Hill House is a great example of Gothic fiction and a Gothic location.

You’ve probably heard someone describe a work of fiction as being “a very Gothic work,” or describing a place they visited as “having a Gothic feel” (which now that I think about it, could be said of The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast). But what actually is “Gothic horror” or “Gothic fiction?” And why does it still appeal to us after more than two-hundred and fifty years?

Surprisingly, Gothic fiction has very little to do with Gothic architecture or with Goth fashion and music (for more on that relationship, check out this brief YouTube video). And while most of the genre do take place in haunted houses, not all haunted house stories are Gothic, or vice versa. As this very helpful Tor.com article points out, “Some genres build the house. Others come along and decorate it. Gothic horror is a very decorative genre.”

So what is Gothic fiction? Well, to be honest, it’s a genre that arose out of another genre that was a response to a popular movement. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment movement emphasized discarding superstition in favor of science and reason. Some artists didn’t care for this philosophy and turned to Romanticism, which emphasized emotion and the self, as well as a veneration of the past, nature, and in some cases the supernatural. Gothic arose out of Romanticism, with artists and authors combining elements of the latter with horror, death and the supernatural, starting with The Castle of Otranto in 1764 by Horace Walpole, and followed by the works of Poe, Mary Shelley, Byron, and many others.

To put it simply, Gothic fiction could be considered the love-child of 18th and 19th century Romance stories and horror stories.

But that’s how Gothic fiction came to be. How do we identify it? Well, the horror novel Kill Creek by Scott Thomas (which I highly recommend), itself a Gothic novel, gives a great run-down of some of the common elements of the genre (I hope Mr. Thomas doesn’t mind me using them):

  • Emanation from a single location. The source of the evil is often a single location, usually a house. A great example of this is The Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It is the book’s main location, and it is the source of the evil in the story.
  • A sense of forbidden history. There’s a dark history associated with the location or something related to it. Again, a great example is The Overlook, which has been the setting for murders, suicides, and all sorts of horrid deaths and events, all of which have been swept under the rug for the sake of the hotel’s reputation, and later gets drudged up by Jack (and the hotel).
  • An atmosphere of decay or ruin. Things are rotting or falling apart, or seems to be anyway. It’s in the very air, almost. And it doesn’t have to be physical; it can be mental too. Just look at Jack’s mental state as The Shining progresses, if you need an example.
  • Corruption of the innocent. This one speaks for itself. The evil wants to destroy good and innocence and replace it with evil. Dracula, a great example of Gothic fiction, has the titular character turning good and innocent people into bloodsucking vampires. This is corruption of the innocent in its best example, and why vampire fiction is often grouped with Gothic fiction (did you expect another Shining reference?).

Dracula is another great example of Gothic literature, even if it’s not confined to a single location.

But those features aren’t universal among Gothic stories. They’re common features, but not there in every one (Dracula doesn’t just kill in one single place, after all). So what else makes a Gothic story? Well, there’s something I’ve noticed about Gothic stories: along with the atmosphere of decay, there’s also a veneration towards the darkness and to beauty. Remember, Gothic fiction rose from Romanticism, which venerates nature, emotion and beauty. So while we’re feeling an atmosphere of terror, there’s also this sense that the author has a respect and love of the darker elements along with the Romantic ones.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface of what constitutes Gothic, and I could go on for days on the subject if you let me. The best summary I can do for this post is to say that Gothic fiction are horror stories with a particular group of tropes, a veneration of darkness and horror, and Romantic appreciation for aesthetic and the fantastic world. And even that feels incomplete.

So what appeals to us about Gothic fiction, and has allowed it to survive and evolve whereas other niche genres like Westerns went out of style in less than sixty years? Well, there’s no easy answer there either. The Tor article says that the rules and expectations of the genre can be learned and make it appealing to readers. I’ve heard some people say good Gothic horror has an atmosphere unlike other genres, and that keeps them coming back. My opinion is that, in addition to those theories, Gothic can evolve because its main tropes are relevant no matter what age we’re in, especially the houses. But on a deeper level than that, most Gothic literature takes the childhood idea of home, a big place we feel safe in, and turns it inside out into a giant house of fear that is still somewhat beautiful and appealing. That is a strange inversion that can be attractive to readers, and may explain why we keep writing and reading Gothic stories over two-hundred and fifty years after Walpole started the genre.

However you define Gothic fiction or whatever its appeal is, there’s no doubt that it is a popular and influential genre that we’ve all experienced at lest once in our lives and remember. And perhaps by understanding it better, we can keep Gothic horror going for many more years to come. And I certainly wouldn’t mind that.

What elements of Gothic fiction did I miss here? What about it appeals to you?

What Gothic stories would you recommend for anyone interested in the genre?

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