Main features of Gothic fiction 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.
The term Gothic derives from the setting of these novels: buildings of this style such as (ruined) castles, mansions, and monasteries,
The first wave of gothic novelists include 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 them 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.
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
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 poets contributed to the Gothic taste; a prominenet 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 Shelley’s novel is often considered the first science fiction novel, even if its focus is on the moral issues and consequences of such a creation.
A late example of traditional Gothic is Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin Oscar Wilde’s uncle.
The Victorian era considered Gothci 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 Edgar Allan Poe. In The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), The Oval Portrait (1842), and The Pit and the Pendulum(1842). 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. But the most famous vampire 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.
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.