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what is the gothic fiction?

23 Luglio 2013 at 06:55 By

The term Gothic derives from the setting of these novels: buildings of this style such as (ruined) castles, mansions, and monasteries. Its main features include terror – both psychological and physical – mystery, supernatural, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses. The characters are usually tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, revenants, ghosts, skeletons, the Wandering Jew and the Devil himself. But Gothic literature hides its real themes and purposes.  Strictly associated with the Gothic Revival architecture, it rejected the rationalism of the neoclassical style of the Enlightened Establishment, to embody the appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, inherent in the sublime. The ruined settings became symbols of the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations. For English Protestants the medieval buildings represented the dark period of harsh laws and tortures of Roman Catholic Inquisition of Italy and Spain.This new genre had its roots in the graveyard’ school of poetry, in the works by Ossian and MacPherson, with their fascination with medievalism seen as barbaric and linked with Catholicism and the supernatural; the revival of gothic architecture; Burke’s philosophical enquiry into the Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful (1757) which theorizes that terror is beautiful in itself and the influence of Jean Jacque Rousseau in terms of the primitive and the irrational. Probably the writers of this genre, also attracted by the ideals of freedom brought on by  the French revolutions, tried to get free from the links of everyday life and found new source of inspirations using fancy and  imagination.


The first Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole, the prime minister’s son. In the last decade of the 18th century, when they became more sentimental, the emphasis shifted on the fears of the heroines. It became a literature of emotions mainly written by women and attractive to women.  Most plots followed the same lines: the heroine is kidnapped by a wicked relative, taken to a faraway castle or abbey which with its tunnels, cells and strange noises, becomes a scene of terror, suspense and strange supernatural happening. Later examples include The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe, Ambrosio, or The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis.


In continental Europe, in the same period, were born:  the roman noir (black novel) in France, the Schauerroman (shudder novel) in Germany, usually more horrific and violent than the English gothic novel. Notable writers of the genre  in the continental tradition include  Shiller, Jan Potocki (1761-1815) and E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) and The Marquis de Sade who then criticized the genre as an inevitable consequence of the French Revolution



Horace Walpole, the precursor, with his The Castle of Otranto (1764): the novel combines elements of the medieval romance and the modern novel.  It represented a novelty with its superstitious elements, and without a didactical puritan intention.Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, balances  fantastic elements with 18th century realism.


Ann Radcliffe, in  The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794),  introduced the explanation of the supernatural with  natural causes. Besides she made her novels socially acceptable thanks to the impeccable behavior of her heroines persecuted by the  gothic villain (precursor of the Byronic hero).


Matthew Gregory Lewis’s  The Monk (1796),  is a portrayal of depraved monks, sadistic inquisitors and spectral nuns. This novel introduced new elements into the genre in particular for his corrupted vision of the Roman Church.





Main typical  characters

Ghosts – A ghost is traditionally believed to be the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living. They are described as solitary essences who haunt  places where they used to live and  can be good or evil spirits. Legends also tell stories of  phantom armies, ghost trains, phantom ships, and even ghost animal.

Mummies –  they are not only bandaged figures stalking about, but links to mythologized ancient Egypt. The fascination of mummies and Egypt is surely due to the magic aura of this culture and the battle to destroy the mummy often becomes a battle to exert science over magic.  Many of these mummy fictional works are set during the British colonial period and rise the problem of colonization and racial relationships. Europeans and Americans search for treasures that bring them doom and the Egyptians, survived over the centuries, travel to England and America to get their revenge. The struggle overcomes the limits of time and becomes a sort of sexual fight. The feminine protagonist, usually surrounded by many men with different relations towards her, represents a revenge of women on men according to an oriental point of view: women can marry up, across racial boundaries, men cannot.

