir anxiety without resolving or relieving it. They are perverse and sadistic, marked by the amoral use of thrill.
There are very few traditional gothic plots and conventions; a discrete set of such paradigms was recycled and refurbished many times. Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Lewis’s The Monk, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer represent the basic models of the genre.
Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto, emphatically not historical gothic, takes place in a fantasy past. It is not of the school of terror either; although it resolves its dilemmas in a human fashion, it does not rationally explain the supernatural events it recounts. This earliest of the gothics trembles between horror and terror.
The story opens with Manfred, Prince of Otranto, ready to marry his sickly son, Conrad, to the beautiful Isabella. Manfred, the pattern for future gothic villains of towering egotism and pride, is startled when his son is killed in a bizarre fashion. The gigantic statuary helmet of a marble figure of Alphonse the Good has been mysteriously transported to Manfred’s castle, where it has fallen on and crushed Conrad.
Manfred precipitously reveals that he is tired of his virtuous wife, Hippolita, and, disdaining both her and their virtuous daughter, Mathilda, attempts to force himself on the exquisite, virginal Isabella, his erstwhile daughter-in-law elect. At the same time, he attempts to blame his son’s death on an individual named Theodore, who appears to be a virtuous peasant lad and bears an uncanny resemblance to the now helmetless statue of Alfonso the Good. Theodore is incarcerated in the palace but manages to escape. Theodore and Isabella, both traversing the mazelike halls of Otranto to escape Manfred, find each other, and Theodore manages to set Isabella free. She finds asylum in the Church of St. Nicholas, site of the statue of Alfonso the Good, under the protection of Father Jerome, a virtuous friar. In the process of persuading Jerome to bring Isabella to him, Manfred discovers that Theodore is actually Jerome’s long-lost son. Manfred threatens Theodore in order to maneuver Jerome into delivering Isabella. The long-lost relative later became a popular feature of the gothic.
Both Isabella and Theodore are temporarily saved by the appearance of a mysterious Black Knight, who turns out to be Isabella’s father and joins the forces against Manfred. A round of comings and goings through tunnels, hallways, and churches ensues. This flight through dark corridors also became almost mandatory in gothic fiction. In the course of his flight, Theodore falls in love with Mathilda. As the two lovers meet in a church, Manfred, “flushed with love and wine,” mistakes Mathilda for Isabella. Wishing to prevent Theodore from possessing the woman he thinks is his own beloved, Manfred mistakenly stabs his daughter. Her dying words prevent Theodore from revenging her: “Stop thy impious hand . . . it is my father!”
Manfred must now forfeit his kingdom for his bloody deed. The final revelation is that Theodore is actually the true Prince of Otranto, the direct descendant of Alfonso the Good. The statuary helmet flies back to the statue; Isabella is given to Theodore in marriage, but only after he completes a period of mourning for Mathilda; and order is restored. The flight of the helmet remains beyond the pale of reason, as does the extraordinary, rigid virtue of the sympathetic characters, but Manfred’s threat to the kingdom is ended. Here is the master plot for the gothic of the Kingdom
The Mysteries of Udolpho
Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho presents apparently unnatural behavior and events but ultimately explains them all. Not only will the sins of the past be nullified, but also human understanding will penetrate all the mysteries. In The Mysteries of Udolpho, the obligatory gothic virgin is Emily St. Aubert; she is complemented by a virginal male named Valancourt, whom Emily meets while still in the bosom of her family. When her parents die, she is left at the mercy of her uncle, the villainous Montoni, dark, compelling, and savage in pursuit of his own interests. Montoni whisks Emily away to Udolpho, his great house in the Apennines, where, desperate for money, he exerts himself on Emily in hopes of taking her patrimony while his more lustful, equally brutal friends scheme against her virtue. Emily resists, fainting and palpitating frequently. Emily’s propensity to swoon is very much entrenched in the character of the gothic heroine.
Emily soon escapes and, sequestered in a convent, makes the acquaintance of a dying nun, whose past is revealed to contain a murder inspired by lust and greed. Her past also contains Montoni, who acquired Udolpho through her evil deeds. Now repenting, the nun (née Laurentini de Udolpho) reveals all. The innocent victim of Laurentini’s stratagems was Emily’s long-lost, virtuous aunt, and Udolpho should have been hers. Ultimately, it will belong to Emily and Valancourt.
