Gothic Fiction History: Horror Stories With Dark and Threatening Atmosphere Essay

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The sublime in gothic fiction, the element of supernaturalism, mystery horror and suspense in gothic fiction and their significant utility, important elements in gothic fiction, gothic fiction as fantastic literature.

It is accurate to say that a gothic horror story is defined as a frightening story that has echoes of the past and has a constant theme of gloom and the supernatural, which makes it dark and rather threatening. From any perspective and point of view, gothic fiction cannot be dismissed as merely escapist and sensational on the basis that it is more than having only these two elements in it. There are many useful prospective insights which cannot be termed and delimited to mere sensational and escapist ones.

Science fiction is fiction based and claims scientific discoveries and often deals with convincing technological events, such as, space travel or life on other planets. By taking into account the definitions of the attributes, you can clearly see that one of the criteria for a gothic horror story is the use of light and darkness to create a sinister atmosphere.

In the beginning of gothic fiction era, it was not long after the translation of mythological texts that artists began experimenting with ways to elevate and transport their audiences with the use of the sublime. One group in particular began using the ideas of terror, death, and the supernatural, in combination with that which is terrible in nature to create the sublime. This group became known as the “Graveyard Poets” or the “Graveyard School”. On why these poems are effective author Fred Botting (2001:39) states, “the awful obscurity of the settings of Graveyard poetry elevate the mind to ideas of wonder and divinity”. In other words it’s the sublime imagery that produces the required effect.

“Graveyard Poetry” became increasingly popular during the early 1700’s, and paved the way for what would officially become “Gothic” literature. It was not long before the sublime idea of terrible nature grew until it included even more of the supernatural such as fantastical beings, witchcraft, and other extraordinary phenomena (Kemp, 2001, WEB). These became the components that gave Gothic literature its very definition. The first author to utilize these elements in a large literary work was Horace Walpole in his novel, The Castle of Otranto. It was the first novel to receive the title of “Gothic”, and it was also one of the first to use and develop the sublime.

In the Preface to his second edition, Walpole strives to construct a structure by which the Gothic novel can be defined. He states that in Gothic texts, it is necessary to leave, “the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations… to conduct the mortal agents… according to the rules of probability” (Walpole, 1964:7). In this description, Walpole is essentially offering a definition of the sublime as it is the sublime that elevates the “fancy” as it both fears and finds astonishment in the “boundless realms of invention”, but can delight in it as no real danger is found as it is “conducted” by “the rules of probability”. In this Walpole is demonstrating how the sublime is a necessary ingredient to the Gothic genre.

Burke defined precisely what is to be considered sublime. Some of the main Characteristics that Burke (1834) identified as ones that lead to sublimity include: obscurity, eternity and infinity, the crowded and the confused, power, vastness, magnificence, darkness, and excessiveness. He also points out that its nature that primarily conveys the sublime. These guidelines laid out by Burke became the structure by which all Gothic scenes were constructed. In this work, Burke also gave justification to the continuance of the Gothic genre as he identifies and highly emphasizes terror as being the ruling attribute of the sublime. He declares terror to be the “ruling principle” in the sublime as he states:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime (1834: 42).

However Burke does set down the limitation that the terror, “should have no idea of danger connected with it” as this would hinder the production of “delight” (1834:74). This lends an understanding to the Gothic text then, as it is the aim of the author of a Gothic text to produce terror so that it delights the reader (Hennelly, 2001, 19). The Gothic writers who came soon after Burke display how his ideas of the sublime greatly influenced their Gothic writing.

As more time has progressed and more thought given to the idea of the sublime, the Gothic has evolved, and has even produced a number of sub genres. In all of them, the sublime is a crucial element. As it is seen, this genre as a whole would not have been made possible if not for the sublime. Furthermore, without the sublime, a complete understanding of Gothic texts would be impossible.

While assessing this evolution, Richard Davenport-Hines pronounced, “Gothic is nothing if not hostile to progressive hopes”. The Gothic plot in Dorian Gray is ultimately hostile to the progressive hopes held out by the Paterian plot of self-actualization. (Davenport, 1998, 139)

Most of the gothic fiction involves the supernatural. The monster in “Frankenstein” and the vampire in “The Vampire of Kaldenstein” both have similar qualities. Both are obviously not human and look natural and strange. The creature is described as a “catastrophe” and his creator goes on to describe the monster in full. “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness, but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips”. This account of the monster really gives the reader a clear picture of how different the monster is. The vampire is described as “unusually tall, with a face of unnatural pallor”. The narrator also adds that the creature “cast no shadow”.

For the period of the closing years of the eighteenth century, England emerged and involved in the whirlpool of a collective unravelling. The contemporary philosophers provided the scholarly circles with such theories of inspiration and action that warranted their self-interested attitude and started to expose themselves as unendurable. The incongruity between the English philosophy in which “individual desires and collective needs participated in perfect reciprocity” (Clery, 2002, 35) and real political and economic circumstances commenced to facade.

It is out of this sociological environment that the Gothic novel emerged: an innovative, shocking and fearful genre for a prospective time. The phantom of communal uprising is obvious in the mystical “spectres” of the Gothic: a ghastly way of life emerges as a haunted and disintegrative Gothic mansion; the thrashing of English societal distinctiveness stands the Gothic hero or heroine’s quest for individuality.

Although, the Gothic is frequently reproached or even rejected for its excessively histrionic situations and absolutely expected plots, but the unbelievable attractiveness of the genre in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the regaining of gothic narratives within the past two decades, indicates to an elasticity that cannot be ignored.

The Gothic novel evolves onward rather abruptly as the rising obsession with individual awareness that starts in the early 18th century crash with the exceptional cultural apprehensions of the late 18th century. The sensations of the gothic fiction characters are exposed and externalized in a far-reaching new technique; their innermost fears and passions are literally modified as other characters, paranormal and weird phenomena, and yet lifeless objects. Simultaneously, the trait of the fright portrayed in these novels–fear of incarceration or snare, of individual breach and rape, of the victory of wickedness over good and pandemonium over order–appears to reproduce a particular historical time branded by growing disenchantment with illumination lucidity and by blood-spattered revolutions in France and America.

“The progressive myth of Frankenstein deserves the name of science-fiction, whereas Dracula can only be discarded as superstition fiction.” (Botting, 2001, 71) “We can account for Dracula’s success, and for its continuing success only in terms of the eternity of the opposition between Good and Evil, in terms of human nature, that is in the very terms in which the myth itself is couched — at the cost of dehistoricising the novel and the myth that has developed around it.

It is also unjust to the novel, by insisting on its obvious flaws, and neglecting the very qualities that have ensured its survival. For instance, Dracula, relying as it does on a multiplicity of texts and of points of view, is narratively more complex than Frankenstein, which is based on the traditional structure of embedded narratives; and to call it superstition-fiction means that we forget the advanced technology that amply compensates for the garlands of garlic — whereas Frankenstein’s bright idea was inspired by alchemy”. (Botting, 2001, 72)

The first factor included in a science fiction genre is the existence of aliens or strange creatures. The strange creature that was created in ‘Frankenstein’ was obviously the monster. “The Gothic, we find, as it enters the twentieth century just past, has performed an unusually intense enactment of the changing assumptions about signification that Baudrillard has traced in Western history since the fading of ‘the counterfeit’ from dominance.

In Frankenstein, the ghost of the counterfeit is shown giving way, as the culture did, to the sign as a manufacturable and mechanically reproducible ‘simulacrum’, the very next stage, the ‘industrial’ one, in our thinking about symbols.” (Botting, 2001, 157) The most vital criterion for a science fiction story is the connection with reality. It has to be relevant to earth or humanity and have something familiar that people can relate to.

