“Gothic” is a word that instantly conjures up images of pointed arched windows and doors, dark ruins, gargoyles, ghosts and terror. But in literature it’s so much more and an exhibition recently on at the British Library shows how the genre of gothic fiction has evolved from the very first example, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, written in 1764 – 250 years ago!
This novel featured medieval castles, ghostly apparitions, mistaken identities, knights, shadows and doom. It was based on a dream Walpole had, but at the same time it has its roots in medieval stories of chivalry and romance which Walpole felt were so much better than the novels of his time. It wasn’t until the second edition, however, that the phrase “a Gothic story” was added to the title page and so a genre was born.
He also invented the literary device of pretending to have found an old manuscript, the “discovered document” then being published as if it were an old story rather than just written. He didn’t officially let on that he was the author until the second edition.
A gothic novel usually has plenty of terror, wonder, mystery and darkness. Castles, old abbeys and ruins often feature, or at the very least a creepy house of some sort. The heroines seem to be predominantly virgins (or naive young ladies) who need to be rescued by dashing, courageous heroes. And the villains are bad, very bad.
The landscape and/or weather can play a huge part in these novels, as for example in Wuthering Heights. Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho among other novels, was apparently a master at creating a terrifying atmosphere using descriptions of the landscape. I confess that although I own a copy of that book, I have yet to read it.
Gothic novels were extremely popular and Northanger Abbey, mentioned by Elizabeth in a previous post, was Jane Austen’s wonderful satire of what happens when you read too many of these types of stories. The exhibition I went to featured first edition copies of all the books the heroine of Northanger Abbey reads, which was interesting to see. I love seeing old books, especially first editions!
My first encounter with the genre was when reading Victoria Holt’s books during my teens. On the Night of the Seventh Moon, Mistress of Mellyn and Kirkland Revels for example all featured an innocent young heroine who walked right into danger, finding herself in a scary castle or some such place with a brooding hero and something dark and threatening happening. The reader was never sure whether he was actually a hero or a villain until he saved the heroine from some dire peril. I loved those books, but I’m not sure I would like them as much now (haven’t tried reading one since).
Then there was Edgar Allan Poe – I avidly read all his stories and adored the poem The Raven. It’s just so wonderfully evocative! I also happen to love Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, although I never thought about it as a gothic poem before going to this exhibition. I just liked the way it sounded when read out loud.
The gothic genre is definitely still alive and well, with all the paranormal books and horror stories that abound. For me though, I think I prefer the old kind – although scary, it wasn’t quite as graphic. What do you think?