This novel contains the obligatory gothic flights up and down dimly lit staircases and halls and into dark turrets; there are also fabulous vistas of soul-elevating charm in the Apennines, which became a hallmark of gothic, and blood-chilling vistas of banditti by torch and moonlight. There is also mysterious music that seems to issue from some supernatural source and a mysterious disappearance of Emily’s bracelet, both later revealed to be the work of Valancourt. A miniature picture of the first marchioness of Udolpho, who looks unaccountably like Emily, threatens to reveal some irregularity about pure Emily’s birth but in the end reveals only that the poor, victimized marchioness was Emily’s aunt. In Udolpho, in a distant turret, Emily finds a body being devoured by worms. Emily is thrown into a frenzy, fearing that this is the corpse of her deluded aunt, Montoni’s wife, but it is revealed to be merely a wax effigy placed there long ago for the contemplation of some sinning cleric, as a penance. The dark night of the soul lifts, and terror yields to the paradise that Emily and Valancourt will engender. This is the master plot for personal gothic: the gothic of the family.
Radcliffe was known to distinguish between horror and terror and would have none of the former. Terror was a blood-tingling experience of which she approved because it would ultimately yield to better things. Horror she identified with decadence, a distemper in the blood that could not be discharged but rendered men and women inactive with fright. Lewis’s The Monk demonstrates Radcliffe’s distinction.
Lewis’s The Monk concerns a Capuchin friar named Ambrosio, famed throughout Madrid for his beauty and virtue. He is fervent in his devotion to his calling and is wholly enchanted by a picture of the Virgin, to which he prays. A young novice of the order named Rosario becomes Ambrosio’s favorite. Rosario is a beautiful, virtuous youth, as Ambrosio thinks, but one night Ambrosio perceives that Rosario has a female breast, and that “he” is in fact “she”: Mathilda, a daughter of a noble house, so enthralled by Ambrosio that she has disguised herself to be near him.
Mathilda is the very image of the picture of the Virgin to which Ambrosio is so devoted, and, through her virginal beauty, seduces Ambrosio into a degrading sexual entanglement that is fully described. As Mathilda grows more obsessed with Ambrosio, his ardor cools. To secure him to her, she offers help in seducing Antonia, another virginal beauty, Ambrosio’s newest passion. Mathilda, the madonna-faced enchantress, now reveals that she is actually a female demon. She puts her supernatural powers at Ambrosio’s disposal, and together they successfully abduct Antonia, although only after killing Antonia’s mother. Ambrosio then rapes Antonia in the foul, suffocating stench of a charnel house in the cathedral catacombs. In this scene of heavy breathing and sadism, the monk is incited to his deed by the virginal Antonia’s softness and her pleas for her virtue. Each tear excites him further into a frenzy, which he climaxes by strangling the girl.
Ambrosio’s deeds are discovered, and he is tried by an inquisitorial panel. Mathilda reveals his union with Satan through her. The novel ends with Satan’s liberation of Ambrosio from the dungeon into which the inquisitors have thrown him. Satan mangles Ambrosio’s body by throwing him into an abyss but does not let him die for seven days (the de-creation of the world?). During this time, Ambrosio must suffer the physical and psychological torments of his situation, and the reader along with him. The devil triumphs at the end of this novel. All means of redressing virtue are abandoned, and the reader is left in the abyss with Ambrosio.
Melmoth the Wanderer
The same may be said of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a tale of agony and the failure of redemption. The book may be called a novel only if one employs the concept of the picaresque in its broadest sense. It is a collection of short stories, each centering on Melmoth, a damned, Faust-like character. Each tale concerns Melmoth’s attempt to find someone to change places with him, a trade he would gladly make, as he has sold his soul to the devil and now wishes to be released.
The book rubs the reader’s nerves raw with obsessive suffering, detailing scenes from the Spanish Inquisition that include the popping of bones and the melting of eyeballs. The book also minutely details the degradation of a beautiful, virginal island maiden named Immalee, who is utterly destroyed by the idolatrous love of Melmoth. The last scene of the book ticks the seconds of the clock as Melmoth, unable to find a surrogate, awaits his fall into Satan’s clutches. The denouement is an almost unbearable agony that the reader is forced to endure with the protagonist. Again the horror is eternal. There will never be any quietus for either Ambrosio or Melmoth, or for the reader haunted by them. These are the molds for the gothic of damnation.
