Gothic fiction is a genre of literature that combines elements of both the uncanny and romance. Gothic literature embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere. The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in 1764 when gothic fiction was born.
The Gothic novel can be seen as a response to the political dynamics of English culture and politics of the 18th and 19th century. In 1764, The Castle of Otranto was printed. The author, Horace Walpole, is credited as the inventor of the genre. Gothic literature gained popularity in a time when the cultural ideals in England had undergone drastic change, especially in relation to the Enlightenment and the rise of rationalism over religion, the changing role of women in society, the rise of a more materialistic and industrial society, and the influence of the French Revolution.
Characteristics: Gothic fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere, using setting and diction to build suspense and a sense of unease in the reader. Melodrama and parody were other long-standing features of Gothic literature. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses.
The stock characters of Gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, monks, nuns, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, angels, fallen angels, revenants, ghosts, perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew and the Devil himself.
Appeal: Gothic literature creates feelings of unease in the reader. There are elements of mystery, suspense, gloom and the fear of the unknown. Many times supernatural elements are involved. Generally gothic literature is not horror; while both genres can frighten people, horror tends to have violent scenes and gothic does not. Gothic fiction appeals to people because it is creepy and mysterious. It is a good genre to read when you like to be scared but not repulsed by violence.
People of all ages, both male and female, enjoy reading gothic fiction. As I was helping one young patron find a book to read, she wanted a book that was, “scary, but not too scary”. This sentence sums up the gothic literature genre. Most people like to be scared as long as they know that they are in a safe setting. Reading a book from the gothic genre will definitely make the reader feel uneasy.
“One of the most important trends in the horror genre (which gothic is a part of), is the lending of traditional themes: ghosts, vampires, were-beasts, to other genres, especially romance, mystery, and fantasy. Watch for further crossover with other genres, including western and suspense. Vampires, ghost stories, and gothic novels remain popular, although current authors consistently reinvent these traditional themes, pushing the boundaries of the horror genre”. - The Adult Round Reading Table.
According to Joyce Saricks, “Gothic elements are cropping up in recent novels with such frequency that fans might think that we are in the midst of a gothic revival!”.