Most of the theories developed to create the monster are realistic. Frankenstein has a combination of both elements which gives it a good diversity. The gothic component comes in mainly with the violence and romance, but the creation discovery is more science based. This makes ‘Frankenstein’ a good mix between the two genres, which makes the story more effective and helps it suit a wider audience. (Kilgour, 1997, 66)

A word or two should be said about the difference in meaning that the word ‘mystery’ has in American and British contexts. Writing of psychological ghost stories, Peter Penzoldt suggests that American authors prefer a natural explanation, while the English do not fear to intimate that there is more in the world than reason can account for. Glen Cavaliero, too, points to ‘the repeated tendency of English novelists to write about the supernatural or at any rate about mysterious and inexplicable events’. (Cavaliero, 1995, vi)

The Society considered its work in encouraging and directing restorations to be highly useful; yet none of its activities have been so offensive to succeeding generations. The encouragement which the Ecclesiologists gave to replacing medieval features by more ‘correct’ details was abused by many architects. But the Society must bear the responsibility for the wholesale destruction of great quantities of medieval art. Sir Kenneth Clark remarks: ‘It would be interesting to know if the Camden Society destroyed as much medieval architecture as Cromwell. If not it was from lack of funds, sancta paupertas, only true custodian of ancient buildings.’ (Clarke, 1962, p. 237)

The pattern of Gothic fiction, to a certain extent is the delineation of two apparently alternative spaces, the violation of boundaries between them, the overwhelming power of the more negative and deconstructive environment—is widely, almost universally shared by horror narratives, explicitly or inferentially. Horror narrative stresses the teleological implications of abjection; it is the ultimate literature of absence—from God, from substantial selfhood—and the ghost is its central character.

It is no wonder that Mary Shelley in Frankenstein parodies Paradise Lost; horror narrative records loss, paradise gone and certainly not to be regained. Kristeva goes on to note that “all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded” (Kristeva, 1982, 61). David Punter argues that “our knowledge of romantic-period Gothic drama can be informed by the politics of an increasingly plebeian theatre.” (Putner, 2000, 102)

The gothic genre, as with all genres, is made up of many elements and concepts resulting in a massively broad and varied spectrum; including the supernatural, the sublime and horror to name but a few of the more common and generally fundamental ones. Some concepts may be clearly overt, and others will be more discreetly manipulated, but nevertheless a gothic text will more often than not include many of these elements. In terms of the supernatural in the gothic genre, it generally appears in the form of some kind of other than natural being or object, such as a vampire or ghost, which is frightening due to its refusal to adhere to the laws of nature, God or man.

Returning to Frankenstein, it could be argued that there is no element of the supernatural, or alternatively that the creature is supernatural by virtue of its being a composition of dead parts then re-animated by ungodly means.( Kilgour, 1997, 69)

Elements of the supernatural may seem to be almost an obligatory component of the gothic tale. On a closer examination, the word itself suggests also a rather deeper level of meaning: beyond that of the natural, rationally explainable world. In this expanded sense the supernatural relates to another favourite gothic, and Romantic, concept: the sublime. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was a particularly influential treatise in this context, focussing on the human reaction to an overwhelming experience that transcends everyday normality.

It is hardly surprising that Burke’s words had such an impact, as they succinctly state what so much gothic art was striving for with greater or lesser degrees of success. “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested on every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in manner, annihilated before him.” (Burke, 1834, 41)

The mystical and religious connotations should be clear; gothic writers also noted the link between this overwhelming, oceanic sensation and some degree of horror. In gothic narratives there are abundant examples of supernatural and sublime elements, sometimes overt and sometimes less so. There is a useful distinction to be drawn between those authors who tend to leave the supernatural elements unresolved and those who seek rational closure through explaining the apparent mystery.

The two words ‘gothic’ and ‘horror’ seem to belong together, so close is their relationship. Horror however does not have to be present in a gothic text; neither does its presence necessarily make a text gothic. As Clive Bloom indicates; “Horror is the usual, but necessarily the main ingredient of gothic fiction and most gothic fiction is determined in its plotting by the need for horror and sensation. It was Gothicism, with its formality, codification, ritualistic elements and artifice……that transformed the old folk tale of terror into the modern horror story.” (Bloom, 1998, 110)

There are certain well-known definitions as regards to fantasy or the fantastic and all of these are worth considering. Eric Rabkin’s Fantastic in Literature (1976) deals largely with the same subject matter. This particular piece opens with an examination of Alice’s surprised response to the talking plants in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”. Rabkin argues that the fantastic mode is established through the reversal of the ground rules: as he says, “One of the key distinguishing marks of the fantastic is that the perspectives enforced by the ground rules of the narrative world must be diametrically contradicted.” (Rabkin, 1976, p.8)

Victor Sage, in his “Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition”, narrates the method in which, in the Pauline solace convention concerning the seventeenth century, the aging house implied and worked as a connotative metaphor for the body’s unavoidable decomposition and as a trope of mortality and decay in a wide-ranging implication. Sage, to further elaborate the case, refers to a seventeenth-century Huguenot content that, employing the house far-fetched simile, depicts the body assaulted and devastated by degenerative powers:

“Death labours to undermine this poor dwelling from the first moment that it is built, besieges it, and on all sides makes its approaches; in time it saps the foundation, it batters us with several diseases and unexpected accidents; every day it opens a breach, and pulls out of this building some stones.” (Sage, 1988, p.1)

In literature, for the reader to become oriented, they must search for clues as to the equilibrium of the setting. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the reactions of his characters provide the reader with a backdrop of that reality. When events start to go askew, we look to these characters to show us just how far askew. Utterson serves as a neutral facilitator to obtain for the reader this feedback. Stevenson first establishes these characters as reliable, and then relies on their reactionary movements (testimony and actions) to illustrate the intensity of man’s dual natures. It is in these reactions that the reader can discern just how ordinary or outlandish the actions committed by Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde really are.

It also offers an outlet for the comparison of Jekyll/Hyde’s actions to the morals and attitudes of society. The actions of the Hyde persona deviate greatly from what Stevenson has established through characters such as Poole and Dr. Lanyon as Jekyll’s basic nature.

We are shown that the divergence between the characters of Jekyll and Hyde is not a miniscule one, but capable of creating disarray and disbelief. It works as a perfect illustration, and further supports my point. Stevenson most definitely relies on the intensity of his characters’ reactions to emphasize the tremendously disparate natures of Jekyll and Hyde. It adds enormous depth and magnitude that would be lost if the reader were only shown Jekyll and Hyde’s actions, but not the reactions yielded by them. (Attack, 2003, 90) We are also shown much about the balance of the world Stevenson created for his novel. Clearly, the balance has been thrown off.

The characters react with fear and terror at this maelstrom of reality gone asunder. Stevenson valiantly achieves this effect solely by demonstrating these reactions. Were we simply shown Hyde’s actions, and then informed that Hyde was acting in ways incongruent from Jekyll’s normal behaviour the effect would be nowhere near as poignant.

The Gothic fiction cannot be assumed or declared as escapist genre of literature rather it is filled with hidden eroticism that drags the reader into a daemonic and antiquated womb which is manifestly the author’s. The partisanship of the text and the reader is reduced by the hypothetical genuineness of the author’s objective.

