Horace Walpole is credited/blamed for kicking off the ‘Gothic’ literature genre in 1765 with his novel The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Tale, which was intended as a subtle joke. Walpole meant ‘Gothic’ in the sense of ‘barbarous’ or ‘derived from the Middle Ages’, but his supernatural tale of perverse obsession and melodramatic tragedy sparked something of a movement to which his epithet was permanently applied.
From the 1790s, novelists like Ann Radcliffe (surely the Grandmother of the Gothic Novel) rediscovered Walpole’s fevered imaginings and ran with them, even though her novels always had natural, Scooby-Doo-esque conclusions finally unravelled by her meddling-kid protagonists. They were beautifully trashy novels, (stereo)typically read by impressionable and repressed young ladies by candlelight (probably with their nightgowns delicately draped over heaving bosoms, which is how I like to imagine it). It took other, braver (or less inhibited) authors like Matthew Lewis and his far more erotic and outrageous novel The Monk (1796) to really push the boundaries of what a ‘Gothic novel’ could be.
When we get into Victorian mainstream literature, the eroticism is toned down but still there – the baby-eating brides of Dracula, the wild passions of Cathy and Heathcliff, the sinful lusts and abominations of characters like Frankenstein’s creation and James Hogg’s Justified Sinner, the frightful appetites of Mr Hyde. Here, the Gothic novel was known for its invocation of terror and of horror in its readers, by creating uncanny and frightening situations and/or exploring the horrific, monstrous and grotesque. When the Gothic fiction form crossed the Atlantic and eventually made it into the pen of Edgar Allan Poe, it went the Victorian equivalent of viral.
But there’s more to Gothic literature than just classic Gothic Horror. You could check out The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction for more in-depth looks at the genre and its associated movements and subgenres, or scroll through the list below.
Sub-genres of Gothic Fiction
Especially popular in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this particular brand of Gothic fiction almost exclusively featured damsels in distress in creepy old castles. Since Gothic fiction can be heavy on the eroticism, this lends itself to all sorts of exciting kink-positive potential. See also: Morticia and Gomez Addams.
This can be set anywhere, and Gothic Romance therefore overarches novels that could also fall into other subgenres as regards settings and the themes explored in B-plots or the nature of the romance itself.
Interestingly, in its twentieth-century heyday, a number of male authors of this subgenre chose female pseudonyms instead, which says something about the demographic of the readership and how this subgenre was perceived.
A cousin of Romantic Suspense, the main thrust is the love story and whether or not the heroine can trust the hero. The formula is generally Mr Dark and Brooding meets Miss Civilising Influence (or just She Of The Heaving Bosoms which, let’s face it, is virtually character development in some of these novels) and could be uncharitably described as self-insert Jane Eyre fanfiction. This picks up on the classic 18thC Radcliffe romances, and Austen’s glorious pastiche Northanger Abbey.
A lot of these sorts of titles got published by Love Spell (1978-2010) and Paperback Library Gothic, who also published British Pulp horror novels. Nowadays, while Gothic Romance languishes as an out-of-popularity subgenre in Romancelandia, there’s plenty of scope to reinvigorate this sexy sub under the Horror umbrella and have badass Girl Monsters too, or just leave the blokes alone to live their best ‘uncivilised’ lives, or you know, keep it just as trashy but less white cishet.
I am eagerly awaiting my chance to beta-read a gothic horror novel where the female protagonist is a cannibal, like the villain/love-interest, set in a Scottish coastal castle. Go follow Nita Pan on Twitter if that sounds like your thing.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Gothic Romance (in the Regency style of Mills & Boon) was my 14-year-old self’s sexual awakening. My great-gran had one book she suggested was ‘too old for me’ so OF COURSE I took it and read the sex scenes on the school bus and passed it around all of my friends. It was basically an aristocratic arranged-marriage-HEA retelling of Phantom of the Opera-meets-Beauty and the Beast, complete with fire-ravaged stately home, a scarred and brooding hero advertising for a wife, and the English Rose ‘Belle’ character who applies for the spousal position (and is spied on during her interview by said ‘hero’ through the eyes of a portrait). If anyone can tell me the title/author, I’d be grateful, because it’s driving me mad.
A subgenre of fantasy in the same way that Gothic Romance is a subgenre of Romance, this is also known as dark fantasy and can be high, low, urban, epic, or whatever kind of fantasy you want. There is no reason on earth why dwarves and their ilk cannot also participate in Gothic melodrama or any elements of horror fiction.
Gothic Fantasy is generally the kind that has vampires in it, or other mythical creatures. If it’s High Fantasy (the kind with elves and/or dragons that requires multiple maps and three volumes of world-building), then you’re probably looking at Game of Thrones. That ticks all the boxes, from transgressive sex to murder most foul and everything in-between.
