Before I begin, I want to apologise again for how absent I’ve been. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you might have noticed that I finally handed my MA dissertation in last week, so you can probably imagine how stressful these last couple of weeks have been! Now that I’m no longer a masters student, I have more free time on my hands, so that means I can spend more time on posts, and hopefully update much more frequently than I have been.
As always, Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week’s theme is your top ten favourites of any genre. I’ve decided to put a bit of a spin on this and bring you my top ten Gothic novels, in honour of handing my dissertation in. These are either my favourites of the genre, or otherwise work as really great introductions to Gothic literature.
The Gothic has several different modes, and as such, it’s kind of hard to pin down what, exactly, is meant by the term Gothic. Studies into the Gothic only really started in the 1980s, despite the fact that the genre itself pretty much started in the late 1700s. Gothic literature was, and in some cases still is, regarded as trashy, and therefore not warranting academic study. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Gothic literature, even when it is melodramatic and trashy.
So hopefully I’ve provided a pretty good selection of Gothic novels, should any of you be interested in getting into the genre! The covers of each will take you to the Goodreads pages.
1. THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO BY HORACE WALPOLE
The Castle of Otranto is pretty much universally regarded as the origin of the genre, and was first published anonymously in 1764. It’s here that a lot of the most common Gothic tropes start, one of these being that it presents itself as a found document. A lot of Gothic novels were presented as if they were actually true, and not works of fiction. For the most part, this actually worked and people did genuinely believe that what they were reading was true. The book itself is kind of a mess, as traditions of the novel weren’t actually established yet (for example, it’s just a wall of text, because putting speech on a new line wasn’t all that common). It’s worth a read only if you want to see where the genre started.
2. DRACULA BY BRAM STOKER
I couldn’t really do this list without including the novel that popularised everyone’s favourite denzien of the Gothic: the vampire. Like The Castle of Otranto, Dracula also pretends that it’s true. It’s easy to miss, but there’s a little disclaimer at the very start of the book, saying that it’s been edited to include the most relevant parts of the story, which is debatable only because it includes so much of Van Helsing banging on about nothing. Dracula’s definitely not the first vampire, but he’s by far the most popular, and the novel itself establishes many of the conventions of vampire. It’s also interesting to see which of Dracula’s vampiric abilities didn’t stick. You don’t see many vampires turning into mist these days.
3. INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE BY ANNE RICE
Moving now to what is arguably the second most influential vampire novel, Interview with the Vampire. You can bash Twilight all you want, but the weepy, sentimental, self-searching vampire begins with Louis. Before Rice’s novel, vampires were just monsters, it’s only afterward that they become more human. One thing that I really liked about this book, is that it’s a good example of Southern Gothic, because it largely takes place in New Orleans, but it moves to the vampire’s “origins” in Europe. It’s kind of cool seeing the book follow the literary tradition.
4. LOST SOULS BY POPPY Z. BRITE
I’ve mentioned this book quite a few times on here, but it’s probably my favourite vampire book. It’s a really good combination of everything that’s good about Interview and Dracula, as the vampires are truly awful in this book. At the same time, it deals directly with the fascination people have with vampires, and their subsequent unfortunate ends. New Orleans is a place of great significance in this book too. It’s a great example of Gothic horror, as is a lot of Brite’s work, though I’ve yet to read anything else by her.
5. FRANKENSTEIN BY MARY SHELLEY
Speaking of monsters, it would seem remiss not to put Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on this list. This was one of the first classics ever read in school, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I’ve read it twice now, and it features many staples of the Gothic genre: a monster, a tortured hero, a defenseless woman, dramatic landscapes…the list goes on. Arguably this, too, does a lot for humanising the monster. Regardless, it’s a really great read even if you’re not into Gothic fiction.
6. HOUSE OF LEAVES BY MARK Z. DANIELWSKI
I’m cheating a little here, because I haven’t finished reading this one yet. However, this book deals with another common Gothic theme, that of the haunted house. It also presents itself as a found document, being an essay by a man called Zampano, that’s been edited and annotated by Johnny Truant, and edited again by “The Editors”. It’s an incredibly clever book, seeming to reference books and articles that, on closer inspection, don’t actually exist. It’s more creepy than scary, and though I really must finished it soon, I think it’s a book that I’ll never really be finished with.
