What does "gothic" mean, in this context? Originally, of course, it was a form of architecture and ornamentation, featuring flying buttresses and pointed windows with intricate stained glass in them. The actual term comes from the Goths, that Frankish tribe most notable for sacking Rome, and the architecture is a kind of misnomer; it really has little to do with the Gothic tribes. In literature, which is our area of interest, we have Horace Walpole to thank for the term and the beginning of the genre.
Walpole and The Castle of Otranto. In 1765, Walpole wrote (in England, so don't mistake him for American literature) a novel destined to become hugely popular. Its medieval setting, complete with castle, helpless females screaming in dark, vaulted cellars, and general air of creepy melancholy earned it the name "gothic." The name stuck, and thanks to the popularity of the novel, the genre flourished.
Most of this gothic fiction was bad beyond belief. The amazing ability of humans to glom onto a formula and milk it for all it's worth did not start with 1980's lawyer novels. Walpole's imitators had many elements in common, and here are a few of them. Please note how the correlate to the elements of literary Romanticism.
Ingredients of Gothic Fiction
- exotic locations -- look for haunted moors, craggy landscapes, and lots of fog; thunderstorms are popular, too, preferably supernaturally strong ones
- Medieval-ish settings -- castles and manor houses, often haunted, usually dark and foreboding, inhabited by people wearing old-fashioned clothing and looking deathly pale
- helpless women -- think Kate Capshaw's character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. These women scream a lot, wear filmy nightgowns at inappropriate times, and faint inconveniently.
- supernatural elements -- we prefer, of course, the spirits of the vengeful dead, but any spirits will do. Don't forget the malevolent house, the haunted bridge, and the demonic forest.
- Various mysterious maladies -- think bizarre inherited diseases, curses from beyond the grave, dark family secrets, and all kinds of neuroses, twitches, and nervous tics
- Strange and terrible events -- for a given value of strange and terrible, of course. The 19th C. version of gothic horror can't match modern horror movies, but a good gothic story will suggest all kinds of torments, physical, mental, spiritual.
- Generalized anxiety -- the reader experiences sensations of suspense and dread
Gothic Writers to Cherish When we think about the gothic form in American literature, Edgar Allan Poe is always going to be first in our brains, at least until the early 20th C. when we have H.P. Lovecraft. Poe isn't the only person in the genre, however. Most 19th Century writers experimented with gothic stories, at least a little bit. Even though they're not traditionally considered "gothic," we can see how "Young Goodman Brown," "My Kinsman Major Molineaux," and even "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" have elements of the genre. What they lack in castles they more than make up for in atmosphere.
In Europe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and even Charles Dickens contribute to the genre. If you enjoy it, you will enjoy them. Don't forget Robert Lewis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or, at the end of the 19th Century, Oscar Wilde's fabulous (and creepy) The Picture of Dorian Gray.