The Modernization of the Gothic
The reading public of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was avid for both horror and terror, as well as for supernatural history. Such works were gobbled greedily as they rolled off the presses. Indeed, the readers of the gothic may have begun the mass marketing of literature by ensuring the fortunes of the private lending libraries that opened in response to the gothic binge. Although the libraries continued after the gothic wave had crested, it was this craze that gave the libraries their impetus. Such private lending libraries purchased numerous copies of long lists of gothic works and furnished subscribers with a list from which they might choose. Like contemporary book clubs, the libraries vied for the most appetizing authors. Unlike the modern clubs, books circulated back and forth, not to be kept by subscribers.
William Lane’s Minerva Public Library was the most famous and most successful of all these libraries. Lane went after the works of independent gothic authors but formed the basis of his list by maintaining his own stable of hacks. The names of most of the “stable authors” are gone, and so are their books, but the titles linger on in the library records, echoing one another and the titles of the more prominent authors: The Romance Castle (1791), The Black Forest: Or, The Cavern of Horrors (1802), The Mysterious Omen: Or, Awful Retribution (1812).
By the time Melmoth the Wanderer had appeared, this trend had run its course. Only hacks continued to mine the old pits for monks, nuns, fainting innocents, Apennine banditti, and Satanic quests, but critics agree that if the conventions of the gothic period from Walpole to Maturin have dried out and fossilized, the spirit is very much alive. Many modern novels set miles from an abbey and containing not one shrieking, orphaned virgin or worm-ridden corpse may be considered gothic. If the sophisticated cannot repress a snicker at the obvious and well-worn gothic conventions, they cannot dismiss the power and attraction of its spirit, which lives today in serious literature.
Modern thinking about gothic literature has gravitated toward the psychological aspects of the gothic. The castle or ruined abbey has become the interior of the mind, racked with anxiety and unbridled surges of emotion, melodramatically governed by polarities. The traditional gothic is now identified as the beginning of neurotic literature. In a perceptive study of the genre, Love, Misery, and Mystery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction (1978), Coral Ann Howells points out that the gothic literature of the eighteenth century was willing to deal with the syntax of hysteria, which the more prestigious literature, controlled by classical influences, simply denied or avoided. Hysteria is no stranger to all kinds of literature, but thinking today seeks to discriminate between the literary presentation of hysteria or neuroticism as an aberration from a rational norm and the gothic presentation of neuroticism as equally normative with rational control, or even as the dominant mode.
The evolution of the modern gothic began close to the original seedbed, in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example, the traditional sins of the gothic past cavort in a mansion of ancient and noble lineage. A young virgin is subjected to the tortures of the charnel house; the tomb and the catacombs descend directly from Lewis. So, too, do the hyperbolic physical states of pallor and sensory excitement. This tale is also marked, however, by the new relationship it seeks to demonstrate between reason and hysterical anxiety.
Roderick Usher’s boyhood friend, the story’s narrator, is a representative of the normative rational world. He is forced to encounter a reality in which anxiety and dread are the norm and in which the passions know no rational bounds. Reason is forced to confront the reality of hysteria, its horror, terror, and power. This new psychological development of the gothic is stripped of the traditional gothic appurtenances in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where there are neither swooning virgins nor charnel houses, nor ruined, once-great edifices, save the ruin of the narrator’s mind. The narrator’s uncontrollable obsessions both to murder and to confess are presented to stun the reader with the overwhelming force of anxiety unconditioned by rational analysis.
Thus, a more modern gothic focuses on the overturning of rational limits as the source of horror and dread, without necessarily using the conventional apparatus. More examples of what may be considered modern gothic can be found in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). Although Hawthorne was perfectly capable of using the conventional machinery of the gothic, as in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), he was one of the architects of the modern gothic. In Hawthorne’s forward-looking tales, certain combinations of personalities bond, as if they were chemical compounds, to form anxiety systems that cannot be resolved except by the destruction of all or part of the human configuration. In The Scarlet Letter (1850), for example, the configuration of Hester, Chillingsworth, and Dimmesdale forms an interlocking system of emotional destruction that is its own Otranto. The needs and social positions of each character in this trio impinge on one another in ways that disintegrate “normal” considerations of loyalty, courage, sympathy, consideration, and judgment. Hester’s vivacity is answered in Dimmesdale, whose violently clashing aloofness and responsiveness create for her a vicious cycle of fulfillment and rejection. Chillingsworth introduces further complications through another vicious cycle of confidence and betrayal. These are the catacombs of the modern gothic.