The soundness of the text is thus focussed to a critic’s words not the incidence of the reader. Amplifying the Gothic, psychoanalysis seems to be late gothic story that has risen to help describe twentieth-century knowledge of contradictory aloofness from the panic of others and the precedent. This relevance of language eliminates the reader from the gothic fiction text. The text has unexpectedly become a caldron of depraved sensationalism contrasted with voyeurism and exhibitionism emphasized transvestism that demarcates the misuse of Christian moralism.

The Gothic fiction has had a massive effect and influence on many genres of literature since its beginning in the middle seventeenth century. Attractiveness of the Gothic genre has progressively amplified as the mistrust of the legends of the Age of Reason has been reached us. Nevertheless, literary criticism of the past as well as present has been dawdling to recognize the Gothic as a valid genre. Previously critics have traced the immensity of Gothic to revitalize a putrefying genre, but at present modern critics have found to shed new orientation into this literary mystery by diverse literary perspectives. Numerous opinions through the years have evaluated, but the most noteworthy of them is the psychoanalytical approach.

This strives to relate Freudian, Jungian, and post-Jungian notion and words to the Gothic text. Nonetheless, by implementing this perspective to a text it gives emancipation to the hazard of misreading a text. This assumption rules out the reader from the text whereas striking the author back into it. This decreases the soundness of the text by imagining the target of the author. Such readings and involving of literary tools concentrate on extraneous features of the text and lessen it to a medium to maintain ideas not in the actual text.

One of the reasons that this always has been, still is, and always will be one of the best examples of horror/gothic fiction, is because it exploits the universal disgust at human corpses. Whether they are whole, in pieces, fresh or decaying, it is safe to assume that almost anyone would be horrified and disgusted at the sight of them. Because Victor ‘dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave’ to gain body parts to create the monster, the monster is imagined, even with no further description, as hideously ugly, revolting, and probably unfeeling. This initial assumption definitely adds to the horror of the story, and also adds to the sympathy we perhaps feel later in the novel for the monster, at the way people judge him so cruelly.

Descriptions are highly detailed and create a vivid picture; often so detailed they could form a comprehensive travel guide. Conversely, as we move from Walton’s point of view to that of Victor these locations are made strange and foreign by the use of highly melodramatic and emotive language, ‘But it was augmented… the habitations of another race of beings’ , a practice common in both gothic and melodramatic writing.

The landscapes encountered are wild, barren and untamed and we move through a world of extremes; from the towering majesty of the Alps, via the wind swept remoteness of the Orkneys, to the barren wasteland of the Arctic and each step in Victor’s journey echoes his deteriorating sanity. This, combined with Shelley’s use of the weather to evoke a dark and brooding atmosphere overlies the narrative with an implication of the paranormal, leaving the reader always aware of a sensation of impeding doom.

The Creature is driven to his later actions by the behaviour of those around him and by a society who apportions worth on physical appearance and social standing. Where the Creature would give only love and affection, humanity gives him fear, repulsion and pain.

He is rejected by everyone, even by the old, blind elder De Lacy ‘Great God… Who are you’ but, even then, he retains his innate humanity. It is only after he is shot while saving the girl child from drowning that his personality begins to change ‘The feelings of kindness… gave place to hellish rage…’ and he begins to become the monster society perceives him to be. In responding to monstrous treatment he becomes monstrous.

Attack, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature, Norton, 2003. 89-91.

Bloom, C. (ed) Gothic Horror: A Reader’s Guide from Poe to King and Beyond, 1998. Macmillan. 110.

Botting Fred – editor: The Gothic. Publisher: D.S. Brewer. Cambridge, England. 2001. 39, 71, 72, 156-57.

Burke, Edmund: The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke: With a Biographical and Critical Introduction. New York Public Library; 1834: Vol 1. p. 40-43, 74.

Cavaliero, Glen. The Supernatural and English Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. vi.

Clark Sir Kenneth. The Gothic Revival: an Essay in the History of Taste. (Revised and Enlarged Edition; London: Constable, 1962.) p.237.

Clery, E.J. (2002) ‘The Genesis of “Gothic” Fiction.’ In: Hogle, J.E. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge Press. 34-36.

Davenport-Hines, Richard. Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. New York: North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1998. 139.

Hennelly, M.M. (2001) ‘Framing the Gothic: From Pillar to Post- Structuralism’ College Literature 28(3), pp. 15-26.

Hogle, J.E. (ed) the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, 2003. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 243.

Kemp, J. (2001) A Glossary of Literary Gothic Terms. Web.

Kilgour, M. The Rise of the Gothic Novel, 1997. Routledge: London. 66-70.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. p.61.

Punter, David. Ed. A Companion to the Gothic. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000: 94–106.

Rabkin Eric. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976. p.8.

Shelley. M., 1998, Frankenstein (1818 Text), Oxford University Press, Reading.

Stevenson, Robert Louis; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Signet Classics), Signet Book; Reprint edition (1994).

Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (Macmillan, 1988) p. 1.

Walpole, H. (1964) The Castle of Otranto; A Gothic Story. London: Oxford University Press. p7.

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A Brief Introduction to Gothic Literature

Elements, Themes, and Examples from the Gothic Style

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essay of gothic story

  • Ph.D., English Language and Literature, Northern Illinois University
  • M.A., English, California State University–Long Beach
  • B.A., English, Northern Illinois University

The term Gothic originates with the architecture created by the Germanic Goth tribes that was later expanded to include most medieval architecture. Ornate, intricate, and heavy-handed, this style of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary genre, one that concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition. While there are several notable precursors, the height of the Gothic period, which was closely aligned with Romanticism , is usually considered to have been the years 1764 to about 1840, however, its influence extends to 20th-century authors such as V.C. Andrews, Iain Banks, and Anne Rice.

Plot and Examples

Gothic plotlines typically involve an unsuspecting person (or persons)—usually an innocent, naive, somewhat helpless heroine—who becomes embroiled in complex and oftentimes evil paranormal scheme. An example of this trope is young Emily St. Aubert in Anne Radcliffe’s classic Gothic 1794 novel, "The Mysteries of Udolpho," which would later inspire a parody in form of Jane Austen ’s 1817 "Northanger Abbey."

The benchmark for pure Gothic fiction is perhaps the first example of the genre, Horace Walpole’s "The Castle of Otranto" (1764). Although not a long tale in the telling, the dark, its oppressive setting combined with elements of terror and medievalism set the bar for an entirely new, thrilling form of literature.

Key Elements

Most Gothic literature contains certain key elements that include:

  • Atmosphere : The atmosphere in a Gothic novel is one characterized by mystery, suspense, and fear, which is usually heightened by elements of the unknown or unexplained.
  • Setting : The setting of a Gothic novel can often rightly be considered a character in its own right. As Gothic architecture plays an important role, many of the stories are set in a castle or large manor, which is typically abandoned or at least run-down, and far removed from civilization (so no one can hear you should you call for help). Other settings may include caves or wilderness locales, such as a moor or heath.
  • Clergy: Often, as in "The Monk" and "The Castle of Otranto," the clergy play important secondary roles in Gothic fare. These (mostly) men of the cloth are often portrayed as being weak and sometimes outrageously evil.
  • The paranormal : Gothic fiction almost always contains elements of the supernatural or paranormal, such as ghosts or vampires. In some works, these supernatural features are later explained in perfectly reasonable terms, however, in other instances, they remain completely beyond the realm of rational explanation.
  • Melodrama : Also called “high emotion,” melodrama is created through highly sentimental language and instances of overwrought emotion. The panic, terror, and other feelings characters experience is often expressed in a way that's overblown and exaggerated in order to make them seem out of control and at the mercy of the increasingly malevolent influences that surround them.
  • Omens : Typical of the genre, omens—or portents and visions—often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams, spiritual visitations, or tarot card readings.
  • Virgin in distress : With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s "Carmilla" (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women (think Dracula). This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader's sense of pathos, particularly as these heroines typically tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship.

