Do not read this in the darkness, when silence embalms the world, and the most you can hear is the wind through the trees. You never know the ghosts you will summon and the spirits that you will inadvertently invoke. But perhaps you enjoy the macabre, the aura of gloom and despondency that envelopes narratives of horror. These spine-chilling thrills are not just effects of modern-day horror movies but found their origins in days of yore long gone by, much like the stories they reside in.
Gothic novels are breeding grounds for such elements and yet the stories they tell often do not match the peaks of their own history. Raring for blood and readers right out of its womb, the Gothic Novel has shaped pop culture since its inception and deserves a memoir of its own.
Growing up, we were lulled to sleep by the fear of being eaten by monsters who consume bad children. These were tales passed on by generations of insomniacs, some smoothening out into bedtime stories, others sculpting themselves into dark celebrations. Our pasts are fraught with Celtic druids, Hindu Tantrics, Christian Exorcists and innumerable gods of Death.
When it came to death, the medieval ages were especially calamitic, plagued by diseases, witch-hunts and wars. There was no end to the innocent lives lost; there was no certainty to life itself. Medieval Europe itself arose because of the Goths, an early Germanic people who became notorious for their role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
As time progresses, names are forgotten, monuments crumble, and reality becomes a game of Chinese Whispers. Barbarians were originally just foreigners, their name tarnished by xenophobic Greeks. With only bloodshed left to forward their legacy, Goths soon found themselves turned into the modern meaning of ‘barbarian’.
Tales of such ‘Goths’ and gore lasted for centuries, Shakespeare himself being a patron of ghosts and witchcraft in his plays, but it was Horace Walpole who pioneered the namesake genre, with his 1764 novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto’, subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’. Thus began a culture that would define fiction for centuries ahead.
Capricious Counts and Caliphs
The Castle of Otranto is an extremely melodramatic affair. It follows the lord of the eponymous castle and his debauchery as his hapless family suffer and die one after the other. The novel is a treatise on pessimism, yet the cross between realism and the supernatural is one that enchants, even as rival lords marry and kill each other’s daughters.
Readers were not the only ones enchanted by the crumbling palace and children of Sin. In 1777, Clara Reeve wrote ‘The Old English Baron’ and William Beckford followed up with ‘The History of the Caliph Vathek’ in 1782. Both followed members of the bourgeoise entangled in cold, rambling places, with dead friends, conniving enemies and forbidden loves, lost in paths where they could not distinguish good from evil. As Reeve put it, her book was “distinguished by the appellation of a Gothic Story, being a picture of Gothic times and manners.’
Many more authors followed suit, bringing their expertise in to help chisel and structure this brand new genre. Ann Radcliffe introduced brooding villains and the ‘explained supernatural’, giving each seemingly inexplicable event a natural cause, earning the title ‘The Great Enchantress’.
As each element was named and embraced, the Gothic Novel had come into its own.
Preternatural Poe and Poets
Much like the greedy ghosts that reside in it, Gothic fiction immediately set about consuming literature. People loved romance – not in the context of love specifically, but the fanciful aura and fantastical sentiments propagated by the style. They also, however, loved realism and characters who spoke in their own tongues, succumbing to vices that they themselves were guilty of.
From psychological studies like ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman to overt horror like Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, this was more than a genre – it was a literary overlord with its fingers in each pie, and it affected more than just pop culture. Frankenstein and Dracula are still beloved to the horror genre today, and by making her anti-heroine, a woman wronged by her sexist doctor and disbelieving husband, Gilman made a massive contribution to the feminist movement. She owned the element of emotional distress, unlike any other.
Edgar Allan Poe made Gothic literature bow to him with every stroke of his pen. Horror stories like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and ‘The Oval Portrait’ still send shivers down readers’ spines. His poetry about loss and despair, notably ‘Annabel Lee’ and ‘The Raven’ stand alongside the works of other Gothic poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron’s ‘Don Juan’. Poe also pioneered murder mysteries with ‘The Murders in Rue Morgue’, which would go on to influence the dreary deaths is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series.
The Bronte sisters also cemented their names in time by putting their strong free-spirited females in large rumbling mansions. Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ was a child most true to its parent genre – with the unattainable Cathy and miserable anti-hero Heathcliff, a mansion worn down by the unsavoury sights it had witnessed, and a gullible narrator discovering worse things every second. Charlotte’s mad and depressed characters from ‘Jane Eyre’ and Anne’s headstrong protagonist ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ also made quite a set.
It is almost impossible to detail the reach of the genre, from horror to mystery to romance and even comedy, of which Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’ is a great example. All notable authors could mark Gothic influences, and this is how the ‘classics’ we know of were shaped.
Modern Mysteries and Contemporary Corpses
One of the most tragic facts about life is that fewer people read every day. A minor consolation is that our tastes haven’t changed – it’s just that visual media is more revered today. This itself, however, has plenty of proof that Gothic elements still survive, strongly at that. Stephen King, the acclaimed novelist responsible for influencing phenomenal movies like ‘It’ and ‘The Shining’ has wielded these elements multiple times. Agatha Christie wholeheartedly embraced large mansions, a sentiment echoed by the recent film ‘Knives Out’, and psychological thrillers often exit theatres with too many awards to hold.
Legends change over time, morphing themselves to win the hearts of their contemporaries. As the world blossomed, the stories graduated from whispers over bonfires to splashes of ink on paper and eventually to images on their screens. People flocked to stories of every hue, but the dark tones subtly shrouded in mystery were the ones that spoke to all ages alike. The original Goths are long forgotten, but the literature that invoked their name lives on to this day, forever haunting readers with its ethereal coldness and dark beauty.
~ Written by Ankitha Giridhar for MTTN
~ Featured image by Darssh Dave for MTTN