What is Gothic Literature?

What is Gothic Literature?


Image: by Lady Dhariyah

Many people think of the Gothic genre in literature as death obsessed. But I feel that impression is based on our death obsessed culture where the mysterious is removed leaving only the corpse without its animating light.

Gothic stories are dark, often exploring the boundary between good and evil. They are often religious, for faith is the battleground where these forces vie with each other at the highest levels. But death is never final in the Gothic tale. In fact, it is the Afterlife that is most frequently explored, even if it is that of the Damned: the vampire, werewolf, fallen angel, and the black magician who, because of his evil, wages war against God’s Creation and the natural cycles of life and death. He who knows the supernatural, knows that death is of the body only, that the soul/ spirit goes on.

As far back as Shakespeare, Gothic tales involved the lives of the European aristocracy and their issues with power, therefore the settings are luxurious, noble and remote. Lord Ruthven in John Polidori’s novel The Vampyre (1819) is rich, arrogant, selfish and gets away with it. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1898) is a great bloodthirsty warlord. Though poor, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1845) is something of a monster in human form who rises from the ashes to wreak vengeance on his childhood tormentors. E.A.Poe introduced the decaying, inbred, anti-hero to the Gothic genre.  Roderick Usher from The Fall of the House of Usher is an excellent example. There is a bit of the fairy tale in these kind of stories.

I heard a lecture once in London about how Ireland is the mother of the Gothic tale. Examples were os course, Bram Stoker, Sheridan le Fanu. When I mentioned how much of Gothic imagery reminds me of the Catholic church, I was told, no, it was an Irish Protestant movement. The wealth of the Irish Protestant elites began to decay in the late 18th century giving rise to a longing for the past.


A Literature of Loss

“The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” — Edgar Allan Poe

The loss of beauty, loss of nature, the loss of creative power, of transcendent art, history, culture, and ultimately the loss of meaning  are what I see as the fuel behind Gothic art and literature. Death is the symbol of that loss, melancholy atmospheres express the emotional pain of those who value the deeper consciousness of the past. The impulse to favor the various immortals such as ghosts, faeries, fallen angels and vampires  on the one hand represent the feelings of the outcast who cannot embrace or find meaning in what replaces that which he or she mourns. The need to believe that nothing ever really dies and perhaps still exists in some other reality leads one to recreate the lost world through imagination. Of course that other reality may only exist in art and literature which then become a way to preserve the threatened beauties by leaving a record for future generations.

The violence and fear in the Gothic tradition, sometimes verging on horror, sometimes going straight into it, often reveals the traumatic nature of loss.  Some characters, the vampire, the werewolf, may desire revenge against the destroyers, or may have been the destroyers themselves who continue to prey on their victims. The modern Vampire may seek to maintain his wealth and power by selling his soul for eternal life, the Werewolf a man or woman who seeks to maintain contact with the wild. Either of these can be reduced to mere creatures of appetite or rage.

There so many ways to explore these issues that the genre continually recreates itself and, like many of its monsters, seems to gain new life with each generation.


Gothic Tales are Life Affirming

We come full circle. The imagery of death that implies rebirth suggests the potential for a Renaissance. The human imagination is fertile and endless. That which once was can be again if we have the will to recreate beauty and deep quality, the courage and self esteem to face the darkness and the light within. Therefor the Gothic tale can be a work of Alchemy, an attempt to transform the intentional vacuousness of Post-Moderism into a new golden age of Art and beauty rooted in transcendence and radical meaningfulness.

The was once a Gothic style that was deeply Romantic. These were not just love stories, but stories of  passionate lovers, inspired artists, adventurers who go beyond the boundaries of the status quo. High drama, melodrama, the Sensation Story, were all Gothic.

Yes, the Gothic impulse is full of death, but it is never dead. Immortality, rebirth, loss and preservation, and renewal, the belief in a afterlife and therefore God are all present in this literature. Most of all beauty, even in what to many may seem strange and untoward.



Glorious Gothic Literature: A Progression in Video

Glorious Gothic Literature: A Progression in Video

These three videos show the chronological progression of Gothic Literature form Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, to Anne Rice, Stephen King, and others. Watch in full screen mode to appreciate the video creator’s choices of magnificent artwork.

Watching this progression gives greater insight into the developments of the Gothic genre, from passionate tales of Romance, like Wuthering Heights to the ever increasing darkness of Hell House.