Modern Critiques

Modern readers and critics have begun to think of Gothic literature as referring to any story that uses an elaborate setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent protagonist. The contemporary understanding is similar but has widened to include a variety of genres, such as paranormal and horror. 

Selected Bibliography

In addition to "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and "The Castle of Otranto," there are a number of classic novels that those interested in Gothic literature will want to pick up. Here's a list of 10 titles that are not to be missed:

  • "The History of the Caliph Vathek" (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
  • "The Monk" (1796) by Mathew Lewis
  • "Frankenstein" (1818) by Mary Shelley
  • "Melmoth the Wanderer" (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • "Salathiel the Immortal" (1828) by George Croly
  • " The Hunchback of Notre-Dame " (1831) by Victor Hugo
  • "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • "Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood" (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • " Dracula " (1897) by Bram Stoker
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Gothic Literature

By Stefan Schöberlein

From the early nineteenth century onward, Philadelphia spawned an abundance of mysterious tales starring shadowy strangers, fantastic happenings, and deadly conspiracies. Prominent genre writers including Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), George Lippard (1822-54), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) made the City of Brotherly Love the birthplace of American gothic literature.

black and white photo of the Edgar Allen Poe House in Philadlephia.

Although the gothic arguably reached its first literary high point in the works of Charles Brockden Brown in the early 1800s, its prehistory in Philadelphia dates to the 1790s. Books such as Charlotte Temple (1791) and Rebecca (1792) by Susanna Rowson (1762-1824), though not considered gothic per se, already presented readers with many characteristic themes of the genre (such as vivid depictions of madness and adultery). Even William Bartram (1739-1823) in his famous travelogue of 1791 often lapsed from scientific verbiage into a much darker style, casting, for instance, Floridian crocodiles as lurking monsters with smoke bellowing from their nostrils.

Although the 1796 St. Herbert (published and taking place in New York) is generally considered to be the first gothic novel of the early American republic, Philadelphian Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) was undoubtedly the most influential. While novels like Julia and the Illuminated Baron (1800), by Sally Barrell Keating Wood (1759-1855)—allegedly penned before Wieland —adopted European-style gothic plots, Brown proclaimed his novel to be an “American tale” and rooted the genre firmly in the United States. Wieland set the stage for what the gothic in the New World would be about: the perils of wilderness, the problematic indebtedness of the young democracy to old Europe, and the repressed legacies of war, colonization, and slavery.

black and white photograph of Edger Allan Poe.

Wieland tells the story of members of a German family living on a large estate by the Schuylkill River who—after the spontaneous combustion of the father—are haunted by ghostly voices that drive them to insanity, murder and, ultimately, flight to Europe. The tensions that the characters embody between European culture and American lands, violent past and republican present, and bucolic enclosure and untamed wildness remain unsettled—even after the novel’s convoluted plot is resolved. While the colonial past of Pennsylvania only plays a subliminal role in Brown’s first book, his later Edgar Huntly (1799) addresses it head-on: The spectral hints about the dispossession of native peoples that appeared Wieland become fully materialized. In trying to resolve a vicious murder, the eponymous narrator discovers a system of dark caves (a trope that Poe’s 1842 story “The Pit and the Pendulum” revisited) below Philadelphia. Becoming lost in this rocky subconscious, Huntly discovers bands of native peoples intent on getting revenge for the injustices of the past. In the violent conflicts that ensue, the novel again and again returns to a fundamental question: How can one inherit land if it was acquired through crime?

Orphans and Malicious Parent Figures

In the decades after Benjamin Franklin’s death in 1790, the Philadelphia gothic of Brown and his contemporaries negotiated the conflicting legacy of Republican values and the monarchic cultures of Europe. Rivaled perhaps only by the Disney movies of much later times, these novels are largely populated by either orphans or malicious parent figures. Many of Brown’s characters lose or have lost their guardians: The title character in Laura (1809) by Leonora Sansay (1773-?) succumbs to seduction after her parents’ death while the main protagonist in Kelroy (1812) by Rebecca Rush (1779-1850) is ultimately driven to illness and death by an evil, scheming mother. In the shadow of the influential image of American independence as akin to a child breaking away from tyrannical parents created by Thomas Paine (1737-1809) in Common Sense (1776), gothic authors began to expose how frail and conflicting these lines of separation could be. In the age of industrial capitalism and urban squalor, they seem to sense a resurgence of a monarchical past that the young republic hoped to leave behind—and what better place to examine this than in the birthplace of the Continental Congress?

cover of the book Monks of Monk Hall, or, The Quaker City

With Robert Montgomery Bird , a local physician turned writer, the Philadelphia gothic found its second best-selling author. Often advancing themes from Brown—such as his vivid depictions of anti-Native American violence—Bird turned from setting his novels in Mexico ( Calavar , 1834; The Infidel , 1835) to writing gothic tales placed in and around Philadelphia. Among these, Sheppard Lee (1836) and Nick of the Woods (1837) remain his most successful publications. Where Brown’s fictions are somber and highly complex, Bird introduces satire into the Philadelphia gothic. From the conundrum of an Indian-killing, pacifist Quaker in Nick of the Woods to parodies of the two-party system (Whigs vs. Democrats) in Sheppard Lee , Bird playfully exposes the often self-contradictory nature of Philadelphia society in the age of Jacksonian democracy.

As comments on Philadelphia life, books like Bird’s Sheppard Lee or Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799), take their readers from the wilderness surrounding the city to the city itself. In contrast to the revolutionary past, these fictions portray the city as a metropolis of disease and crime, populated by thieves, beggars, and assassins. Bird’s fantastic tale of the body-swapping Sheppard Lee (1836) satirizes a society of empty ambition and pseudo-aristocratic pomp. George Lippard takes a step farther. His novel The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall (1845)—dedicated to Brown—depicts the city as a hotbed of sin ruled by a decadent elite who meet in an underground brothel to orchestrate their exploitation of Philadelphia. Reveling in seduction, drinking, gambling, and murder, this elite of Chestnut Street create a new Sodom behind a façade of republican morality. Lippard’s subterranean rulers of Philadelphia turn republican values on their head: Accompanied by the ringing of the bell of Independence Hall, journalism becomes blackmail, justice can be bought, and priests try to defile their own offspring.

George Lippard, head and shoulders portrait, facing left]

The most successful American publication before Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Lippard’s graphic indictment of Philadelphia culminates in an apocalyptic dream-vision of hordes of Black and white slaves lining the streets while the new aristocracy of the Quaker City abolishes democracy and crowns a new king for the United States. The fame of Lippard’s novel spawned a boom of “mysteries” set in Philadelphia, such as the anonymously published Mysteries of Philadelphia (1848), Aristocracy, or Life in the City (1848) by Joseph A. Nunes (c. 1820-c. 1905), Mysteries and Miseries of Philadelphia (1854) by George Thompson (1823–c. 1873), and The Homeless Heir, or, Life in Bedford Street (1856) by “John the Outcast.” All mirror Lippard’s attack on Philadelphia’s moral shortcomings, but they often miss the labor activist’s more fundamental critique of high capitalism.

