Fear in Writing: Literary Movement Series: Gothic Literature

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Monday, August 2, 2010

Literary Movement Series: Gothic Literature

Flying buttresses and soaring peaks.  Pointed arches and dark moors.  These are images that spring to mind when we think of the word "Gothic."  And the architecture and setting of medieval times is essential to the understanding of Gothic literature.

A Gothic work combines horror and romance, but not necessarily the romance one associates with Nora Roberts.  The horror is conveyed in the subject, setting, or conflict of the piece, while the romance can be a literal one between characters, or an idealized goal.

Another aspect of Gothic literature is the extreme.  Extreme emotions and reactions are documented.  Some of the reactions are decidedly unexpected for the circumstance--thrill to fear, joy from pain.  Think of Mina's reactions to Dracula in Stoker's book, or Frankenstein's ignorance of his Elizabeth's pain in Shelley's.  In modern fiction we would call such encouraged reactions to negative circumstances evidence of a psychopath, but such is not the case in romantic lit.

Why such dark settings and horrible happenings?  The early Gothic writers reacted to their surroundings--the medieval ruins and the dark and terrifying times they represent, the inevitable decay that comes with being human as represented by these crumbling edifices.  (From the latter you can see the correlation to creating someone who is immortal, i.e. Dracula.)

The first Gothic romance is said to be Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto.  Walpole published this work from his own printing press at his Gothic revival home, Strawberry Hill, in 1764--seventy some-odd years before the Victorian-era Gothics we associate with the movement today.  It was in those Victorian times that the most famous Gothic works came to press--Dracula by Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeFrankenstein by Mary Shelley was actually written earlier in the century, during the Romantic period (the subject of Tuesday's post!).

It was also at this time that we cross the Atlantic for the birth of American Gothic, launched by the father of the detective novel, Edgar A. Poe.  Many point to Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum as the ultimate example of early American Gothic literature.  I, however, see a stronger strain of the new style in such works as The Black Cat.  In Pit and Pendulum, Poe tackles the external theme of the Spanish Inquisition, pain imposed on the body, and supernatural intervention (e.g. rats eating away the rope to free the victim from the pendulum).  In Black Cat, Poe turns the terror inside the human body.  The setting is still strongly atmospheric--a dark basement, a one-eyed cat named out of ancient mythology, a devoted wife, a house consumed (literally, by fire) by the evil within its walls.  But it is the inner turmoil that separates this work from, say, Stoker's Dracula, where all the fighting (save the revenge and love themes) is physical.  Poe's narrator is overcome with the nightmare emanating from his revived cat, and kills his wife.  It is at this point the here-to-fore tormented narrator becomes calm and calculating--meticulously describing the way he bricks his wife's body within the basement wall.
"I quivered not in a muscle.  My heart beat calmly as that of one who slumbers in innocence."
Courtesy: the V&A online, by Alphonse Legros
(A brief aside: the turn to an internal conflict may be attributed to the coming importance of psychology in the 19th century.  The first sketches of the modern field can be seen in 1802 with Pierre Cabanis, though the first center of psychological study was not founded until 1879, by Wilhelm Wundt; and Sigmund Freud did not begin his work until the 1890s.)

It is no wonder the Gothic and horror-filled mind of Poe birthed the first detective novel, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841).  And Gothic mores are still rampant in the mystery works produced today.  Think of the depressed and hard-luck atmosphere in James Lee Burke's work, the twisted romances portrayed by Daphne du Maurier, or the social commentary and even neo-Gothic dress in Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy. 

The most famous socially aware crime novel of our time is To Kill a Mockingbird.  And Pulitzer Prize-winner Harper Lee was very much a writer in the Southern Gothic style.  She took the post-slavery South, added crime (rape, murder), social problems (segregation, ignorance, prejudice), compelling characters (child narrator, single father lawyer, misunderstood and mentally handicapped neighbor), and Gothic symbols (dark oak tree with hidden secrets, mob-rule violence, villains and heroes), and created a lasting work of fiction.

How do you incorporate Gothic literature values in your work?  Were you aware of the Gothic literary movement's presence in your work before reading this?

Next in Series:
Tuesday, Romantics
Thursday, Beat Generation

Photograph identification:
Top, left: Westminster Abbey, London
Second, right: Bath Abbey, Bath, England
Third, left: Strawberry Hill, near London


  1. Michele - Thanks so much for this discussion of Gothic literature. You've done such a terrific job of outlining some of its components and I really like your examples. I have to say that I don't really see a lot of the Gothic in my own writing, although here and there I do incorporate some of the inner turmoil you describe. Really interesting post, and I look forward to your others.

  2. I like the classical goth literature, Dracula, Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but haven't read much of modern goth fiction.

    On the other hand, since I'm a headbanger, always dressed in black, I listen to a lot of heavy metal music, including, from time to time, the goth-metal subgenre. This is a melodic and dark type of metal, with lyrical themes inspired by goth fiction. The goth-metal bands often use a so-called beauty-and-the-beast type of vocal, mixing a clean female voice with a harsh male voice.

