Gothic fiction is characterized by the elements of fear, horror, the supernatural and darkness, as well as by characters such as vampires, demons, heroes, heroines and villains. Other elements that characterize this type of fiction might include mystery, romance, lust and dread. This genre is the forerunner of the modern horror genre, although the Gothic style continues to have many practitioners. Originating in the late 18th century, this type of fiction was a branch of the larger Romantic movement that sought to stimulate strong emotions in the reader — fear and apprehension, in this case. The name of the genre comes from medieval architecture, because it often harks back to the medieval era in spirit and subject matter, and it sometimes uses Gothic buildings as a setting.
Common Subject Matter
This style of fiction places heavy emphasis on atmosphere, using setting and diction to build suspense and a sense of unease in the reader. Common subject matter includes the supernatural, family curses, mystery and madness. Gothic fiction might also feature a romantic plot or subplot, particularly in later incarnations from the Victorian era and the 20th century. Although the novel is often considered the best example of this genre, some poetry and short stories can also be characterized as Gothic, such as those written by the Graveyard Poets of late 18th century England or the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, which have influenced Gothic writers ever since they were published.
Times and Places
Gothic fiction often deals with past eras, sometimes romanticizing them and other times using them as symbols of excessive darkness and oppression. In its early days, the genre took the medieval period as a major inspiration. Early novels were characterized as romances, referencing a medieval narrative genre. These novels were often anti-Catholic and used a medieval setting to showcase what their authors believed to be abuses of Catholic power. Conversely, early Gothic fiction often romanticized the medieval period by adopting the style of its literature and returning to more emotional, fantastical subject matter instead of embracing the rationalism and order that had dominated Enlightenment thought.
Modern examples of this type of fiction have continued the tendency to look to past eras, often using such settings as colonial America, Victorian England or the pre-Civil War southern United States. Like the medieval period to many writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, these eras offer fodder for romanticization and moral criticism. Modern Gothic works set in the present day might take place in a 19th century mansion, much in the way that early works commonly used medieval castles as their settings.
Gothic novels were among the most popularly read fiction of the late 18th century, with notable examples including Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764, Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794 and M. G. Lewis' The Monk in 1796. Although it was less popular during the Victorian era, 19th-century Gothic fiction was among the best-known and most-read literature of the late 20th century and early 21st century, including works by writers such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily and Anne Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oscar Wilde. The vampire, one of the favorite stock characters of this genre of fiction, appeared in several important works of this era, including John Polidori's The Vampyre, Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
In modern literature, the more intense and gory horror favored by writers such as Stephen King has largely taken the place of this genre. Gothic fiction, however, has continued to have a faithful following, and its influence can be noted in literature, film and music. Many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, as well as the books and stories on which they were based, could be considered Gothic. Writers such as William Faulkner, Harper Lee and Tennessee Williams applied the style to their treatment of the American South. Some contemporary authors, including Joyce Carol Oates and Patrick McGrath, have continued to write in the Gothic tradition or to update it to address their own concerns.