The Turmoil of Slavery

While this new aristocracy of money exposed by Lippard and his followers represented one of the major contradictions in American society, slavery was certainly another. Brown informed the readers of Wieland that dark secrets lay in the exploitation of forced African labor, but both Bird and Lippard addressed Philadelphia’s problematic relationship with slavery much more directly. One of Sheppard Lee ’s many narratives, for instance, takes readers into the slaveholding South, where a Philadelphia Quaker is to be lynched for alleged abolitionist activities—with the added irony that the Quaker is at best on the fence about the issue and has turned over fugitive slaves to the authorities just moments before. Lippard’s work includes frequent references to slaves “acquired” below the Mason–Dixon line who remain in bondage in Philadelphia, even though the institution had been outlawed there since 1780. In characters like the Creole slave boy “Dim” ( The Quaker City ), Lippard captures in gothic ornament the political climate of the years between Prigg v. Pennsylvania (an 1842 Supreme Court decision undermining local laws freeing slaves brought into the state) and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 . Philadelphia’s double-faced position on the issue culminated in an 1849 race riot, which Lippard fictionalized in characteristically stark images in his novella The Bank Director’s Son (1851). Although both Bird and Lippard were by no means free from racial prejudice—indeed their depictions of slaves often rehearse overtly racist stereotypes—they nonetheless brought the issue to the center of their works, reminding Philadelphia, as one of the major hubs of trade for the South, of its duplicitous role in perpetuating human bondage.

While Bird’s and Lippard’s satirical interventions into Philadelphian society were hugely successful, Edgar Allan Poe spent some of his most productive years (1838 to 1844) in the city and stands as its most influential gothic author. From “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to his only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), some of Poe’s most famous pieces were produced in Philadelphia. Even his renowned poem “The Raven” was originally written for a local literary journal, though it was declined and later published in a New York monthly. Well-acquainted with the local gothic tradition, Poe’s fictions show an indebtedness to Brown’s work, he positively reviewed Bird’s Sheppard Lee , and he became a personal friend of Lippard, who lent Poe financial support for his writing.

Nonetheless, Poe’s gothic differs markedly from his contemporaries. Modeling his writing on English and German high culture and reshaping it for a popular American taste, many of Poe’s tales (with the exception of his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym ) take place either in undisclosed locations or shadowy European mansions. Although certain events in Philadelphia’s history have been traced to Poe’s writings (such as a local insanity-defense trial that also inspired Lippard), none of his tales are specified as taking place in the city, and only one, the satiric “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838), even mentions Philadelphia. Instead of directly exposing local, social wrongs through gothic satire (as his benefactor Lippard had done) Poe’s fictions take a more psychological turn, brooding on issues of the mind, murderous urges, hallucinations, and the supernatural. Still, in Poe’s proto-modern gothic, we can sense the City of Brotherly Love lurking behind many seemingly European plots. In tales like “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), we might also hear the buzz of Philadelphia’s busy downtown streets, while pieces like “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) seem to echo Philadelphia’s past—in this case, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 that also inspired Brown’s Arthur Mervyn (1799).

While the era of the American gothic appeared to come to a slow close with the deaths of Poe (1849) and Lippard (1854) and the rise of literary realism, some of its central themes had a remarkably resilient afterlife. Besides the continuing presence of Poe, the criminal underbelly of Lippard’s Philadelphia reappears in 1950s noir fiction. And while the Old Philadelphia Mystery Series (1998-2000), by Mark Graham (b. 1950), revisits a gritty, murderous Philadelphia of the past, one can also hear faint echoes of the violent rioters of The Bank Director’s Son or the drug-fueled robbers of Mysteries and Miseries of Philadelphia in works set in modern-day Philadelphia such as Steve Lopez ’s (b. 1953) Third and Indiana (1994) or Solomon Jones’s (b. 1967) Pipe Dream (2001). As deep as the mysterious caverns below the City of Brotherly Love may be, it appears that its lurid secrets never quite seem to stay down.

Stefan Schöberlein is a doctoral candidate at the English Department of the University of Iowa and the managing editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review .  (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University

essay of gothic story

Charles Brockden Brown, by William Dunlap

Library Company of Philadelphia Philadelphian Charles Brockden Brown proclaimed his novel Wieland (1798) to be an “American tale” and rooted the gothic genre firmly in the United States. Wieland set the stage for what the gothic in the New World would be about: the perils of wilderness, the problematic indebtedness of the young democracy to old Europe, and the repressed legacies of war, colonization, and slavery

This painting of Brown, an oil on canvas from 1803-04, is by William Dunlap, one of Brown’s closest friends and a playwright, a theater manager, and the first American art historian.

(Portrait used with the permission of its owner, Dr. Neil K. Fitzgerald. This image is not to be reproduced without explicit permission from its owner.)

essay of gothic story

Edgar Allan Poe House

Library of Congress This image shows the rear view of the Edgar Allan Poe House at 530 North Seventh Street in Philadelphia. The photograph is described by the Library of Congress as having been taken after 1933. The house today is part of the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service. In 2014, 13,701 people came to see the Poe House, acccording to the park service.

essay of gothic story

Edgar Allan Poe, 1904

Edgar Allan Poe lived six years on North Seventh Street, where his former home now serves as the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.

Poe’s gothic differs markedly from his contemporaries. Modeling his writing on English and German high culture and reshaping it for a popular American taste, many of Poe’s tales take place either in undisclosed locations or shadowy European mansions. Despite his time in Philadelphia and although certain events in Philadelphia’s history have been traced to Poe’s writings, none of his tales are specified as taking place in the city.

essay of gothic story

Cover of The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

This image shows the cover of The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall (1845) by George Lippard, a friend of Edgar Allan Poe’s who wrote gothic tales about immorality, horror, and the debauchery of large cities.

The novel depicts Philadelphia as a hotbed of sin ruled by a decadent elite who meet in an underground brothel to orchestrate their exploitation of the city. Reveling in seduction, drinking, gambling, and murder, this elite of Chestnut Street create a new Sodom behind a façade of republican morality. Lippard’s subterranean rulers of Philadelphia turn republican values on their head: Accompanied by the ringing of the bell of Independence Hall, journalism becomes blackmail, justice can be bought, and priests try to defile their own offspring.

essay of gothic story

George Lippard, c. 1850

Library of Congress This daguerreotype portrait shows George Lippard, author of The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monks Hall (1845).

The Quaker City —dedicated to his friend Charles Brockden Brown—depicts Philadelphia of the era as ruled by a decadent elite who exploit the city. The Quaker City was among the best-selling American novels before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

essay of gothic story

Related Topics

  • City of Brotherly Love
  • City of Firsts
  • Philadelphia and the World
  • Corrupt and Contented
  • Athens of America

Time Periods

  • Nineteenth Century to 1854
  • North Philadelphia
  • Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793
  • Book Publishing and Publishers
  • Bookselling
  • Killers (The): A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia
  • Literary Societies
  • Poetry and Poets
  • Quaker City (The); Or, the Monks of Monk Hall
  • Sheppard Lee
  • Wieland; or, the Transformation: An American Tale

Related Reading

Cohen, Matt, and Edlie L. Wong. “Introduction.” In The Killers: a Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia , 1-42. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Crow, Charles L. (Ed.). A Companion to American Gothic . Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Goddu, Teresa A. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation . New York City: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Kafer, Peter. Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Looby, Christopher. “Introduction.” In Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself . New York: The New York Review of Books, 2008.

Ocker, J. W. “Pennsylvania: We Paused before the Heritage of Men, and Thy Star Trembled.” In Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe , 145-17. Woodstock, Vt.: Countryman Press. 2014

Otter, Samuel. Philadelphia Stories. America’s Literature of Race and Freedom . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville . New York: Knopf, 1988.

