A Bluffer’s Guide to the Gothic – Part 1: Origins

The Gothic. A 250 year old genre that is still with us, like a revenant that will not lie quietly in its tomb. And yet for many it remains mysterious, something that people have heard of but have no great familiarity with. I am writing now to bring the curious on a journey through the history of the form. Join me if you dare, but beware: this is a domain of horrors, not for those of a nervous or over-imaginative disposition. To see if you will be able to endure the ungodly monstrosities of the Gothic, you may first wish to tentatively explore this strange world by reading How to tell you’re reading a gothic novel – in pictures, prepared for The Guardian by Adam Frost and Zhenia Vasiliev.

The story of the Gothic begins with The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel. Set long ago and far away in mediaeval Italy, the book was initially published as a record of true but fanciful events. The novel introduces many of the staples of the genre: an ancient and crumbling castle, ancestral curses, a swooning heroine, and a sinister aristocratic villain. The book also features the bizarre supernatural elements that the genre is known for, notably an early scene in which a giant helmet falls from the sky, killing one of the main characters.

The Castle of Otranto‘s success soon spawned imitators. One of the first of these was The Old English Baron, Clara Reeve’s 1778 novel. Reeve attempted to curb what she saw as Walpole’s excesses, while still describing her book as the “literary offspring” of Otranto. Reeve brings the Gothic to mediaeval England, downplaying the supernatural elements but retaining the conceit that the book is a mediaeval manuscript to which she has added a modern commentary. Another early imitator of Walpole was Ann Radcliffe, who enjoyed great popularity with her many novels, including The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797). Radcliffe kept the foreign settings but also downplayed supernatural elements, often revealing apparent hauntings to be hoaxes perpetrated by villains to terrify their enemies. She also introduced overt anti-Catholic elements to the stories, which played well in Protestant England.
William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) takes the Gothic in a radically different direction, telling of a decadent Caliph who renounces Islam to embark on a quest for forbidden knowledge, thereby engaging in a series of ever more depraved acts. Vathek is not actually that great a book and Beckford himself is more interesting than his literary creation; he was an incredibly rich eccentric who lived alone in Fonthill Abbey, a giant mansion of his own design, noted for his art collection but also for his scandalous private life. Beckford’s wealth derived from the ownership of plantations and slaves in Jamaica, making him a problematic figure for modern readers.

And then in 1796 The Monk appeared. This novel by Matthew Lewis drew on the anti-Catholicism of Ann Radcliffe but added an important new element: sexual titillation. The main character is a supposedly pious Spanish monk who is seduced from a life of chaste piety and tempted into ever more terrible acts of sexual depravity. Condemned by many as fundamentally immoral and wicked, the book nevertheless caused a sensation.

As the 18th century gave way to the 19th, the Gothic showed no signs of fading away and expanded its reach into continental Europe with German and French authors producing their own works in the genre. From far Poland Jan Potocki gave us The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (published incrementally from 1805). By 1817 Gothic literature was recognisable enough to be parodied in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which the heroine has read so many Gothic romances that she begins to fear that she herself has become a character in such a story. The list of “horrid” novels that the heroine is advised to read serves as a guide to the lurid literature then being read by respectable young ladies.

But in 1816 occurred an event that was to radically transform the Gothic and literature generally. A group of English travellers found themselves staying in the Swiss Villa Diodati during a period of bad weather. Initially they amused themselves by reading ghost stories, but then they attempted to compose their own. From these morbid attempts John Polidori produced The Vampyre, arguably the first modern vampire story, which enjoyed great success as readers believed it had been written by Lord Byron (also present at the villa, though his attempts to write a macabre tale failed to produce fruit); it was also rumoured that the story was autobiographical, revealing Byron’s true nature.

Mary Shelley was also in the Villa Diodati with Byron and Polidori, and the story she generated over those fateful days went on to unimaginable success. Finally published in 1818, when she was just 20 years old, her novel Frankenstein tells of a man whose scientific experiments allow him to bring a living, breathing, intelligent being into existence. Frankenstein retains key elements of the Gothic novels that had preceded it: the obsessive anti-hero, a sense of the terrible dangers that ensue if divine law is broken, and the inevitability of a terrible fate. However, it is also a new kind of book, clearly drawing on Shelley’s own progressive world view and a post-Enlightenment belief in science. That Frankenstein brings his monster into being through scientific endeavours and not magic or necromancy has led to the book being hailed subsequently as the first science fiction novel. Shelley would go on to write other books (notably The Last Man (1826), in which a plague wipes out humanity), but it is with Frankenstein that she made an indelible mark on the literary history of the world.

Despite the scientific road opened by Frankenstein, the Gothic largely remained a domain of the macabre and supernatural. 1824 saw the Irish author Charles Maturin publish Melmoth the Wanderer, in which Melmoth has sold his soul to the Devil in return for greatly prolonged life, with the possibility that he can escape damnation only if he finds someone who will take on his pact. The same year saw the appearance of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by the Scottish writer James Hogg. Like Melmoth and many other of these Gothic novels, Hogg’s book employs meta-narrative tricks, presenting itself as found documents from the late 17th and early 18th century. First we have a narrative reporting on a series of strange events, and then we have what appears to be the private memoirs of a central character in those events. Gothic novels were often set on the European continent, allowing the author to present a lurid view of Catholicism (hypocritical monks, the depredations of the Inquisition, etc.), but Hogg turns his critical gaze to the beliefs of his Calvinist countrymen. The narrator of the private memoirs comes to see himself as one of the Elect, chosen by God for salvation. As a result he can commit any crime without risking his eternal soul; much depravity ensues.