Zombies – they are described  mindless, clumsy, primitive, extremely violent and decaying corpses with a hunger for human flesh. According to Vodou, they are dead persons who can be revived by a bokor, or sorcerer. Zombies remain under the control of the bokor since they have no will of their own. “Zombi” is also another name of the Vodou snake lwa Damballah Wedo, of Niger-Congo origin; it means “god”. The presence of zombies has been explained scientifically. Pharmacologically: there are two special powders which, entered into the blood stream, induce a death-like state in which the victim’s will is entirely subjected to that of the bokor. Psychoanalytically: there is a link between social and cultural expectations and compulsion, in the context of schizophrenia and other mental illness.
Nowadays they are seen as a vehicle to criticize real-world social ills; they are apocalyptic signalling the end of the world as we have known it.

Vampires – mythological or folkloric beings who feed on the life essence of living creatures. From Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula the vampires give a voice to the anxieties of an age. Dracula, with its suggestions of sex, blood and death, showed the fears in Victorian Europe where tuberculosis and syphilis were common. Psychoanalysts see vampires as symbols of several defence mechanisms. Passions such as love, guilt, and hate stimulate the desire of a reunion with loved ones; in cases of unconscious guilt, the wish for reunion may become anxiety. The instinctive sexuality of bloodsucking emerge when normal aspects of sexuality are repressed. The vampire can also assume political overtones: they are usually aristocrat that feed on their subjects. In Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, a middle-class solicitor, becomes the next vampire: the capitalist bourgeois becomes the next parasitic class. People identify with these immortal beings they temporarily overcome their fear of

dying, performing a sort of exorcism towards death.

Their stiff, violent, unconventional protagonists have some elements in common:

All of them

  • reconstruct the boundaries of Life and Death, a romantic theme which finds as a well known predecessor the phantom ship of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
  • destroy the limits between Past and Present. In their imaginary world lives (or reincarnations) and loves last through the ages, transcend time.
  • represent the timeless contraposition between Magic and Science which attracts explorers, doctors, university professors, museum curators, librarians. Their aim is to explain supernatural phenomena by means of scientific knowledge.
  • embody the contrast between East and West: they show the western defeat against the ancient cultures, old beliefs cannot be explained by modern theories.
  • represent the fear of the “other” as they symbolize the radically different. They are no women nor men, they have no sexual identity. Their behaviour appears to be contrary to society’s norms, it is unconventional, perverse, antireligious, or taboo.




All these authors shared common concerns about the relationship between the writer and the reading public. Their heroes/ heroines are people the public could daily meet on the streets and that managed to live in the newly formed society using their intellectual and experienced abilities.

From this moment on literature can be seen as divided into popular literature and high literature. Popular novels’ primary intention is to entertain. They are accessible to a wide range of people and are usually written to achieve commercial success by providing readers with a good story. The gothic novel pathed the way to those genres science-fiction tales, detective stories, fantasy novels, horror novels, romances, historical novels and spy novels.



Parodies  – The excesses, and the stereotypes of the traditional Gothic brought to satire. The most famous parody of the Gothic is Jane Austen‘s novel Northanger Abbey (1818).  The protagonist, after reading too much Gothic fiction, imagines herself a heroine of a Radcliffian romance and sees murder and crimes everywhere . In the book J. Austen included a lot of titles  of early Gothic works such The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) by ‘Ludwig Flammenberg’,  Horrid Mysteries (1796) by the Marquis de Grosse; the Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and The Mysterious Warning, a German Tale (1796) by Eliza Parsons; Clermont (1798) by Regina Maria Roche; The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) by Eleanor Sleath and The Midnight Bell (1798) by Francis Lathom.

Another similar  parody is The Heroine by Eaton Stannard Barrett (1813), in which a fatuous female protagonist with a history of novel-reading, perceives and models reality according to the stereotypes and typical Gothic plot, leading to a series of absurd events culminating in catastrophe. After her downfall, the heroine will receive a sound education and correction of her misguided taste.