Related Collections

  • Charles Brockden Brown Papers George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library 5 College St Brunswick, Maine.
  • Edgar Allan Poe Collection Harry Ransom Center 300 W. Twenty-First Street, Austin, Texas.
  • Robert Montgomery Bird Collection, Accession 7459. Alderman Library University of Virginia Charlottesville, Va.

Related Places

  • Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site
  • Former House of Robert M. Bird
  • Former House of Charles Brockden Brown
  • Independence Hall
  • Laurel Hill Cemetery (National Historic Landmark), burial site of R.M. Bird
  • Philadelphia History Museum
  • Edgar Allan Poe Digital Collection
  • The Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive and Scholarly Edition
  • The Early Writings of George Lippard, 1842-43
  • Philadelphia Gothic (Digital Exhibit, Library Company of Philadelphia)

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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Literary Genres — Gothic Literature

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Essays on Gothic Literature

Hook examples for gothic literature essays, dark and haunting atmosphere hook.

"In the eerie candlelight of a Gothic castle, shadows dance on the walls, and secrets lurk in the corners. As we step into the realm of Gothic literature, prepare to explore the spine-tingling atmospheres that define this genre."

The Mysterious and Enigmatic Character Hook

"Behind the cloak and veil, Gothic characters conceal layers of mystery and intrigue. Join me as we unravel the complexities of these enigmatic figures and the psychological depths they reveal."

Gothic Horrors and Unseen Terrors Hook

"Beyond the surface of the ordinary lies a world of horrors and terrors that defy explanation. Delve into the supernatural elements and unseen forces that haunt the pages of Gothic literature."

Gothic Settings as Characters Hook

"In Gothic tales, settings possess a life of their own, shaping the narrative and influencing the characters. Explore how Gothic literature transforms landscapes into characters with their own stories to tell."

The Intersection of Romance and Darkness Hook

"Love and passion intertwine with darkness and obsession in Gothic romance. Analyze the complex relationships that fuel the narratives of love and despair."

Victorian Fears and Societal Reflections Hook

"Gothic literature often reflects the fears and anxieties of the Victorian era. Investigate how these tales serve as mirrors to societal concerns and the exploration of forbidden desires."

Gothic Literature's Enduring Influence Hook

"The haunting echoes of Gothic literature continue to resonate in contemporary culture. Join me in tracing the lasting impact of Gothic tales on literature, film, and the macabre."

The House of Usher Theme Analysis

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The Theme of Revenge in Frankenstein

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Social Critique in Gothic Literature

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Analysis of Gothic Literature on The Examples of Stoker and Carter

The ideas of horror, gloom and mystery as potrayed in the house of seven gables, suspense in gothic style, characteristic features of walpole’s the castle of otranto, literary review of the haunting of hill house by shirley jackson, different ways in which different peoople cope with their diferent problems, dracula: representation of gothic tropes in the novel and the film, a synopsis of sir arthur conan doyle’s the hound of the baskervilles (hob, trapped in a cage: jackson’s the haunting of hill house and gilman’s the yellow wallpaper, character analysis: judge jaffrey pyncheon, the cruel castle, comprehensive analysis of the black cat by edgar allan poe, the evils of religion and the dark side of humanity potrayed in a house of doom, depiction of oppression towards women in the haunting of hill house, the role of setting in the legend of sleepy hollow by washington irving, the evolution of the vampire, a review of the play the legend of sleepy hollow, domestic assault in hawthorne's and melville's story the paradise of bachelors, the effects of sin and guilt as manifested through descendants of a new england family,, nathaniel hawthorne’s critique of gender roles in rappaccini’s daughter.

Gothic fiction, sometimes called Gothic horror in the 20th century, is a loose literary aesthetic of fear and haunting. The name is a reference to Gothic architecture of the European Middle Ages, which was characteristic of the settings of early Gothic novels.

Gothic literature developed during the Romantic period in Britain. The first mention of "Gothic," as pertaining to literature, was in the subtitle of Horace Walpole's 1765 story "The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story" which was supposed to have been meant by the author as a subtle joke. The supernatural elements in the story, though, launched a whole new genre, which took off in Europe.

​Gothic literature employs dark and picturesque scenery, startling and melodramatic narrative devices, and an overall atmosphere of exoticism, mystery, fear, and dread. Often, a Gothic novel or story will revolve around a large, ancient house that conceals a terrible secret or serves as the refuge of an especially frightening and threatening character.

Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, William Thomas Beckford, Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, Walter Scott, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice and Toni Morrison.

Mysteries of Udolpho, Wieland, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, The Tell-Tale Heart, Dracula, etc.

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  • Gothic Fiction
  • Science Fiction

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essay of gothic story

Interesting Literature

10 of the Best Gothic Horror Short Stories to Read Online

Whether it’s vampires or werewolves or mysterious patterns in wallpaper, writers of Gothic short stories have used all sorts of horrors and frights to chill our blood, ever since the horror short story developed in the early nineteenth century. Below, we pick ten of the very best Gothic horror tales which you can find online. None of these is a particularly long read, and they’re all classics of the genre.

1. E. T. A. Hoffmann, ‘ The Sandman ’.

The character of the Sandman from folklore supposedly throws sand into the eyes of children to get them to go to sleep, but Hoffmann’s creation is much more unsettling – indeed, ‘uncanny’, as Freud realised.

In Hoffmann’s tale, published in 1816, the Sandman can supposedly steal the eyes of children, at least according to Nathanael, the story’s doomed protagonist. Hoffmann’s tale features romance, death, sinister visits to children’s bedrooms, and lots of other things to keep anyone awake at night!

2. Washington Irving, ‘ The Legend of Sleepy Hollow ’.

Memorably filmed by Tim Burton in a 1999 adaptation that changed a number of details of Irving’s original story, this tale is, along with ‘Rip Van Winkle’, Irving’s best-known work, and was first published in 1820.

A classic American Gothic story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is about a secluded grove (the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ of the title) in a fictional New York town, which is reportedly full of ghosts – most famously, a spectral figure known as the Headless Horseman. However, the protagonist of this American folk tale is Ichabod Crane, a schoolmaster, who has designs on a local girl whom he wishes to marry so he can acquire her father’s wealth.

These two elements – the ‘courtship plot’ and the ghostly atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow – come together in a story shot through with peculiarly American detail, making it the New World’s answer to the European tales of the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, Irving was influenced by German folk tales for both this and ‘Rip Van Winkle’, and he actually wrote the story while living in Birmingham, England.

3. Edgar Allan Poe, ‘ The Fall of the House of Usher ’.

No pick of the best Gothic horror short stories would be complete without something from Poe (1809-49), who helped to pioneer the short story form (and has even been credited with introducing the term ‘short story’ itself into the language).

Many of Poe’s finest Gothic stories can be viewed as Gothic novels in miniature, and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ are prime examples. The latter of these is regularly named one of Poe’s best stories. The story combines the Gothic house, the old aristocratic family on its last legs, the idea of the dead returning to life, and various other hallmarks of classic Gothic fiction. Go and have your spine chilled with this classic tale.

4. Charles Dickens, ‘ The Signal-Man ’.

essay of gothic story

5. Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘ The Body Snatcher ’.

This 1884 tale, written after Stevenson had become a huge celebrity following the success of Treasure Island a year before, features characters based on criminals who were employed by the real-life surgeon Robert Knox (1791–1862) around the time of the notorious Burke and Hare murders (1828). The story predates Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , and shows his skill at creating an authentic setting against which the tale’s grisly events take place.