Another strand of the modern gothic can be traced to Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1979-1851). The novel was published just as the gothic genre was on the wane. Shelley’s story represents an important alternative for the gothic imagination. The setting in this work shifts from the castle to the laboratory, forming the gothic tributary of science fiction. Frankenstein reverses the anxiety system of the gothic from the past to the future. Instead of the sins of the fathers—old actions, old human instincts rising to blight the present—human creativity is called into question as the blight of the future. Frankenstein’s mind and laboratory are the gothic locus of “future fear,” a horror of the dark side of originality and birth, which may, as the story shows, be locked into a vicious cycle with death and sterility. A dread of the whole future of human endeavor pursues the reader in and out of the dark corridors of Frankenstein.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) may be considered an example of a further evolution of the gothic. Here one finds a strong resurgence of the traditional gothic: the ruined castle, bandits ranging over craggy hills, the sins of the past attacking the life of the present, and swooning, morbidly detailed accounts of deaths. The attendant supernatural horror and the bloodletting of the vampires, their repulsive stench, and the unearthly attractiveness of Dracula’s vampire brides come right out of the original school of Schauer-Romantik horror. The utterly debilitating effect of the vampire on human will is, however, strong evidence for those critics who see the gothic tradition as an exploration of neurosis.
Stoker synthesizes two major gothic subclassifications in his work, thereby producing an interesting affirmation. Unlike the works of Radcliffe and her terror school, Dracula does not ultimately affirm the power of human reason, for it never explains away the supernatural. On the other hand, Stoker does not invoke his vampires as totally overwhelming forces, as in the horror school. Dracula does not present a fatalistic course of events through which the truth will not win out. Humankind is the agency of its salvation, but only through its affirmation of the power of faith. Reason is indeed powerless before Dracula, but Dr. Van Helsing’s enormous faith and the faith he inspires in others are ultimately sufficient to resolve gothic anxiety, without denying its terrifying power and reality.
The Gothic in the Twentieth Century and Later
Significantly, in the contemporary gothic, reason never achieves the triumph it briefly found through the terror school. Twentieth and twenty-first century gothic tends toward the Schauer-Romantik school of horror. Either it pessimistically portrays an inescapable, mindforged squirrel cage, or it optimistically envisions an apocalyptic release through faith, instinct, or imagination, the nonrational human faculties. For examples of both twentieth century gothic trends, it may be instructive to consider briefly William Faulkner (1897-1962), whose works are frequently listed at the head of what is called the southern gothic tradition, and Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013), whose later works took a turn that brought them into the fold of the science-fiction branch of gothic. If there remains any doubt about the respectability of the genre and its writers, it may be noted here that both Faulkner and Lessing are winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Faulkner’s fictions have all the characteristic elements of the southern gothic: the traditional iconography; decaying mansions and graveyards; morbid, deathoriented actions and images; sins of the past; and virgins. The Sound and the Fury (1929) is concerned with the decaying Compson house and family, the implications of past actions, and Quentin’s morbid preoccupation with death and virginity; it features Benjy’s graveyard and important scenes in a cemetery. As I Lay Dying (1930) is structured around a long march to the cemetery with a stinking corpse. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is full of decaying houses and lurid death scenes and features prominently three strange virgins—Rosa Coldfield, Judith Sutpen, and Clytie—or five if Quentin and Shreve are to be counted. In this work, the past eats the present up alive and the central figure, Thomas Sutpen, is much in the tradition of the charismatic, but boundlessly appropriating, gothic villain.
These cold gothic externals are only superficial images that betray the presence of the steaming psychological modern gothic centers of these works. Like Hawthorne, Faulkner creates interfacing human systems of neurosis whose inextricable coils lock each character into endless anxiety, producing hysteria, obsession, and utter loss of will and freedom. The violence and physical hyperbole in Faulkner reveal the truly gothic dilemmas of the characters, inaccessible to the mediations of active reason. As in Hawthorne, the combinations of characters form the catacombs of an inescapable though invisible castle or charnel house. Through these catacombs Faulkner’s characters run, but they cannot extricate themselves and thus simply revolve in a maze of involuted thought. The Compsons bind one another to tragedy, as do the Sutpens and their spiritual and psychological descendants.
