Gothic Fiction (often called Gothic Horror, even when not exactly a horror novel) is a genre of fiction that has existed since the 1700s and still proves very popular to this day. It was particularly popular among the Victorians who produced many excellent examples of it. With Halloween fast approaching, I thought I’d take you through some of the best examples of Gothic Fiction. For this list, I’m sticking to anything written before 1920, as that’s what I class as ‘true’ Gothic Horror.
This list is ranked by how good the novels are as examples of the form and not how good they are as novels on their own...
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – (1898)
This is a gothic ghost story that has proven to be one of the most intelligent horror novels (although it’s actually a novella) ever written. The story is that of a governess who is hired to care for two young children at their country estate. It isn’t long before she starts to see an odd couple, who she comes to believe are ghostly apparitions. She is soon filled with paranoia that the children can see them too and are perhaps under their spell. The novella ends in tragedy with the true nature of the ghosts or the haunting never being revealed. It has fascinated academics for well over a century now, with multiple explanations being created.
- Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – (1886)
Perhaps more so than any other novel on this list, Jekyll and Hyde has undergone a plethora of reimaginings that take it further away from the source material at each turn (at least with Dracula and Frankenstein, they get kind of close). The most galling aspect is that Mr Hyde is often presented as an Incredible Hulk style brute … which is not the case. The real novella is actually very short and simple. A brilliant scientist locks himself away from his loved ones as, at the same time, a mean-spirited shifty looking man is seen in public being rude and assaultive to passers-by … you all know how it turns out … They’re the same person … Shock … Well it was back in the 1800s.
- The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole – (1764)
Otranto is generally considered to be the first ever gothic novel. The elements of the novel have come to be seen in all manner of other texts from films to music and have almost single handedly shaped every piece of gothic fiction since. The novel has all the breadth and scope of a Greek tragedy and deals in prophecies, misunderstandings, murders, and lost loves. The novel’s plot is slightly ridiculous by today’s standards, however it is important in the annals of literature for creating such a beloved genre.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – (1890)
This is the entry that might cause some concern amongst the stalwart gothic fans, as there has been much debate whether the novel can be classed as gothic or not. There are certainly many gothic elements within the novel … and so, for me, it deserves a place on this list ... plus it’s one of my favourite novels, so suck it up. The novel is very famous and concerns a young, beautiful man, Dorian Gray, who never wants to grow old and ugly, so instead of flying to Neverland, he inadvertently sells his soul so that the recent painting of him will become ugly instead. The novel is a lot creepier than the many adaptations it has inspired, and it is a beautiful analysis of the psychology of mankind and our obsession with beauty, materialism, and sexuality.
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë – (1847)
Yes, I know I’m slipping in another of my favourite novels that could be argued isn’t a gothic horror (although this one is definitely gothic). The novel does have horror and supernatural elements and some of the events that transpire could give one sleepless nights, so it stays on the list … don’t @ me. The reason this novel is here – aside from potentially being the greatest novel in the English language – is because it perfectly encapsulates the style and feel of a gothic novel with its wind-beaten, craggy moors and the equally wind-beaten and craggy inhabitants who … namely Heathcliff … make it his life’s goal to cause misery and suffering to anyone who he deems has wronged him.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – (1818)
Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus – to give it, it’s full title – was very nearly on the number one spot, however I couldn’t deny the true gothic beauty of the novel that actually topped this list. If you think you know the story of Frankenstein, then you don’t. You will be pleasantly surprised when you read this novella and realise that it’s not at all like the cliché depictions shown for the past hundred years in cinema and television. The monster in the novel is a very sympathetic character and although he goes on a – deserved – murderous rampage, you can’t help but cheer him on for taking the fight to the evil and heartless world that chewed him up and spat him out.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker – (1897)
Although I think Frankenstein is the better novel, when it comes to depictions of gothic fiction, you can’t get more on the nose than Dracula, which follows the formula to the letter and tells an excellent fantastical horror story at the same time. The novel is ‘epistolary’ which means that it is told through a series of letters, newspaper articles, telegrams, and diary entries, etc, and tells the story of Count Dracula, a vampire who finds his way to England from Transylvania, where he slowly wreaks havoc. The novel drips with atmosphere and is almost single-handedly responsible for popularising the vampire myth in popular culture, that is still very prevalent to this day.