6. W. W. Jacobs, ‘ The Monkey’s Paw ’.

‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is a modern fairy tale, and indeed fairy tales and magical stories from the Arabian Nights (featuring djinn, or genies, who can grant wishes) are both mentioned by characters in the story. As in many classic fairy tales, the number three is invested with great narrative significance: there are three members of the White family, three men can use the monkey’s paw to request wishes, and each man gets three wishes.

It was first published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in September 1902 and proved instantly popular, being reprinted later that same year and adapted for the stage a year later. The story inspired similar story-lines in both The Monkees and The Simpsons .

We have analysed this classic horror story here .

7. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘ Lot No. 249 ’.

One of the best Gothic short stories on the subject of Egyptology, this 1892 tale shows why Conan Doyle was such a master of the short-story form.

Written when ‘Egyptomania’ – European interest in all things from ancient Egypt – was at its height in late Victorian England, this tale features a reanimated mummy in what might be regarded as a riff on both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Conan Doyle’s own Sherlock Holmes stories (there is an element of mystery and suspense in the story, with the full truth only become apparent during the story’s dramatic denouement).

8. Rudyard Kipling, ‘ The Mark of the Beast ’.

Perhaps no pick of classic Gothic horror stories would be complete without at least one werewolf tale, or story about lycanthropy. This early story by Rudyard Kipling, written when he was still in his early twenties and living in India, is our choice. Andrew Lang called the story ‘poisonous stuff which has left an extremely disagreeable impression on my mind’, while William Sharp recommended the story be burnt as a ‘detestable piece of work’.

9. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘ The Yellow Wallpaper ’.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, has the structure and style of a diary. This is in keeping with what the female narrator tells us: that she can only write down her experiences when her husband John is not around, since he has forbidden her to write until she is well again, believing it will overexcite her. Through a series of short instalments, we learn more about the narrator’s situation, and her treatment at the hands of her doctor husband and her sister-in-law.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a Gothic horror story – it ends with the husband taking an axe to the bedroom door where his cowering wife is imprisoned – but the twist is that she has imprisoned herself in her deluded belief that she is protecting her husband from the ‘creeping women’ from behind the wallpaper, and he is prepared to beat down the door with an axe out of genuine concern for his sick wife.

We have analysed this story here .

10. Algernon Blackwood, ‘ The Wendigo ’.

Blackwood (1869-1951) was an important figure in early twentieth-century horror fiction: among other things, he created John Silence, a doctor-cum-paranormal-detective, for a series of entertainingly weird stories.

But Blackwood’s standalone horror stories are also well worth reading. Here, we’ve selected ‘The Wendigo’ (1910), which is one of the longer short stories on this list. Set amongst the Canadian wilderness, the story is about a group of men who go camping and the mysterious disappearance – and return – of one of their group.

essay of gothic story

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4 thoughts on “10 of the Best Gothic Horror Short Stories to Read Online”

Mmmm I’d have included at least one more of Poe’s (The Masque maybe? The pit and the pendulum?) and possibly Young Goodman Brown, by Hawthorne.

Excellent selection. I’d vote for The Queen of Spades by Pushkin too. Is it significant how many of these writers had miserable lives ? This may have given them an affinity for the gothic.

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My goodness…no Angela Carter? Surely ‘The Company of Wolves’ deserves putting on the list?!

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Exploring 8 Key Themes in Gothic Literature

Terror vs. horror, romance as a sublime experience, death and the decay, the metaphor of the monster, supernatural elements, the setting of the gothic novel, symbols of sexual repression, the role of women in gothic literature.

Ever wondered what makes a spooky story truly spine-chilling? Well, it's often the key themes weaved into the narrative that make it so. As we explore gothic literature themes, we'll delve into the dark, twisted worlds created by masters of the genre. So, let's take a journey into the eerie unknown, where terror lurks in shadowy corners and horror is just a page-turn away.

First up on our exploration of gothic literature themes is the distinguishing difference between terror and horror. You might think these words mean the same thing but in the realm of gothic literature, they have unique definitions that set them apart.

Terror is the feeling you get when you're waiting for something bad to happen. It's the suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat, your eyes glued to the page. Think about when you're reading a book and the main character hears a strange noise in the dark. They go to check it out and you're just waiting for the big scare. That's terror.

On the other hand, horror is the reaction to something scary. It's the scream that escapes your lips when the monster finally jumps out from the shadows. It's the immediate response to a terrifying situation.

So, the next time you're reading a gothic novel, or writing one of your own, remember the difference. Use terror to build suspense and horror to deliver the scare. Together, they make for a truly chilling reading experience.

And there you have it—the first stop on our journey to explore gothic literature themes. We're just getting started, so buckle up. It's going to be a thrilling ride.

As we continue to explore gothic literature themes, we come across a slightly unexpected element—romance. But hang on, don't picture red roses and candlelit dinners. This isn't the typical lovey-dovey stuff. Instead, gothic literature presents romance as a sublime experience. Intrigued? Let's dive in.

The term 'sublime' here doesn't mean 'great' or 'excellent' as you might think. In the context of gothic literature, it refers to experiences that are awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time. Imagine standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down at crashing waves. It's beautiful, but also quite scary, right? That's the kind of feeling gothic romances aim to evoke.

Often, the love interests in gothic novels are mysterious, brooding figures. They're attractive, yet there's something dangerous or threatening about them. The romantic relationships are intense, filled with passion and peril. They're not just about hearts and flowers, but about exploring the darker side of love.

So, when you next pick up a gothic novel and find a romantic subplot in it, remember that it's not merely a love story. It's an exploration of the sublime—a mix of beauty, fear, and awe.

Stay tuned as we delve deeper into the fascinating world of gothic literature themes. There's plenty more to uncover!

Our journey to explore gothic literature themes wouldn't be complete without a look at the prevalent theme of death and decay. This isn't a theme for the faint-hearted, but it's a vital part of gothic literature, so let's dive right in.

Gothic literature doesn't shy away from the grim reality of death. In fact, it embraces it. You'll often find characters meeting untimely, tragic ends, or lingering ghosts refusing to find peace. But it's not just about physical death. There's also a focus on moral decay, spiritual death, and the decline of once grand ideals and institutions.

Consider the crumbling castle or haunted mansion, a staple in many gothic tales. These decaying structures serve as a stark reminder of mortality and the passage of time. They're not merely spooky settings but symbols of the inevitable decline that comes with age and neglect.

And let's not forget the characters. Often, they are plagued by guilt, remorse, or dread—proof of their moral or spiritual decay. They might be living, but inside, they are as dead as the ghosts that haunt them.

So, the next time you encounter a decaying mansion or a guilt-ridden character in a gothic novel, you'll know it's not just about creating a creepy atmosphere. It's a reflection on death, decay, and the fragility of life and morality. And that's what makes it a key theme in gothic literature.

Ready to explore more gothic literature themes? Stick around, there's much more to come!

When exploring gothic literature themes, it's impossible to ignore the recurring figure of the monster. But these monstrous figures do more than just give us goosebumps. They serve as powerful metaphors, and that's what we're going to discuss now.

Monsters in gothic literature aren't just there to scare us. Often, they represent societal fears, individual anxieties, or repressed desires. They're a physical manifestation of the things we're afraid to face or admit.

Take Dracula, for instance. He's not just a blood-thirsty vampire. He embodies the fears of the Victorian society about sexuality and foreign influence. Similarly, Frankenstein's monster, while terrifying, also highlights the fear of scientific advancement and humans playing God.

So, when you come across a monster in a gothic tale, don't just hide under the covers. Try to understand what it symbolizes. Is it a fear? A taboo? An uncomfortable truth? Unravelling this can give you a whole new perspective on the story.