There will be very similar themes as in the gothic novel, with oppression, power imbalances and corruption running through it. There will be elements of darkness, isolation, and the monstrous or grotesque. The landscape will be forbidding and dramatic, there will probably be castles and, more than likely, the aristocracy or elite-equivalent will be ambiguous at best or the antagonists at worst. Dark and twisted fantasy retellings of Snow White would fall into this category, particularly if they retain the Haunted Forest element, the dark magic of the [dark-haired, wild-eyed] Wicked Queen, and the isolation of the young, virginal and consumptively pale protagonist.
Gothic SciFi / Space Goth
Yes, genuinely. I mean, Frankenstein is in this sort of subgenre. This takes the tropes, themes and conventions of your classic gothic novel form and, instead of the occult or witchcraft element, adds mad science and/or medicine to the mix.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is a classic example – the flawed, isolated ‘hero’ of the novel, the terror of the darkness, the monsters explained scientifically, the decaying urban landscape, the uncanny atmosphere, the terror and despair…
…Alternatively, you can set it in space, á la Alien.
This gives rise to other subgenres like Gothic Planetary Romance (Gothic Romance IN SPACE), Gothic Futuristic Romance (Gothic Romance IN THE FUTURE) and then it all starts getting cyberpunk and falling into genre-bending categories, so keep referring back to the key themes and elements that makes the gothic, well, gothic, if you’re not sure what’s going on.
The Gothic-fantastic is cheating really, as this term covers all those weird and wonderful elements that eventually spawned the paranormal genre as its own thing. It is not always explicitly supernatural, however: things may not be as they seem, or there may be rational explanations.
Such stories follow gothic novel conventions but play up the hesitation between whether there is a supernatural or a natural/realistic answer to the strange goings-on, often leaving the conclusion open-ended for the reader to guess at. It is the ambiguity which is key.
Magical realism may also be employed as a key feature, whereby the protagonist accepts without question that there are magical elements nto their reality.
Think The Black Cat, by Edgar Allan Poe. Is it a demonic thing, a ghost, or… just a cat?
These elements are prevalent in the Schauerroman with its emphasis on folk superstition and the raising of the dead, but also pop up in the Italian and Russian gothic traditions, and later appear in Soviet literature.
French Gothic / The Roman Noir
The Roman Noir was the parallel literary movement in France, and picked up on many of the same themes, tropes and conventions as its Anglo-counterpart. French novelists took up the form and created their own ‘black novels’, transposed into the context of post-Revolutionary France. The years of The Terror and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy and continued upheaval lent themselves to exploration via the gothic form.
One such novel by one-time courtier turned Republican, François-Félix Nogaret, Le Miroir des événemens actuels (1790), or The Mirror of True Events, was another possible influence on Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), even though the political message of the novel was obsolete by the time it was reprinted in 1795.
Later notable novelists in this genre included Victor Hugo, whose works The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Man Who Cried arguably fall into the nineteenth-century French gothic tradition, while Gaston Leroux’s celebrated The Phantom of the Opera played on the decaying opulence of Paris and French colonial concerns.
Interestingly, French cinema has had a spotty relationship with the genre and there is not (as far as Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes is aware) a full-length French cinematic adaptation of Leroux’s most famous novel, The Phontom of the Opera. Dr Reyes concludes that while French cinema has persistently played with the Gothic mode, it was not with the intention of establishing a genre identity, which is also true for other European countries like Finland or Hungary, which use the gothic more as a register with which to deal with a number of political and social conflicts and concerns.
German Gothic: The Shudder Novel [Schauerroman]
BEFORE WE DO ANYTHING ELSE, I need to point you all to the wonderful German classic by Karl Friedrich Kahlert, The Necromancer, lampooned beautifully by Austen in Northanger Abbey.
Ok, now that’s out of the way, what’s the Shudder-novel and how is it different?
Firstly, it’s Germany-specific, of course, and is more pessimistic in tone than its British gothic counterparts.
Secondly, its key elements included necromancy and secret societies, and in classic form looked back on the more terrifying aspects of the Middle Ages.
Like the Roman Noir, the Schauerroman was often more violent and horrific than the English gothic novel.
If you’re inspired to write something in this tradition, those are the key things to bear in mind.
Poe may have shown the world exactly what Gothic fiction could be, but before Poe there was another influential figure – Charles Brockden Brown. Brown, who died in 1810, took the Gothic away from the romances of Radcliffe and high melodrama of Walpole, placing them in an American context and reflecting the anxieties and tensions of post-Revolutionary America.
While the New World was eagerly pushing its newfound American Dream and looking to its (uncertain) future, the Gothic form was eagerly taken up as a means of exploring the underside of this optimism, and give voice to the sorrow, tragedy and unease that came with it.
Brown heard about the strange case of an intensely religious farmer who murdered his wife and children after hearing a voice commanding him to ‘slay all his idols’. In 1781, before the understanding of paranoid schizophrenia and other kinds of mental illnesses, this was a deeply disturbing and unaccountable case, and Brown drew upon it for his 1798 novel, Wieland: Or, The Transformation. Wieland explores the transformation of a self-made, pious and upright family man into a murderous monster – a theme ripe for analogy and wider concerns regarding the development of the new Republic, as much as those within it. Such themes were relevant to the Old World, too, and Brown’s novel was one of the direct influences for Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The American Gothic novel took off from these beginnings and in particular explored concepts and constructs of the self within this new, American-specific context: can individuals be successfully self-governing? What happens when it all goes wrong? What happens when democracy fails, and the monstrous side of humanity threatens to win out? Such big questions and concerns were ideal for the Gothic form, and so other New World subgenres branched off under this banner.
