In celebration of Halloween, Book Groups takes a look at gothic literature and its enduring popularity, as well as our picks for not-to-be-missed classic and modern gothic reads.
The term ‘gothic literature’ was first coined in the 18th Century Romantic era. It is widely attributed to author Horace Walpole after he subtitled his horror classic, The Castle of Otranto, ‘A Gothic Story’. Although the term ‘gothic’ is fluid and can take on many guises, the basic themes that were present in Walpole’s original story – love, death, supernatural elements and psychological horror – have been informing gothic literature for centuries, particularly in the 1800s and early 1900s, when the genre was most popular.
Gothic literature is perhaps so enduring because it is highly entertaining but also deeply psychological, allowing readers to explore all the hidden corners of their imagination. The gothic enables us to connect with our most primal fears, hidden desires and curiosities. Gothic novels, at their heart, are also preoccupied with contemporary problems, despite their historical or supernatural settings: how do we reconcile with the ‘other’, and what happens when two forces oppose?
When we consider gothic literature, we may think of many of the genre’s most memorable tropes: haunted moors, crumbling castles, creepy mansions, an isolated protagonist, ghosts, family secrets, forbidden love. But all a story really needs to embody the gothic tradition is a sense of place as a character, a dash of mystery, and a strong psychological angle.
Here are Book Groups’ top picks for modern gothic literature, as well as a little checklist of the must-read classics.
A strange and wonderful story set in the castle Gormenghast, populated by multiple characters embroiled in all kinds of dark and wacky dealings. Gormenghast takes great joy in the written word and how it can elucidate the beauty and tragedy of human nature. An absolute triumph of gothic fantasy writing, where the quality of the prose and the expansiveness of imagination will send shivers down your spine.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
One of the greatest stories ever written about a haunted house, Hill House is a masterpiece in using psychological terror to evoke a chilling sense of dread. Jackson was a master of the ghost story; also check out her gothic mystery We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
There are touches of classic gothic all throughout this tale of a young woman pregnant by supernatural forces. Spooky house, vulnerable young woman and psychological terror – this contemporary gothic thriller has it all.
A gothic novel that highly influenced vampire fiction, the book was praised for its ability to give psychological depth to a monster of horror – the vampire – and its deft exploration of morality, spirituality, romance and sensuality.
A novel that feels as if it could have been written in the Victorian times it embodies, Hill wrote The Woman in Black in conscious imitation of the classic gothic style, embodying the setting, language and themes of the archetypal ghost story.
A tragic and horrifying take on gothic literature, where escaped slave Sethe descends into madness after murdering her daughter in an attempt to keep her safe. Set against a background of family relationships and the psychological impact of slavery, this gothic novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988.
Set in Victorian London, this is a novel full of twists and intrigue, Dickensian thieves and upper-class isolationists, lush prose and grotesque characters. A melting pot of all that’s good about the gothic!
A highly enjoyable and entertaining story that transports us into the magical, mysterious world of the dreamlike black and white circus. Lighter than many of its gothic equivalents, it is still packed with enchanting wonder.
A romantic gothic mystery with a split narrative, where a daughter is drawn to a dilapidated castle to unravel her mother’s past. This is one for fans of historical fiction, who love grim secrets, a slowly building sense of dread, and a haunting and absorbing read.
Purcell is a fresh new voice in gothic literature. The Silent Companions, and new Book Groups novel The Corset [B2296], are creepy, sinister slices of Victorian gothic fiction big on atmosphere, page-turning suspense, and psychological drama.
Don’t forget these classics!
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)
The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe (1839)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) [B0024]
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)[B0002]
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) [B1137]
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