Remember, the monster is not just a creature lurking in the shadows. It's a mirror, showing us our own fears and insecurities. And that's what makes it such an important theme in gothic literature.

So, ready to explore gothic literature themes further? Let's keep going!

When we explore gothic literature themes, we're going to come across the supernatural—a lot. It's one of the most fascinating aspects of the genre. Got your ghost-detecting goggles on? Let's dive in.

Supernatural elements are used to create an atmosphere of mystery and fear in gothic literature. Ghosts, haunted houses, mysterious apparitions, and unexplainable events are all common. But these aren't just for the purpose of creating chills and thrills.

Instead, these supernatural elements often serve to explore complex human emotions and issues. For example, the ghost in Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" isn't just a creepy presence. It's a tool to explore the psychological instability of the protagonist.

Similarly, the supernatural can also provide a sense of cosmic justice, where earthly laws and rules don't apply. Ever came across a story where a wronged person comes back as a ghost to seek revenge? That's the supernatural serving justice!

So, the next time you encounter a ghost or a mysterious event in a gothic tale, don't just dismiss it as a spooky element. Look deeper. There might be more to it than meets the eye.

Enjoying the journey as we explore gothic literature themes together? Great, because we've still got more ground to cover!

As we continue along our path to explore gothic literature themes, we'll find ourselves stepping into settings that are as much a character as the people themselves. These aren't your typical sunny neighborhoods or bustling cityscapes. Instead, gothic novels are often set in places that ooze a sense of mystery, gloom, and fear.

Creaky old mansions, decrepit castles, isolated islands, eerie forests—these are the places where gothic stories come alive. They are often described in great detail to create a sense of foreboding, and to make you feel as though you're walking along dark, winding staircases and peeking around shadowy corners right along with the characters.

Take for instance the ominous Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre'. It is a character in its own right—full of dark secrets and silent whispers. The house's eerie setting adds to the mystery surrounding Mr. Rochester, making us question his character just as Jane does.

But there's more to these settings than just the fear factor. They often reflect the inner state of characters, especially their feelings of fear, isolation, and confusion. The labyrinth-like castle in Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', for example, mirrors the complex and twisted mind of its resident vampire.

So, when you explore gothic literature themes, pay special attention to the setting. It's not just a backdrop—it's a window into the characters' minds and a key player in the plot. Can you guess what's next on our exploration of gothic literature themes? Let's find out!

Exploring gothic literature themes can feel like stepping into a dream. Things aren't always as they seem, and ordinary objects can hold hidden meanings. Case in point: symbols of sexual repression.

Now, you might be wondering: what's that doing in a gothic novel? It's not exactly the most obvious theme. But that's where the beauty of gothic literature lies. It gives authors a way to explore complex, and often taboo, topics in a subtle and symbolic way.

Let's take a look at an example. 'The Fall of the House of Usher' by Edgar Allan Poe features a cracked, decaying mansion. This isn't just a creepy setting—it symbolizes the breakdown of the Usher family due to their incestuous history. In this case, the house itself becomes a representation of the family's suppressed sexual desires and the destructive consequences that follow.

Another example? 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte. The turbulent and destructive relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff can be seen as a symbol of sexual tension and repression. Their intense passion, unable to be properly expressed due to societal restrictions, leads to their ultimate downfall.

So, as you continue to explore gothic literature themes, remember to keep an eye out for the hidden meanings. You'll find that even the simplest objects can represent complex ideas. And who knows? You might just start seeing symbols everywhere—even in your own dreams!

Continuing our journey as we explore gothic literature themes, let's pause and discuss a vital aspect: the role of women. Remember, we're stepping back in time here—when women had very different roles in society compared to today. But that doesn't mean they were any less powerful or intriguing!

In gothic literature, women often play two main roles: the damsel in distress, and the mysterious, sometimes evil, femme fatale. The damsel in distress is often innocent, pure, and, unfortunately, a target for the villains. The femme fatale, on the other hand, is a complex and intriguing character. She's intelligent, independent, and has a certain air of mystery about her. And she's not afraid to use these traits to her advantage!

Think about Mina and Lucy from Bram Stoker's 'Dracula.' Mina is the damsel—innocent, virtuous, and ultimately a victim. Lucy, though not exactly evil, evolves into a more sinister character post her transformation into a vampire—giving us a taste of the femme fatale. Their contrasting roles add depth to the narrative and offer us a fascinating exploration of women's roles in that era.

So, what does this mean for you, dear reader? As you delve deeper into gothic literature themes, pay attention to the women. They may be victims, they may be villains, but they're never just side characters. They hold the plot together, driving it forward with their actions—whether they're waiting for rescue or stirring up trouble!

If you enjoyed delving into the world of Gothic literature and want to explore its themes further, we recommend checking out the workshop ' A Way of Life Beyond Good & Evil ' by Rabih Salloum. This workshop will help you examine the complexities and nuances of Gothic themes and provide a deeper understanding of the genre's impact on our modern world.

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Home / Essay Samples / Literature / Literary Genres / Gothic Literature

Gothic Literature Essay Examples

Exploring the depths of gothic romantic fictional narratives.

Gothic romantic fiction is a genre that is characterized by its dark and mysterious themes, often featuring supernatural elements and a brooding, atmospheric setting. In a gothic romantic fictional narrative essay, the writer crafts a story that captures the essence of this genre, immersing the...

The Main Features of the Gothic Literature Style

The gothic genre can be described as dreary and bonkers. Not so much as a comedy but so much in the form of something maniacal. Something is intrinsically gothic when it stems from a plot that is so exaggeratingly horrific that the outcome is ridiculous...

Kizumonogatari by Nisio Isin as an Example of Gothic Literature

The gothic literature style is one in which emphasizes the grotesque, mysterious and desolate. This genre had much success after the American Revolution and into the 19th century, following the use by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving. Who have created such...

Northanger Abbey as an Example of Gothic Literary Genre

“Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have after they wake up from a nightmare,” (Alfred Hitchcock). The Gothic genre has been somewhat of fascination from the start of its time, as it can be so violent and gruesome, yet individuals read it anyways...

Elements of Gothic Genre in the Bloody Chamber and the Picture of Dorian Gray

Gothic literature engages the reader, playing with their emotions using elements of terror and horror to connect them to a particular story. Within the novels ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter both authors use elements of...

Female Sexuality in the Victorian Era and Gothic Literature

The few elements that make up Gothic literature, sexuality contributes to many themes of these novels. While being such a controversial topic, especially during the Victorian era, many authors continued push this element in their works. Two novels that really concentrated on the theme of...

The Impact of Gothic Literature on Creation of Horror Films

Edgar Allen Poe wrote amazing writings that included Gothic Literature with all his suspense and mysterious acts. Poe made a very big impact on Gothic Literature. Poe’s writings impacted people from his writings and inspired them to write also, even to make a film from...

Analysis of the Use of Transformations in Gothic Literature

The man, howling at the night sky, slowly reared back and roared louder, until the beast within bursted from the seams. That seems like a start to a werewolf or some old monster movie, moving on, so how does transformation scare us? Transformation plays a...

Analysis of Setting and Narrative in the Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter is known for creating the remakes of old stories but adds a sense of darkness to it. She has and writes her stories and experiences with a sense of an ending. In this story “The Bloody Chamber,” she uses setting to describe the...

Accepting Oedipus: Achsa Fielding and the Mature, Gothic Woman

Charles Brockden Brown’s Arthur Mervyn embodies the mentality of the newly formed U. S. A. , speaking to how 18th century readers – in fact, citizens, regardless of their literacy – were both repulsed yet fascinated by social concepts that were literally and figuratively revolutionary....

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