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Gothic Literature

Resources for gothic literature.

Key Elements

A Quote on the Origins of Gothic Literature:

“We very rarely can date the beginning of a genre precisely, but with gothic fiction, we can identify the day,” said Lynch. “Christmas Day 1764. Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto and he is the first one to call a story, a 'gothic' story.” At the time, the term “gothic” was synonymous with “medieval” and it was almost always used as an insult, explains Lynch. “The ‘Gothic Ages’ were backwards, and superstitious, and it was an age of darkness and ignorance, and barbarity.” 

Dread and Decadence: Exploring the Literary in Gothic Horror By Nora Luongo, Rutgers University, 2020.

1. Setting in a castle.

The action takes place in and around an old castle, sometimes seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied. The castle often contains secret passages, trap doors, secret rooms, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections. The castle may be near or connected to caves, which lend their own haunting flavor with their branchings, claustrophobia, and mystery. (Translated into modern filmmaking, the setting might be in an old house or mansion--or even a new house--where unusual camera angles, sustained close-ups during movement, and darkness or shadows create the same sense of claustrophobia and entrapment.)

2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. Elements 3, 4, and 5 below contribute to this atmosphere. (Again, in modern filmmaking, the inexplicable events are often murders.)

3. An ancient prophecy is connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present).

The prophecy is usually obscure, partial, or confusing. "What could it mean?" In more watered-down modern examples, this may amount to merely a legend: "It's said that the ghost of old man Krebs still wanders these halls."

4. Omens, portents, visions.

A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming events. For example, if the statue of the lord of the manor falls over, it may portend his death. In modern fiction, a character might see something (a shadowy figure stabbing another shadowy figure) and think that it was a dream. This might be thought of as an "imitation vision."

5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events.

Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural. 6. High, even overwrought emotion. The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common. In the filmed gothic, screaming is common.

7. Women in distress.

As an appeal to the pathos and sympathy of the reader, the female characters often face events that leave them fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing. A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer all the more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on purpose or by accident), and have no protector at times.

8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male.

One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself), or commit a crime.

9. The metonymy of gloom and horror.

Metonymy is a subtype of metaphor, in which something (like rain) is used to stand for something else (like sorrow). For example, the film industry likes to use metonymy as a quick shorthand, so we often notice that it is raining in funeral scenes. Note that the following metonymies for "doom and gloom" all suggest some element of mystery, danger, or the supernatural. wind, especially howling rain, especially blowing doors grating on rusty hinges sighs, moans, howls, eerie sounds footsteps approaching clanking chains lights in abandoned rooms gusts of wind blowing out lights characters trapped in a room doors suddenly slamming shut ruins of buildings baying of distant dogs (or wolves?) thunder and lightning crazed laughter.

10. The vocabulary of the gothic.

The constant use of the appropriate vocabulary set creates the atmosphere of the gothic. Using the right words maintains the dark-and-stimulated feel that defines the gothic. Here as an example are some of the words (in several categories) that help make up the vocabulary of the gothic in The Castle of Otranto: mystery, diabolical, enchantment, ghost, goblins, haunted, infernal, magic, miracle, necromancer, omens, ominous, portent, preternatural, prodigy, prophecy, secret, sorcerer, spirits, strangeness, talisman, vision, fear, terror, afflicted, agony, anguish, apprehensions, concern, despair, dismal, dismay, dreaded, fearing, frantic, frightened, grief, hopeless, horrid, horror, lamentable, melancholy, miserable, mournfully, panic, sadly, scared, shrieks, sorrow, sympathy, tears, terrible, terrified, wretched, alarm, amazement, astonished, shocking, staring, thunderstruck, wonder, haste anxious, breathless, flight, frantic, hastened, impatience, impetuosity, suddenly, angrily, enraged, furious, incensed, provoked, rage, raving, resentment, temper, wrath, gigantic, enormous, vast, dark, darkness, dismal, shaded, black, night. Consider this from Chapter 1 of The Castle of Otranto: The servant "came running back breathless, in a frantic manner, his eyes staring, and foaming at the mouth. He said nothing but pointed to the court. The company were struck with terror and amazement."

- Robert Harris