Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What "Gothic" Really Means

When we talk about the Romantic temperament, it isn't going to take us long to get to one of Romanticism's biggest contributions to American literature, the gothic horror story. Remember that Romanticism loves the supernatural, the sublime, and the exotic. Gothic literature can combine all of these elements into something that, well, collapses into a pond without a trace, meanwhile leaving us with our skin crawling and our heart rate elevated.

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.


  1. I never realized this before, but I guess Romantic Gothic literature is some of my favorite. This is actually a surprising realization, because I don't like scary things at ALL! My favorite authors, though, and Mary Shelly, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Nathanial Howthorn, and most of all Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes and Doyle's other mysterys would fit into this category, wouldn't they? Alos, I will NEVER foget reading "The Masque of the Red Death" in High School!

  2. Melinda asked, in an email, if the "Gothic heroine" was ever a man, trapped and helpless in his circumstances. Interestingly enough, the answer is yes. We could argue that the narrator in "Ligeia" is a Gothic heroine, and don't forget the guy in the wall in "The Cask of Amontillado." Roderick Usher, the increasingly obsessed and weak-brained brother in "The Fall of the House of Usher" has some heroine-characteristics. So, to answer the question, the quintessential "gothic victim" does not have to be a woman, although that's the most common form the victim takes.

  3. Gothic literature is great and all but i have a question would harry potter be considered gothic, with the dark imagery and the supernatural creatures and people? curses from beyond the grave, all those things in that list remind me of harry potter, and im sorry to admit this but im a huge nerd for those books. Although when i read edgar allen poe his style doesnt interest me , the only time i can actually connect with his material is when it is in play form then it is pure genius

  4. Absolutely! Think of the parallels -- lots of the supernatural, exotic settings, ancient curses, family curses, family protection from beyond the grave, nature and natural elements, the dark (evil) forest. I'm sure there's more. That's a really good call, Gavin.

  5. i think pretty much all scary movies in todays time have "gothic" elements. "the ideal subject of fiction is the death of a beutiful woman" said by poe is a great example becuase i dare anyone to find a horror movie now-a-days that dosent have a good looking girl going through hell or dieing. I love poe. He is one of my favorite authors. I love how he can get in your head and make you ask so many questions, like we did in class today. I'm truely going to enjoy this weeks classes.

  6. Genny said...

    Going off what Roberto said...I agree because in most scary movies today there is always the "damesel in distress" and the man has to come in and save day from the terriable villian. It's funny to think that at one point in time stories like these were a new thing and now they are everywhere...

  7. I agree. We do see a lot of these Gothic Elements today in scary movies. I also agree that Poe is an excellent author. I like how his style of writing was different than what people were used to at this time. His writings always spark many questions, which makes it all the more interesting.
    -Katy Simpkins