The romantic movement – The Romantic poets contributed to the Gothic taste; a prominent example is  Samuel Taylor  Coleridge‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel and John Keats‘s La Belle Dame sans Merci. Lord Byron  supplied  another inspiration for the Gothic with the Byronic hero. Byron himself  was also one of the protagonists of the celebrated ghost-story competition involving himself, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John William Polidori at the Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816. On this occasion Mary Shelley wrote  Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori  The Vampyre (1819). Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) –  the tale of a doctor who uses body parts to construct an artificial man –  is often cited as one of the precursors to science-fiction novels focussing is on the moral issues and consequences of creation.

[Science-fiction novels are books based on actual or imagined scientific discoveries and knew development and diffusion during the 20th century. ]

A late example of traditional Gothic is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin Oscar Wilde’s uncle.


The Victorian era considered Gothic a sort of cheap horror fiction and called their novels ‘Gothick’ to distinguish them from ‘Gothic’. Nevertheless influential critics, such as John Ruskin, praised gothic  imagination and fantasy, influencing the Pre-Raphaelites.

A great number of authors such as G.W.M. Reynolds have now got an important place in the development of the Victorian Gothic settings which were exploited also by Charles Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870)  and Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone, )


An innovative re-interpreter of the Gothic was the American author Edgar Allan Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839),  The Oval Portrait (1842),  and The Pit and the Pendulum(1842) are just few among the many Poe’s short stories in which he explores the ‘terrors of the soul’ and revisits the classic Gothic topics of aristocratic decay, death and madness.


The work of the Brontë sisters shows the Gothic influence. Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights (1847) features ghostly apparitions in Yorkshire Moors  and Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre (1847) uses the figure of the madwoman in the attic.  Louisa May Alcott‘s A Long Fatal Love Chase (written in 1866, but published in 1995) is also an interesting specimen of this genre.


Elizabeth Gaskell‘s tales  – The Doom of the Griffiths  (1858),   Lois the Witch and  The Grey Woman  – all focus on the power of ancestral sins to curse future generations, or the fear that they will.


Sheridan Le Fanu in Uncle Silas (1864) features  gloomy villains, forbidding mansion and persecuted heroines.  The short story collection In a Glass Darkly (1872) deals with the theme of the vampire in the tale Carmilla.

The most famous vampire, however, is surely Bram Stoker‘s Dracula (1897). Some critics see in these works a  sub-genre of Irish Gothic:  the castles set in a sterile landscape, with some old  aristocrats dominating the peasantry, represent the political difficulty of colonial Ireland subjected to the Protestant Ascendancy


In the  1880s, the Gothic genre allied to “fin de siecle” decadence. Classic works of this period are Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), George du Maurier‘s Trilby (1894), Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the stories of Arthur Machen.


In America, two notable Gothic writers  were Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers who followed  Poe ‘s tradition.


20th century

In England one of the most notable Gothic writer was H. P. Lovecraft in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1936). His protégé, Robert Bloch, contributed to Weird Tales and wrote Psycho (1959), Many modern writers of horror exhibit considerable gothic sensibilities like Anne Rice, and Stephen King.

Daphne du Maurier‘s both Rebecca (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1936), display Gothic tendencies under the inspirations of the Bronte sisters .

Gothic female works flourished in  the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s; even some men wrote gothic romances under female pseudonyms


American writers created the Southern Gothic genre, which combines some Gothic sensibilities with the setting and style of the Southern United States. Examples include: William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, and more recently  Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond.


In Canada writers such as Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Barbara Gowdy and Margaret Atwood created the Southern Ontario Gothic which applies Gothic sensibility to a Canadian cultural context.


Theatre and cinema have contributed a lot in the development of the genre.

Historical examples are Henry Farrell’s  novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? which got eneormous success as a movie (1960) and created a new sub-genre  Grande Dame Guignol in the cinema, also called Psycho-bidd.

The themes of the literary Gothic have been translated into movies and had a notable revival in twentieth century gothic horror films.

Also Rock and Roll music soon showed its gothic side and developed into Gothic rock and death metal and Gothic metal.




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