    Next time you relax with your goth fiction, on a dark and stormy night, you may want to listen to bands like My Dying Bride, Type O Negative, Lacuna Coil, The Gathering, or check out this nice example: A Rose for the Dead
    by Theatre of Tragedy >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  3. "Gothic" is surely a term that's thrown aroung a lot, but rarely defined (asides from ambiguously "dark"). Thanks for clearing it up, espesially the reflections from the emergence of Psychology.

  4. Wow, you did your research on gothic writing! Not sure that's a style I could do successfully.
    And I love Lacuna Coil!

  5. Thorough and interesting overview! Thanks Michele. Am tweeting.

  6. I am not educated in Gothic enough to make a reasonable comment so I will just say I loved The Black Cat and To Kill A Mockingbird.

    I suppose that makes me knowledgable only in pleasure.

    Great read.

  7. Margot- I don't know if we could write modern fiction without the inner turmoil. Self-awareness was the word of the 90s, and psychology has played such a big part in this century.

    Cold- I love the examples you give, and will definitely check out the link. There are many modern forms of Gothic, or Goth, that I didn't explore--trying to concentrate on lit. But it's amazing how much we can attribute to our forefathers/mothers. And I'm sure most modern goths don't know where it all comes from.

    Will- It really is and, for the most part, used in a valid way, but still by people who don't know what THEY mean by it.

    Diane- A lot was research, and a lot was just remembering my college courses! English Lit was my major, but I haven't applied it till recently with this blog and writing. I need to check out Lacuna Coil--I've definitely heard of them!

    Elizabeth- Thanks for the Tweet. I hope this is interesting to many.

  8. Gail- DEFINITELY makes you knowledgeable enough to comment. I thought it was interesting to tie Poe with Lee--our writing roots are so important. Welcome!

  9. I love Gothic literature and I'm loving this blog series. You obviously do so much research every week. Thank you.

  10. Alex- Well, thanks. It was nice to challenge myself!

    Clarissa- So glad these appeal to you! And I love this lit movement, too. I felt it had the most direct contact with modern mystery writing, which I why I chose to begin with it. As to every week...I'm glad it seems that way! :P

  11. Very interesting and informative post. You've given me a different outlook on Gothic literature. Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

    Thoughts in Progress

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  14. Oh Michele - you scholarly devil you! This is facinating and I will be looking for the gothic influence in my own writing. Not sure - think in my mysteries there might be some and it could use some darkening. I love the early goths for sure and I live with a fifteen year old girl so get a healthy enough dose of modern goth culture. I wonder why the young are so consistantly attracted to the dark? Jan Morrison

  15. If I may make a recommendation: an early American Gothic novel (believed to be the first) was "Paul Felton" by Bostonian Richard Henry Dana (Sr. - his son wrote the novel "Two Years Before the Mast"). Great book, a quick read, dates to the 1820s, I believe.

  16. Really interesting stuff! Gothic lit sure has an intriguing history. I have read some of it (mostly years and years ago) and enjoyed the extremeness of it all - quite fun. :)

    To Kill a Mockingbird is such an increible book - one of my all-time faves.

  17. Jan- It's fun to analyze your own work for scholarly influence, isn't it? As to the young, I first met my sister-in-law when she was about 16. She was into the "goth" style and I totally didn't get it. Not that I think she knew the roots, but I respect it as a culture more having studies the influences. A bit different when it's a teen in a spiked collar, but you know what I mean.

    Rob- Thanks for coming by! Means a lot since you are an American Lit scholar. Thank you for the book recommendation.

    And I recommend you all swing over to Rob's blog--talk about scholarly!

    Jemi- There is definitely a connection between Gothic and Steampunk. I know the main influence is Victorian culture, but the dark aspect comes from the Gothic romance movement. And, yes, Harper Lee was quite talented. I wish we had gotten more work from her.

  18. Hi Michele,
    Nice to meet you! Thanks for commenting and following my blog. Look forward to reading your posts.

    TKAM has always been a favorite of mine, but I never thought about it from this angle. Thanks for sharing; I appreciate the info!

    Have a great week,

  19. This was like being back in college and taking a fascinating class!

  20. I always associated the Gothic with those chilling romances of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, which I was hooked on at one time. Now I see the connection to other favorites such as Poe. Interesting post, Michele.

  21. Thanks for a wonderful article. To Kill a Mocking bird is one of my all time favourites, but I never even thought of it as Gothic. Now I am going to keep looking for Gothic influences everywhere.

  22. Lovely article!

    I felt like I was in an English class :)

  23. I will have to look into the Gothic a little more. I have never thought about it in my own work. Thanks for an interesting post.

  24. Karen- Glad you came by, too. And it's always nice to look at something familiar from a different angle.

    Helen- Thank you. I don't remember calling college fascinating...:)

    Patricia- That is what I wanted to discover in this research. I learned a lot, too!

    Rayna- Southern Gothic is very recognizable if you know where to look. Think dust, shadowy trees, and creepy characters. Faulkner, O'Connor, McCullers, etc.

    Victoria- I hope you stayed awake. ;)

    Glynis- It's always interesting to see where you came from, even if you didn't know it!