There is, however, an alternative in the modern gothic impulse. In her insightful, imaginative study of the modern evolution of the gothic, Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence (1980), Judith Wilt assigns Lessing a place as the ultimate inheritor of the tradition. Lessing does portray exotic states of anxiety, variously descending into the netherworld (Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971) and plunging into outer space (the Canopus in Argos series), but Wilt focuses on The Four-Gated City (1969). This novel has both the trappings and the spirit of the gothic. The book centers on a doomed old house and an old, traditional family succumbing to the sins of the past. These Lessing portrays as no less than the debilitating sins of Western culture, racist, sexist, and exploitive in character. Lessing does indeed bring down this house. Several of the major characters are released from doom, however, by an apocalyptic World War III that wipes away the old sins, freeing some characters for a new, fruitful, life without anxiety. Significantly, this new world will be structured not on the principles of reason and logic, which Lessing excoriates as the heart of the old sins, but on the basis of something innately nonrational and hard to identify. It is not instinct and not faith, but seems closest to imagination. Lessing’s ultimately hopeful vision, it must be conceded, is not shared by most contemporary practitioners of the genre. The gothic enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980’s that critics identified as a significant literary trend. Typical of the diversity of writers mentioned under this rubric are those represented in a collection edited by Patrick McGrath (born 1950): The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction (1991; with Bradford Morrow). McGrath, himself a writer of much-praised gothic fictions, assembled work by veteran novelists such as Robert Coover and John Hawkes as well as younger (now established) writers such as Jamaica Kincaid and William T. Vollmann; the group includes both the best-selling novelist Peter Straub and the assaultive experimental novelist Kathy Acker. These works were first collected by McGrath in the journal Conjunctions (1989), in which he contributed an essay outlining some of the characteristics of the new gothic. While resisting any attempt at rigid definition (the gothic, he says, is “an air, a tone, a tendency”; it is “not a monolith”), he acknowledges that all the writers whom he places in this group “concern themselves variously with extremes of sexual experience, with disease and social power, with murder and terror and death.” That much might be said about most gothic novelists from the beginnings of the genre. What perhaps differentiates many of the writers whom McGrath discusses from their predecessors—what makes the new gothic new—is a more self-consciously transgressive stance, evident in McGrath’s summation of the vision that he and his fellow writers share.
Common to all is an idea of evil, transgression of natural and social law, and the gothic, in all its suppleness, is the literature that permits that mad dream to be dreamt in a thousand forms.
Among popular-fiction writers, the gothic split into two main genres, one based on supernatural or psychological horror and the other based on women’s fiction, featuring romance and, often, historical settings. Moreover, combinations of the two traditions most approach the hyperreal intensity and blend of fear and passion seen in the original gothic: for example, the saga of the Dollanganger family by V. C. Andrews (1923-1986) or the Blood Opera series—Dark Dance (1992), Personal Darkness (1993), and Darkness, I (1994)—by Tanith Lee (1947-2015). While horror writers often substitute the suburbs or small town for the isolated castle—and sometimes psychic abilities, deranged computers, or psychotic killers for ghostly nuns and predatory villain-heroes—they continue to explore the intense feeling, perilous world, tense social situations, and alluring but corrupt sexuality of the original gothic. Unlike the romantic gothic, which has seen periods of quiescence and revival, an unbroken line of the horror gothic persisted from The Castle of Otranto through Dracula and into the twentieth century with books such as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), by M. R. James (1862-1936), and the works of Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) and H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). These stories continue the trend—seen in Poe, Hawthorne, Faulkner, and others—of maintaining morbid and sensational gothic elements while rooting the terror in psychology and even epistemology. Often, hauntings reveal, or are even replaced by, obsession and paranoia. Before the burgeoning of the modern commercial horror novel, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), in two eerie and lyrical novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), uses the traditional gothic form and many of its motifs, with both psychological sophistication and true terror. Robert Bloch (1917-1994), with his novel Psycho (1959), also updates and psychologizes gothic conventions, substituting an out-of-the-way motel for a castle and explicitly invoking Sigmund Freud. The horror genre grew with the (arguably) gothic novel The Exorcist (1971), by William Peter Blatty (1928-2017), and with Rosemary’s Baby (1967), by Ira Levin (1929-2007). The novel transplants to a New York City apartment building the hidden secret, supernatural menace, and conspiracies against the heroine of early gothics. Although the horror market withered in the 1990’s, four best-selling authors continued in the gothichorror vein: Dean R. Koontz (born 1945), Straub, Stephen King (born 1947), and Anne Rice (born 1941). While much of Koontz’s horror is better classified as horror-adventure, lacking the brooding neuroses and doubts about rationality prevalent in gothic fiction, gothic aspects do dominate his novels Whispers (1980), Shadowfires (1987), Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: Prodigal Son (2005; with Kevin J. Anderson), Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: City of Night (2005; with Edward Gorman), and Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: Dead or Alive (2007; with Gorman). Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973) exemplifies the techno-gothic: A threatening setting and pursuing lover combine in a robot intelligence, which runs the house and wants to impregnate the heroine. Rice explores the gothic’s lush, dangerous sexuality and burden of the past in the novels of the Vampire Chronicles, including Interview with the Vampire (1976), The Vampire Lestat (1985), The Tale of the Body Thief (1992), Memnoch the Devil (1995), Blood and Gold: Or, The Story of Marius (2001), and Blood Canticle (2003).