Contemporary Gothic novels (the Gothic form but in modern-day settings) may fall under this banner too, if set in America [anywhere except the South, which would be Southern Gothic: see below].
A famous subgenre, this plays with the classic Gothic tropes and conventions but transposes them into the context of the Southern United States, generally to critique its values. Much of the tension and horror comes from context-specific tensions within this region, especially poverty, racism and social injustice.
Here, the occult practices are generally related to hoodoo, and you won’t find aristocrats of the British or European variety for fairly obvious reasons: these roles are taken by their Southern counterparts. Decaying castles are replaced with decaying plantations. The spectre of slavery looms large, and there will be strong elements of despair, fear, and a fixation on the grotesque. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Southern Ontario Gothic
See above, but this time we’re in Canada.
Canada, with its connections to the British Commonwealth and to France, had (and still has) different tensions at play than those of the Gothic novelists in the neighbouring United States.
This subgenre especially critiques aspects of Southern Canadian life such as the prevalent small-town Protestant mentality, so themes of corruption and hypocrisy are common. Themes such as poverty and racism are also featured, along with gender roles and politics.
Displacement – socially, politically and/or geographically – is another key element, which takes the classic Gothic theme of isolation and gives it a relevant, often political, spin.
Read more here (Wikipedia) and here (Academia.edu open access .pdf paper, ‘Constructing the Southern Ontario Gothic in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? and Barbara Gowdy’s Falling Angels’, by Ivana Obradovic)
Communist Gothic & Post-Communist Gothic
See above, but guess what, we’re living under Communism/in the historical shadow of Communism, and using the gothic form as a vehicle for this set of cultural concerns. The villain may or may not be representative of Capitalism.
There were national subgenres to this larger genre, like NEP Gothic (also known as Soviet Gothic).
See also: Adriana Raducanu’s chapter, Confessions from the Dead: Reading Ismail Kadare’s Spiritus as a ‘Post-Communist Gothic’ Novel. (Link to Google Books). This chapter also looks at Postcolonial and Colonial Gothic (see below!)
See also: Muireann Maguire’s doctoral thesis, available as a .pdf, which you can request from the University of Cambridge’s repository. The book based on the thesis is Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature.
Colonial Gothic & Postcolonial Gothic
Colonial Gothic – also a thing – is gothic fiction written within a colonial context, for example nineteenth-century Australian gothic fiction.
Postcolonial Gothic is also a thing, despite at first glance appearing very different and uneasy bedfellows. At first glance, given the different intellectual, historical and cultural traditions that created these two theoretical forms, they appear to outright exclude one another. Yet, as critics like Smith and Hughes point out, they also ‘share an interest in challenging post-Enlightenment notions of rationality’. (Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre, eds. William Hughes and Andrew Smith, (2003) p.1)
The Gothic literary form can be problematic as an import of the colonisers, but it is also an excellent vehicle for subverting colonial discourse on its own terms, challenging its values, and highlighting its oppressions and still-lingering problems.
To see open access essays on this subgenre, follow the link to Academia.edu’s list of papers tagged Postcolonial Gothic, or Julie Hakim Azzam’s thesis on ‘The Alien Within: Postcolonial Gothic and the Politics of Home’ (2007).
Postcolonial Gothic is a subgenre that can cover many national Gothic literary movements, since the political, socio-cultural and socio-economic contexts of these nations are overshadowed by the history of colonialism.
This one isn’t technically an ‘official’ subgenre, but is a handy label for those novels, usually in the American or Southern Gothic tradition, that are heavy on the physical violence and gore. They are usually contemporary (as in, set in modern-day) and may or may not feature some fantastical or paranormal elements, like ghouls and vampires.
Think Gothic horror as written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
I have seen it used in passing, but don’t know how far it appears in queries or summaries of novels.
EDIT: Rough South is an ‘official’ subgenre of Southern Gothic: see also https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-kornegay/the-evolution-of-southern-gothic_b_6987510.html
Well, this one’s easy: if it’s set in modern-day, reflecting contemporary themes and anxieties of society, with the tropes and conventions of classic Gothic horror intact, you’re probably writing Contemporary Gothic, right? You could be writing in a number of culturally-specific situations, of course, so if it’s set in America then you may well be writing Contemporary American Gothic.
Contemporary is a cheat as well, since it’s a catch-all term and has little apart from the setting and reflection of modern values and anxieties to set it apart from the others.
Phew! Ok, well, I think that’s all I’m able to do in one post, and I probably should have chopped it into two. I hope you found it interesting!
Comment if I’ve missed any!