I have just watched Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s ode to the genre of Gothic horror, and am reminded again that I am a sucker for this overwrought style of writing. Everything about it is over the top, from the tyrannical male antagonist to the moldering house that is clearly bad for everyone’s health but everyone refuses to move out of to a damsel in distress that won’t stop fainting. Traditional Gothic literature shouldn’t be confused with Southern Gothic (which has its own brand of sweltering creepiness) or Gothic monster literature. Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are all considered part of the Gothic pantheon by the general public even though they lack the elements to really make them Gothic.
The genre itself combines horror, death, decay, ruin, and Romanticism into a melodramatic soup that came into being in reaction to the rise of technology and reason through the late 1700s through the mid 1800s. Horace Walpole is generally credited with the creation of the classic Gothic novel in his The Castle of Otranto which was imitated by plenty of other writers afterwards. Walpole’s novel contains the traditional elements of Gothic horror:
- You need a castle. If you can’t find a castle a rambling, unkempt mansion will do. Extra points if the castle has a labyrinth underneath it. If your house of horrors isn’t graced with a labyrinth, hope for a really large ominous basement. Buried bodies are a plus.
- You need an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. What did that sinister local mean when they talked about the “last lady of the house” in that tone? Was that the wind or a spirit making themselves a nuisance? Where did all these dead bodies come from? The more threatening unknown the better.
- Someone needs to have uncovered some sort of ancient prophecy in connection to either the castle or its occupants. Generally vague and unhelpful enough that no one figures out the meaning of it until it’s almost too late.
- Someone better be having visions and talking about omens. Disturbing dreams? They aren’t from last night’s chili. See something out of the corner of your eye? It’s not the house cat. Nothing is harmless in a Gothic novel.
- Supernatural events happen with the frequency of a normal person going into the kitchen to look for a snack. Fire, ghosts, inanimate objects all seem to have a mind of their own.
- Every emotion is over wrought. Someone is fainting, screaming, wailing, or having a case of the nerves every five minutes. No one has a normal, calm conversation. Ever.
- There is a woman in distress. Generally a lot of distress. Generally in a nightgown. Generally fainting.
- An ominous male is threatening someone, usually the leading lady. He can be magnetic sometimes, but his major character trait is that he’s not someone you want to meet on eHarmony.
- There is no description of anything that doesn’t involve gloom and horror. The wind is always howling. The doors are always on rusty hinges. Someone is gracing us all with crazed laughter. If there is a sunny day, you’re not in a Gothic novel.
So what’s the appeal of the genre? Probably the over the top quality of everything. Sometimes you just enjoy a soap opera. It’s almost in the realm of fantasy because you know this sort of thing will never happen and because of that the whole atmosphere has a haunting, frightening appeal. The recent trend in Gothic horror has been for the damsel in distress to do some saving of her own, something woefully lacking from classic Gothic.
Some Gothic novels you might want to consider:
Classic Gothic Horror-
- The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
- The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- The Woman in White by Wilke Collins
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Young Adult options-
- Dark Companion by Marta Acosta
- The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron
- The Poisoned House by Michael Ford
- The Fall by Bethany Griffin
- Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey
- Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin
- Asylum by Madeleine Roux
- Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke