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The gothic novel is an English literary genre, which can be said to have been born with The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole. It is the predecessor to modern horror fiction and it above all has led to the common definition of gothic as being connected to the dark and horrific.
The classic period of the gothic novel
From the Renaissance period the term gothic was a word of contempt, meaning barbaric and ugly. Renaissance writers who idolized the classical period and its architecture thus catalogued all the products of the middle ages as the legacy of the barbarian invasion of Rome and scornfully called them gothic.
Horace Walpole was obsessed with fake medieval gothic architecture and built his own house Strawberry Hill in that form, sparking off the gothic revival; thus the two movements were connected at birth. By the mid eighteenth century the cult of sensibility was taking root; the current obsession with the purity of form of the neoclassical and its association with reason gave birth to a reaction in the form of appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion and the sublime. The ruins of gothic buildings gave rise to these emotions by indicating the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations, thus the craze for building fake ruined churches on English country estates as part of landscape architecture. These feelings were also connected to the anti-catholicism created by the Reformation. Good Protestants were supposed to associate medieval buildings with a dark and terrifying period, envisioning the Catholic Church oppressing people with harsh laws, torture and superstitious rituals. It was terrifying but yet at the same time for antiquarians like Walpole fascinating.
Walpole's novel arose out of this obsession with the medieval. Here rather than a fake building he originally claimed it was a real medieval romance he had discovered and republished. Thus was born the gothic novel's association with fake documentation to increase its effect. The Castle of Otranto was originally titled a Romance a literary form which was held by educated taste to be tawdry and not even fit for children due to its superstitious elements, but Walpole revived some of the elements of the medieval romance in a new form. The basic plot created many other the gothic staples including a threatening mystery and an ancestral curse. It was however Ann Radcliffe who created the gothic novel in its standard form. Radcliffe introduced the brooding figure of the gothic villain, which developed into the Byronic hero. Unlike Walpole's, her novels were best-sellers and virtually everyone in English society was reading them. Radcliffe created a craze and had many imitators; the results were parodied in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey by setting up the atmosphere of doom and sweeping it away with hearty common sense and normalcy. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 1818 is undoubtedly the greatest literary triumph of the gothic novel in this its classical period.
The legacy and later developments
In England, the gothic novel as a genre had largely played itself out by 1840. However it had a lasting effect on the development of literary form in the Victorian period. It led to the Victorian craze for short ghost stories and the short shocking macabre tale mastered by Edgar Allan Poe. It also was a heavy influence on Charles Dickens who read gothic novels as a teenager and incorporated their gloomy atmosphere and melodrama into his own works, but shifting them to a more modern period.
By the 1880s it was time for revival as a gothic as a semi-respectable literary form. This was the period of the gothic works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen and Oscar Wilde, and the most famous gothic villain ever appeared in Bram Stoker’s Dracula 1897. From these, the gothic genre strictly considered gave way to modern horror fiction though many literary critics use the term to cover the entire genre.
- The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole
- The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
- Caleb Williams (1794) by William Godwin
- Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
- The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis
- Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley (Full text at Wikisource)
- The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori
- Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin
- Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) by Thomas de Quincey
- The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg
- The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe (Full text at Wikisource)
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe (Full text at Wikisource)
- The Mummy's Foot (1863) by Théophile Gautier (Full text at Wikisource)
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Horla (1887) by Guy de Maupassant (Full text at Wikisource)
- The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker (Full text at Wikisource)
- The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
- The Monkey's Paw (1902 by W.W. Jacobs
- The Lair of the White Worm (1911) by Bram Stoker (Full text at Wikisource)
- Gormenghast (1946 - 1959) by Mervyn Peake
- Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen (Full text at Wikisource)
- Nightmare Abbey (1818) by Thomas Love Peacock
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