Straub’s Julia (1975; also known as Full Circle), is a drawing-room gothic novel, focusing on the haunting— supernatural, mentally pathological, or both—of a woman dominated by her husband and his disturbing, enmeshed family. In Ghost Story (1979), Shadowland (1980), and others, Straub widens the focus, exploring and critiquing the small town, boys’ school, or suburban setting while developing gothic themes, including dangerous secrets, guilt, ambivalent eroticism, and a threat from the past. In Lost Boy, Lost Girl (2003), the threats include a pedophile serial killer, a haunted house, and a missing man’s obsession with his dead mother. Straub explores other genres as well, especially the mystery, but maintains a gothic tone and intensity.
Similarly, King’s early work is more strictly gothic, such as ’Salem’s Lot (1975), in which vampires spread through a small town in Maine, and The Shining (1977), a story of madness and terror in an isolated, empty hotel. However, many later works, even mimetic ones such as Gerald’s Game (1992), Dolores Claiborne (1993), Bag of Bones (1998), From a Buick Eight (2002), and Cell (2006), continue gothic themes and often a gothic tone. King is the undisputed best-selling author of the genre, having sold more than 330 million copies of his novels. Straub and King, admirers of one another’s work, have collaborated on two fantasy novels, The Talisman (1984), and a sequel, Black House (2001).
The prolific Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938), author of more than fifty novels, has created several memorable gothic works, including a Gothic Saga series comprising Bellefleur (1980) and its sequels. Another memorable work is Zombie (1995), an exploration of the mind of a serial killer, based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer. New voices on the gothic-novel scene include Donna Tartt (born c. 1964), author of The Secret History (1992) and The Little Friend (2002), and Elizabeth Kostova (born 1964), whose first novel, The Historian (2005), became a best seller and was translated into close to thirty languages.
Along with terror and horror, sentimental and romantic elements were established in the original gothic in the works of Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve, Susanna Rowson (1762-1824), and the Brontë sisters. In 1938, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), the story of a young woman’s marriage to a wealthy English widower with a secret, conveyed many gothic conventions to a new audience, paving the way for the genre of gothic romance. Combining mystery, danger, and romantic fantasy, such books tend to feature innocent but admirable heroines, a powerful male love interest and his isolated estate, ominous secrets (often linked to a woman from the love interest’s past, as in Rebecca), and exotic settings that are remote in place and time.
In the early 1960’s, editor Gerald Gross of Ace Books used the term “gothic” for a line of paperbacks aimed at women, featuring primarily British authors such as Victoria Holt (pseudonym for Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert, 1906-1993), Phyllis A. Whitney (1903-2008), and Dorothy Eden (1912-1982). The mystery and love plots are inextricable, and the novels feature many gothic elements, including besieged heroines; strong, enigmatic men; settings that evoke an atmosphere of tension and justified paranoia; heightened emotional states; doubled characters (including impersonation); and lurid, sometimes cruel, sexuality. In the 1970’s and later, erotic elements flourished and became more explicit, resulting in the new category of the erotic gothic.
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Source: Rollyson, Carl. Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 2010.
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Ellis, Markman. The History of Gothic Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
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_______. Guide to the Gothic II. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
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