7. CARRIE BY STEPHEN KING
There are several King books that I could have picked, but Carrie is possibly the best example. It features excerpts from books that are meant to be read as non-fiction studies or reports of Carrie’s behaviour, and as I’ve mentioned, trying to trick readers into thinking what they’re reading is true is very common in the Gothic. The Gothic is also very self-referential; contemporary Gothic novels will almost always refer in some way to their predecessors. King’s novel opens with a description of a rain of stones, something that’s been directly lifted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s a clever book, and it’s also a really great introduction to King’s work more generally.
8. FLORENCE & GILES BY JOHN HARDING
I know I’m talking about this book far too much, but the alternative was mentioning The Turn of the Screw, which was the inspiration text for this, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. I’ll keep this brief, since I seem to be talking about it all the time. So, Florence & Giles features an old mansion, the possibility of ghosts, untrustworthy governess, absent parents and a very, very unreliable narrator.
9. WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE BY SHIRLEY JACKSON
This is a really good example of the Gothic family. The Gothic often features unusual family structures, and the Blackwood family is unusual to say the least. It consists of Merrikat, her beloved sister Constance, and their uncle Julian. They’re hated by the local village, as the rest of their family was poisoned, and Constance was initially blamed for their murder. The Blackwood family dynamic is really interesting to read about, and Merrikat is such a compelling protagonist. It’s a wonderful atmospheric, creepy read, and it’s currently being adapted into a film!
10. THE SHINING BY STEPHEN KING
I tried to avoid putting two Stephen King novels on here, but The Shining is too good to avoid mentioning. This novel also deals with haunting, both through the Overlook and through Jack himself. Again, this novel focuses on the family, but the character of most interest to me is Danny. Danny is one of many supernaturally gifted children that appear in Gothic literature, but unlike Carrie, for example, Danny’s gift is regarded as a force for good. What’s great about this book is how well the supernatural aspect of horror works with the genuine, real life horror of an abusive household. Again, if Carrie doesn’t seem to your tastes, this is a King novel well worth starting with.
If you’re interested in “classic” Gothic novels, then definitely check out Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, which was first published in 1797. I didn’t manage to finish the book, but it’s one that I’ll have to give another go eventually. It’s quite lengthy, and is seen as the founding novel as what’s come to be known as the Female Gothic—which, in a nutshell, is Gothic literature written by women, with a focus on women. Radcliffe also wrote what’s come to be known as terror-Gothic, focusing more on suspense and the psychological, versus the spectacle of horror-Gothic. Radcliffe actually wrote The Italian in response to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, which is a classic example of horror-Gothic. Lewis describes every awful event in gruesome detail. Again, this is another that I haven’t managed to read it its entirety.
Another I’ve only read excerpts of is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. While this is technically a Gothic novel, that’s only really the case because Austen is actually parodying the genre. Catherine, the protagonist, is obsessed with sensationalist novels, and through her, Austen is kind of poking fun at readers of Gothic novels.
I mentioned The Turn of the Screw, and while it isn’t a favourite of mine, the way the narration is framed is really interesting. Generally speaking, Gothic literature does very interesting things with narration, through unreliable narration or, like in The Turn of the Screw or Frankenstein through the way it frames that narrative. Aside from that, it’s very much a typical ghost story.
I’ve mentioned a lot of contemporary Gothic novels here, but only because that’s my favourite and my area of “expertise”, if you like. I wanted to mention ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, but this list has far too many vampire novels on it, and it’s essenitally a retelling of Dracula anyway. Similarly, I actually think HBO’s True Blood is a good example of contemporary Gothic, moreso than the books because it actually expands the world. True Blood does interesting things with the Southern Gothic and the vampire tradition more generally. I know a lot of people think it’s trashy and bad, but I don’t really mind. Realistically, this entire tradition of literature was considered trashy and worthless for the better part of 300 years, and now it’s possibly one of the most popular areas of study.
So that’s my (very long) list! Hopefully I’ve inspired you to pick up some Gothic literature. or given how much I’ve waffled on, maybe taught you something new about the genre. I feel like a lot of people put it off because they think it’s frightening, but for the most part I find a lot of these novels more atmospheric than scary.
If you’ve read any of these books, or otherwise have any recommendations for me, do let me know!