Gloomy manor houses, ghostly goings-on and bloody secrets - gothic fiction has gripped and terrified readers for two centuries
There’s always been a paradox at the bleeding heart of gothic fiction. We read it in two seemingly contradictory ways: we are caught up in its dark swirl of highly-charged emotions, but sometimes we also stand a little aside from it and derive amusement from its intrinsic absurdity.
But what is the Gothic? Like its subject matter, it defies analysis. It’s a description now applied to fiction with elements of horror, the paranormal, science fiction, mystery or melodrama, though rarely all at the same time. Like all genre labels, in other words, ‘gothic’ is a convenient catch-all term rather than a precise definition.
It’s no coincidence that the genre appeared in the 18th century – the age of enlightenment, when literacy was spreading, and reason and empirical science were pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. But our ancestors sensed that there was more to life, as we ourselves do. They harked back to the Middle Ages, a time when mystery was woven into the fabric of everyday life: hence the name ‘gothic’.
The aristocratic Horace Walpole wrote what is generally considered the first gothic novel. Published in 1764,The Castle of Otranto has many of what later became the stock ingredients of gothic fiction: a family curse, a damsel in distress, violent deaths, supernatural occurrences, an ancestral home, the long shadows of past events, upper-class characters, regular doses of melodrama, an elaborate pretence that the material has a historical basis and, above all, a pervasive sense of unavoidable doom and inexplicable mystery.
The budding genre developed swiftly. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) introduced the gothic romance, with a hyper-sensitive and orphaned young woman searching for love in a perilous world. Matthew Gregory Lewis provided stronger meat in The Monk (1796), a scandalous bestseller that dealt with corrupt monks, devil-worship and rape (It was a favourite of the Marquis de Sade.)
By now gothic fiction was so well established that parodies were beginning to appear. The best known of these is still Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (written in 1798-9 but not published for nearly 20 years). Austen’s romantic comedy is a witty and affectionate send-up of the genre, with a heroine who makes the mistake of using gothic fiction as an infallible guide to life and love.
In the 19th century, gothic fiction went from strength to strength. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was created in circumstances which themselves seem like the opening of a gothic novel - at a house party in a Swiss villa where the guests included Percy Shelley (then Mary’s fiancé), Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (Byron’s mistress). Byron suggested that all of them should try to write a ghost story. Instead Mary Shelley began Frankenstein, a revolutionary novel that popularised the idea of science itself, the tool of reason, as a potential gothic ingredient: Victor Frankenstein sets out to create artificial life; he succeeds in manufacturing a monstrously uncontrollable hybrid with an unexpected moral relevance to modern readers.
It’s hardly surprising that Edgar Allan Poe was drawn to the gothic. Sickly and constitutionally melancholy, he was fascinated by the relationship between nerves and the intellect. He wrote some of the world’s most influential gothic stories, including 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1840), ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1840), ‘William Wilson’ (1840) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1843).
As a genre, the gothic has always been remarkable for its ability to appeal to so many people in so many ways. Its melodramatic possibilities had an enormous mass-market appeal to Victorian readers. At the same time, however, the genre became something very different in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847), which took the gothic romance in radically new and literary directions without losing its popular appeal. Charles Dickens used many of the conventions of the form in his fiction. So too did Wilkie Collins, notably in The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman In White (1860).
There are fashions in gothic, as in everything else. The late 19th century established the vampire as one of the great gothic motifs. Gothic vampires weren’t new but, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), they became global celebrities. The book was a critical hit from the start. Its cult status developed in the 20th century with the wealth of theatrical, film and television adaptations and spin-offs. Dracula has entered popular culture. This year marks the centenary of Stoker’s death, but in one sense at least he remains very much un-dead.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries were also a wonderful era for perennially creepy ghost stories that thrive on ambiguity. It’s a form that favours short fiction. There have been many adaptations of Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898), but none is as terrifyingly enigmatic as the original story. The short stories of M.R. James, born 150 years ago, are equally chilling. His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, published in 1904, includes 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad', which is arguably the best (and scariest) ghost story in the genre.
Some authors have always tended to see the funny side of gothic fiction. None more so than Stella Gibbons, whose 1932 classic, Cold Comfort Farm, satirised a contemporary vogue for rural gothic. It’s still the ideal antidote to a rainy Sunday afternoon. Six years later, Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca, her take on Jane Eyre. The novel spawned a classic Hitchcock film, two TV mini-series, a musical and several literary spin-offs, including Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter (1993).
Each generation has its own variant on gothic fiction. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is a finely calibrated American reworking of an idea implicit in the novel’s ambiguous title: does the house haunt the people or is it the other way round? Sarah Waters explored the same theme in a very different way in The Little Stranger (2009), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She uses the story to examine the nature of evil and changing social fabric of post-war England.
It’s impossible to talk about contemporary gothic fiction without mentioning Stephen King. He staked out his own claim to the genre early in his career with novels like Carrie (1974) and Salem’s Lot (1975). The latter novel, King’s personal favourite among his own work, is his homage to Dracula.
Literary critics can sometimes be snobbish about Gothic fiction but authors and readers are more open-minded. Again and again, ‘literary’ novelists use gothic elements in their work, just as the Brontës and Henry James did before them. The late Angela Carter, for example, who died 20 years ago this year, revelled in popular culture. In The Bloody Chamber (1979), she brings a sensibility both subversively modern and agelessly gothic to a number of classic fairytales. At the time of her death, it is said that she was working on a sequel to Jane Eyre, which must be one of the great ‘if onlys’ of Gothic fiction (you can find out more about this extraordinary writer at this year’s Bath Festival.)
Susan Hill is another distinguished novelist with a taste for gothic that emerges most clearly in her ghost stories. Her best-known work in this area is The Woman In Black
(1983), which has become a 20th-century classic of the genre. It’s an eerie and timeless story about the malignant effect of frustrated maternal love. Adapted for the stage, it has run for 23 years in the West End and has been seen by over seven million people – a record only bettered by Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap
. Now there’s also a feature film
starring Daniel Radcliffe. Perhaps it is a characteristic of great gothic fiction that it often works in more than one medium.
Gothic fiction continues to find new readers. Each generation remakes the gothic in its own image. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is the perfect illustration: she skilfully repackaged the vampire myth to appeal to contemporary teenagers. These hugely successful books mutated into equally successful films. But, once awakened, the allure of the gothic doesn’t go back to sleep: Twilight readers are turning in their thousands to Frankenstein, Dracula and other classics of the genre.
In other words, a new generation of readers is learning how to be afraid. How to be very afraid. We may not know precisely how to define gothic fiction, but we know we enjoy it.
Andrew Taylor is the author of The Anatomy of Ghosts, published by Penguin.