What Exactly is The Gothic Novel?

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by Dominic Alves via Flickr cc.
Reviewers have compared my debut novel A White Room to the classic Gothic novels The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (thank you Oh, For the Hook of a Book!). I was so delighted when this happened because I wrote my novel in a way I felt was reminiscent of Gothic fiction, but when I looked at other Gothic novels, mine didn’t seem very Gothic in comparison. That led me to wonder, what exactly is a Gothic novel?

* I’m not an expert on the Gothic novel, so I am including my sources for where I got my information and for you in case you’d like to do further research.

The Origin of Gothic

The term Gothic actually derives from the Visigoths and Ostrogoths (the barbarians) who conquered Rome in the 5th Century A.D. After the collapse of Rome, the world fell into a dark age and the Goths were ultimately forgotten until artists and architects rediscovered Greco-Roman culture during the Renaissance. They began to refer to certain (barbaric) architecture built during the middle ages as Gothic even though it wasn’t necessarily built by the Goths. These were castles, mansions, and abbeys, many of which were in ruins.

The Original Gothic Novel

Writers developed the first Gothic novels in England from 1790 to 1830. These works were termed Gothic because they took place in and around Gothic buildings and architecture. Many themes and conventions developed that also came to define the Gothic novel. In addition to usually taking place in a mansion, castle, or abbey, these buildings were often in ruins in the story, which created a mood of mystery and dread because it reminded readers of a world lost, a fallen society, or a world in decay. The hero was usually isolated in some way, and the villain was usually a man who had fallen from grace and represented the epitome of evil.
Crumbling Ruins: L Grove via photopin cc

These novels also dealt with serious real-world fears like murder, rape, and sin, but on an exaggerated level and often times through the supernatural, so the Gothic novel also became associated with horror fiction. Some examples of Gothic literature from this time period are Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Victorian Gothic

Another form of the Gothic novel came about in the Victorian Era starting in the 1880s (my kind of Gothic). The setting, again, played a role and usually involved a large, dark mansion. Like the previous Gothic novels, these dealt with frightening real-world themes also on an exaggerated level and with the use of the supernatural. This is when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was written. Victorian fears seen in Gothic fiction included insanity, sexuality, incest, and the fear of progress.

At this time, the modern world was quickly advancing in science and technology (automobiles, electricity, etc.) and society had its concerns about the consequences to mankind. This is quite obvious in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which reveal society’s fears by demonstrating the horrors technology could have on the human body.

According to experts, the Gothic novel is a cyclic occurrence in literature, something that is revived to express or deal with society’s anxieties.

The Modern Gothic Novel

Gothic culture has boomed in the twentieth century in style, music, movies, and more. The modern Gothic novel is a little bit more difficult to pin down though. Some people would argue that the thriving horror and gore genres are our modern day Gothic. Others would argue that the modern Gothic would be anything similar to the works of Tim Burton, whose dark, macabre style has been a focal point of Gothic culture for years.

Yet, if you look around the internet for the modern day Gothic novel, you will find all kinds of suggestions. Horror Novel Reviews lists The Body by Stephen King (later made into the classic and awesome film Stand by Me) as a modern day example of a Gothic novel. Goodreads lists Kate’s Morton’s The Forgotten Garden. Amazon UK lists The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.

An Opinion

From what I can tell, all Gothic novels in the past were contingent on a few specific elements.

In all of the original Gothic novels, a creepy old castle or mansion was in the mix. Now you might be thinking that means only writers willing to set their novels in the past can qualify, but keep in mind that the original Gothic authors were placing contemporary characters into a setting that was old and decaying. They weren’t setting their stories in the past when those buildings were in use.  

Gothic in the Snow by
Guldfisken via Flickr cc 
Now, I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that the architecture has to be from the middle ages. The Victorian Gothic novel didn’t stick to middle ages architecture, but the setting was usually in a large, dark mansion, which felt reminiscent of that architecture. Or those mansions may have all technically been Gothic architecture as there was a Gothic revival in architecture in the Victorian Era. However, I don’t have a source that confirms that theory.

Something else that seems to define the Gothic novel is the presence of contemporary anxieties that often tap into our darkest fears. In that definition The Body would qualify, but I just can’t accept that movie as Gothic because it doesn’t have the dark aesthetic.

What does modern day Gothic style, music, and movies prove about Gothic culture? It’s contingent on the dark aesthetic. I don’t think that dark aesthetic has to be historical in nature, but I do think it needs to be there in order for something to be categorized as Gothic. Now does that mean it needs to be at a Tim Burton level? No! Definitely not! I think the Gothic aesthetic can be achieved in many ways, and I’m sure there are all kinds of novels that qualify.

In my opinion, to be truly loyal to the origins of Gothic though, a novel needs a traditional or similar setting, dark aesthetic, and themes involving mankind’s deepest, darkest fears. Dealing with those fears using the supernatural is a major bonus.

With that definition a novel like The Forgotten Garden would fit, but how many people would say they recognized it as Gothic? And what about novels that only have one of these three aspects—that includes my own novel— or none at all but still seem recognizable as Gothic?

Well, one answer is that my definition is totally wrong. =/

Another possibility is that novels that fit the genre but don’t appear Gothic or others that don’t fit the genre but do appear Gothic might not be true to the tradition, but might be on the verge of a new Gothic genre, subgenre, or adjacent genre, which is much more exciting than subscribing to what has already been done.

It’s called breaking tradition, and what’s awesome is that actually goes back to the tradition of the Gothic novel. The original Gothic novels were born out of the Romantic tradition in literature, but the authors used the Gothic novel to break Romantic conventions and created something brand new. (The Gothic Novel – UC Davis

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