As a fan of the older style of the Brontes and even Shakespeare, I find some developments disturbing, bringing to mind the Eyes Wide Shut kind of world where one wonders if this is really fantasy… or not.

I would love the second path to be shown: Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte, Rebecca of Daphne DuMarurier
The works of Tanith Lee and The Bloody Chamber of Angela Carter.

Maybe I’ll have to make it myself.

Gothic Novels (1 of 3)

Gothic Novels (2 of 3)

Gothic Novels (3 of 3)


The New Gothic Revival

The New Gothic Revival

I grew up an organic time, close to nature. Mothers stayed home to take care of the children. We played outside, ran through the woods, played games in the streets, stayed out until twilight when we were called in for supper. Television only came in black and white. I remember my grandparents on my father’s side, rather medieval French Canadians who took my brother and I to a cathedral to attend High Mass sung in Latin — well they had the first color TV I’d ever seen. At Christmas we gathered around it to watch the Wizard of Oz waiting in breathless anticipation for the moment when Dorothy opened the door to Oz, seen in full technicolor for the first time.

I’m not sure about other kids, but I was a voracious reader. My father encouraged me, giving me all the classics as well as the new phenomenon The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I spent my whole 10th summer reading it. For me that book paled in comparison to Titus Groan and the much more Gothic Gormenghast Trilogy. I loved fairy tales especially and not only read them, but began making up my own, writing them in pencil on lined paper while sitting in the shade of our mock orange tree. Like Jo in Little Women, II dreamed of writing books. There was a large field behind my best friend’s house with an enormous oak tree. There I would sprawl on a large branch with a book and bag of apples and spend hours reading and munching away.

When I got older, I would spend my whole allowance on books. There was a drug store in my very small town with a rack full of pocket paper backs, including collections of weird tales. They were a bit adult and disturbing for me, but I was quickly addicted. In our small local library — I might have read every book working my around the shelves — I found interesting collections of fairy tales re-tellings, and ghost stories  like The Haunted Looking Glass, including stories by Wilkie Collins, Algernon Blackwood, M.R.James, Robert Louise Stevenson, all illustrated by Edward Gorey. I never forgot the tale of The Monkey’s Paw with its warning to careful what you wish for.

Then came the years of Jane Eyre and Wuthering heights, Great Expectations, Edgar Allen Poe, and all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson… always the dark overcast, the ancient ruins, stately tombs, castles and inbred aristocratic families. There were the wild and fated romances of the Brontes and Daphne DuMaurier’s haunting Rebecca. I read Dracula every winter for years.

When I finally completed my BA degree, it was in English Literature/ Creative Writing. I was publishing poetry and won a couple of prizes for my weird creations, full of witchery and earth magic. I wanted to write fiction, but my professors taught us to be snobs and I had no desire to write mainstream fiction about failed relationships, addicts, disease and death, or being crushed by society. I began to dread expressing the ‘mood’ I was always accused of filling my poetry with. (Now I know that’s ‘atmosphere’.)

I had to move to London to find my stories. Because of my love of the British Gothic Mystery and Romance stories, I suppose it was a kind of coming home.  Living in the land of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, I was amazed to discover that they weren’t making that stuff up!

Anne Rice revived the Gothic Tradition in the 1970s with her classic Interview with a Vampire. Her books had a huge following and a powerful impact on popular culture. Lately we have had Twilight, but though Stefani Myers uses Gothic monsters like vampires and werewolves, I’m not sure her books are Gothic. What do you think?

In the 1980s I found a copy of The Bloody Chamber in a bookshop and was electrified. I wanted to write like her. In England I found Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood and I wanted to write like her. I have done so and all of the short stories I wrote under the influence of these modern Gothic authors have been published. I am unknown, so those Gothic Faery Tales are yet to be collected under one cover. Someday… Brides of Darkness shall be brought out to my dedicated fans… 🙂

Now I am releasing the novels I have been working on over the past 13 years. I aim to reignite the old Gothic style of atmosphere and suggestion, dark shadows (I used to RUN home from school to watch that!) lurking menace, doomed love and sorcery.

I do not wish to glamorize the darkness, but rather peer behind the spangled veil. What one finds there, is the essence of the Gothic thrill that has such sway in some of our imaginations.

Angela Carter werewolf image found at www.bluebeany.com

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The Roses of the Moon I – Mara