Gothic Novels: Exploring the Dark

Creepy forest

What is the definition of a “Gothic novel”?

Gothic literature first came into existence in the late 18th century, as a loose collection of works that tended to take place in old castles, dilapidated houses, mysterious forests, and other creepy, haunted type of places.In general, a gothic novel is one that exemplifies certain gothic elements:
  • dark, highly architectural settings
  • themes of fear, horror, the macabre, uncanniness
  • the presence of supernatural entities or powers
  • certain pre-defined character tropes, such as the “wanderer” or the “two-faced” person
Critics also note that this newfound gothic literature was known for providing a sort of “pleasurably terrifying” experience.Though gothic literature emerged as a reaction to and within the Romantic period, there isn’t necessarily one “gothic novel” or one unified gothic genre of literature. Authors from various time periods, countries, and genres have incorporated gothic elements in their works to varying degrees. Some of these authors, like Mary Shelley and Flannery O’Connor, have come to be classified as gothic authors.

Origins of the “Gothic” idea

The gothic concept was largely made popular in England by Horace Walpole, the son of the then-prime minister. He purchased a large house and went about decorating it what he called “the Gothick style,” which included arches, towers, and turrets straight out of medieval Europe. His home was a popular attraction for the English people, many of whom drew influence from his gothic aesthetic.Strawberry HillPictured above, Walpole’s Strawberry Hill house is still open today as a museum to the “finest example of Georgian gothic revival architecture.”

Early Gothic novels

Walpole, and his house, played an important role in the development of the gothic idea in the art world as well, as he published the first “gothic” novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. The Castle of Otranto incorporated many elements that would later mark a gothic novel: supernatural curses, mysterious happenings, romance, death, and passionately dark emotion. The novel’s subtitle is even “A Gothic Story.”Other notable early gothic writers include Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho), William Beckford (Vathek), and Matthew Gregory Lewis (The Monk). Radcliffe’s book was so popular that it inspired Jane Austen’s famous parody, Northanger Abbey.Above all, gothic novels share a setting of darkness, mysteriousness, and decay that is mirrored somehow in the fallen or broken nature of its characters. Fear and terror play an important role, both for the characters in the novels and for the readers themselves.

Later Gothic novels

Several authors continued the gothic tradition in the early 19th century. Lesser known authors include Charles Robert Maturin (Melmoth the Wanderer) and James Hogg (The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner), both of whom published in the 1820s.Three classics that have really come to define the gothic novel were also published throughout the 1800s: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


Published in 1818, Frankenstein tells the story of a Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who discovers a vague element that gives life to inanimate object. Through a horrific experiment, young Frankenstein creates a monster. Though many people use “Frankenstein” as the name of the monster, in reality, the monster is never named. He is referred to as “monster,” “creature,” or even “devil.”The terror that the grotesque monster evokes, along with the novel’s gothic setting, makes Frankenstein one of the strongest examples of gothic literature. John Mullan points out that Frankenstein reiterated the important gothic motif of the double, or “a character’s sense of encountering a double of him- or herself.”Frankenstein is also regarded as one of the earliest works of science fiction.


Published much later, in 1897, Dracula is another perfect example of a gothic novel. With its dark Transylvanian castle setting and its inhuman, wicked characters, Dracula embodies several elements of gothic literature. As a continuation of the invasion literature genre that was popular in Victorian England, the novel also played on readers’ fears of powerful foreign invaders taking over.Though Dracula was not the first vampire novel, it did play a large role in popularizing the theme.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a novella that was first published in 1886. Now a classic trope, this novella examines the battle of good versus evil that occurs within each of us. Gothic literature’s double motif is perhaps never more clearly employed than in this work. The gothic novella also tapped into cultural fears of moral decline and evil, both of which were reflected in the increasing power of the hideous Mr. Hyde.

Gothic influences in later literature

Since its beginning in the 1700s, elements of the gothic novel have influenced many individual authors and literary movements. Among the most visible and important influences of the gothic novel are on two very distinct and time-separated genres: Victorian literature and Southern Gothic literature.

Victorian literature

The Victorian genre of literature refers to works written under the British reign of Queen Victoria, spanning a roughly 80-year range in the 1800s.Gothic ideas had an especially strong influence on Victorian literature, even though these literary works are themselves not always classified as gothic. The following Victorian classic novels are especially notable for their gothic novel elements:
  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
    • Dark, wild environment of the Moors
    • Wicked characters
    • Heathcliff’s mysterious past, demonic traits
    • Lockwood’s nightmares, apparitions
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
    • Gothic architecture of Thornfield Hall
    • Hidden secrets
    • Haunted house fears
    • Supernatural occurrences
  • Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
    • Decay of Miss Havisham
    • Dark, labyrinthine house
    • Pip’s apparitions
    • The double motif of Pip and Orlick
Popular during the same time, many of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the American poet and short story writer, strongly display gothic elements, including ancient/medieval settings, wicked characters, and dark themes of fear, horror, and uncertainty.Read how the plot and characters of Wuthering Heights develop throughout the story in a manner that’s both uniquely intriguing and typical of a Victorian Gothic novel.

Southern Gothic literature

Unlike Victorian literature, which drew inspiration from gothic novels while maintaining its status as its own distinct genre, Southern Gothic literature is really a subgenre of gothic literature. Southern Gothic literature takes many of the same elementshorror, mystery, disfigured or broken characters, supernatural influence, and the macabreand places them in the unique context of the American South.Prominent Southern Gothic authors include Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Cormac McCarthy, and Tennessee Williams.

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