I love Gothic fiction. This isn’t a surprise if you’ve read my post on psychogeography, but it bears repeating. Books that fall within the Gothic genre are some of my favorites, some of the books I come back to repeatedly. There are a lot of reasons to love gothic fiction, but chief among them is the way that it is often used to hold a mirror up to society and reflect back our darkest fears.
Gothic fiction can generally be described as fiction that "[has] a prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror" (Britannica). In addition to having elements of horror, the Gothic is often highly emotional as well, sometimes including elements of romance. The unofficial starting point for Gothic fiction is often cited as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (British Library). Walpole's novel introduces some of the key features of Gothic fiction: supernatural elements, dark and atmospheric settings, and strange or unsettling architecture, such as decaying castle ruins.
Despite the first instance of Gothic being written by a man, it is a unique genre in how heavily influenced it was by the work of women writers. Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are among some of the landmark works in Gothic fiction. In addition, many women writers also used elements of Gothic fiction in their own writing. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is heavily influenced by Gothic fiction, in particular in its use of strange and unsettling architecture, and its emotionally overwrought tone. Jane Austen parodied the Gothic fiction trend with her novel Northanger Abbey, which references several Gothic novels and uses many of the typical elements of Gothic fiction, though it does not itself fit into the genre. That said, there are also many famous works of Gothic fiction written by men, including Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Bram Stoker's Dracula, as well as the many short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.
Many Gothic works focus on the things that unsettle us and make us uncomfortable. For instance, in the 1800s, there was a lot of anxiety about being able to tell whether or not someone was really dead. Among other inventions and practices, things like the "safety coffin" were invented to help ensure that the dead were really dead. Essentially, these "safety coffins" were designed with ventilation shafts or mechanisms to signal that one was still alive such as bells (see Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris's amazing blog for more). There was a real and serious anxiety about the dead not really staying dead. We see this manifest in books like Dracula, where vampires are the embodiment of a contradictory state of being undead. Zombies similarly express the anxiety about the line between life and death and whether it can ever be blurred. Other popular Gothic anxieties include the fear of doubles or doppelgängers, as expressed in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as works like Poe's William Wilson. The Gothic is constantly putting pressure on the things that make us uncomfortable. From potential incest in The Fall of the House of Usher, to xenophobia in Dracula, or fears of miscegenation in Frankenstein, the Gothic takes everything ugly and unsettling and amplifies it.
These works have formed an indelible influence on our culture. You don't need to have read Dracula to be familiar with the story. The reason that Gothic fiction continues to have relevance is that many of our fears have not changed. So many of our anxieties are deeply rooted and, therefore, have stood the test of time. The legacy of these works can still be seen in modern horror, Southern Gothic fiction, and supernatural fiction. So, if you find yourself unsure of what book to pick up next, I thoroughly encourage you to pick up something Gothic!