The key figure in the Gothic literature of the mid-19th century is Edgar Allan Poe. This American’s stories deal with obsessive psychological states; premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and the tragic death of a beautiful woman are recurring themes. At times there is also a dark humour to his work, witnessed not just by the stories’ contents but their manner of publication, with many of the stories purporting to be non-fictional accounts of real events. Their contents run the gamut from traditional Gothic concerns with the horrors of the Spanish inquisition to contemporary interest in pseudosciences such as mesmerism. His life was cut short in mysterious circumstances in 1849, but he left behind an impressive body of work including the stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “William Wilson” (1839), “Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “The Premature Burial” (1844), “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), and the poem “The Raven” (1845).

By now the Gothic had so suffused the world of literature that books were appearing that were not necessarily Gothic as such but nevertheless showed clear signs of the genre’s influence. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) is ostensibly a multi-generational love story, but the elemental nature of its characters’ passions and the brooding intensity of Heathcliff show a Gothic sensibility. So in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) do Ahab’s obsessive desire for vengeance and the all-pervading atmosphere of doom as the novel approaches its climax. Victorian sensation novels were also tinged by the Gothic, with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman In White (1859) an exemplary example of the sub-genre, with its sinister yet charming Italian villain and a disreputable aristocrat who will do anything to prevent the revelation of his mysterious secret. The Woman In White is also interesting for having a typically insipid heroine who has to be rescued from the villains, but also for having another female protagonist whose fortitude and intelligence are key to the thwarting of their dark machinations.
The Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu also wrote in the sensation style, with his Uncle Silas (1864) seeing a young heiress striving to protect herself from the scheming uncle who covets her inheritance. In A Glass Darkly (1872), his collection of linked short stories, sees a return to more unambiguously Gothic themes. ‘Green Tea’ is a tale of psychological horror reminiscent of Poe’s fiction, while ‘The Familiar’ and ‘Mr. Justice Harbottle’ deal with vengeance from beyond the grave, but still featuring an ambiguity as to whether the ghosts are real or the product of a guilty conscience. Most celebrated though is the anthology’s long novella ‘Carmilla’, in which Le Fanu returns to the theme of the vampire. The eponymous Carmilla is a female vampire who preys on teenage girls, with the story containing a subtle eroticism but also a sense of the sadness and loneliness of the vampire’s existence. The story played an important part in moving vampire tales from dealing with monsters of a purely predatory nature to ones that were alluring and also perhaps to be pitied as much as feared.

As the 19th century drew towards its end, the idea took root in certain quarters that the astonishing progress seen in the world’s leading nations was coming to a close, with the associated fear that decadence was now setting in and with it the inevitable decline and fall of civilisation. Gothic fiction, with its focus on decay and the relics of the ancient past, was well-placed to exploit this sense of malaise. H. Rider Haggard’s novel She (1886) does not deal with the fall of western civilisation but nevertheless taps into this sense of civilisational decline. In the book, the protagonists travel to a lost civilisation in an unexpored part of Africa, where an immortal sorceress rules over a ruined city inhabited by a degenerate people. Seen as a leading example of the “imperial gothic” sub-genre, She contains much to unpick regarding Victorian attitudes to race and gender relations but remains a work of great imaginative power.

1886 also saw the appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This starts with characters trying to explain the association between the highly respected Dr Jekyll and the foul and bestial Hyde, an association made all the more disconcerting by the strange hold Hyde appears to have on the doctor. Frequent retellings have reduced the story almost to a cliche (few modern readers approach the book ignorant of the awful truth), but Victorian readers must have imagined that the relationship was one of blackmail, perhaps with the shocking involvement of unnatural vice. That the book’s reveal hinges on scientific experiments rather than magic makes Jekyll and Hyde something of a descendant of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like that book it also deals with the recurring Gothic theme of the divided self or doppelgänger (see also The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, some of Poe’s fiction, Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose” (1836) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella The Double).

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) also deals with a divided self, in this case a man who manages to export onto a painting the moral and physical consequences of his life of decadent indulgence. One should be wary of assuming that books relate to the lives of their writers, but in 1890 Wilde was only a few years away from the court cases that would destroy him and was perhaps conscious that unlike Dorian Gray he did not have a painting to take the rap for him.

Arguably the last great flowering of the nineteenth century Gothic comes from Wilde’s fellow Irishman, Bram Stoker, who in 1897 unleashed Dracula onto the world. Like Shelley before him, Stoker gave birth to a character who has long outlived him, with the Transylvanian count growing and changing as he is reimagined in later retellings. Looking back to the original novel, however, one can see how revolutionary it must have appeared in its year of publication. It starts with familiar Gothic tropes: the crumbling and ancient castle in a faraway land, the mysterious and sinister aristocrat, and an increasing sense that some terrible horror is afoot, but then the narrative shifts, bringing the horror to England itself and unleashing Dracula into a modern world of solicitors, telegrams and phonographs. Like many of the other works mentioned here, the novel is presented as a collection of found documents: diary entries, telegrams, letters, etc. And despite what is at times a clunkiness to the novel, it contains moments of genuine horror at the intrusion into the civilised world of Dracula’s ungodly depredations. The book’s attitude to sexual matters and gender relations has also proved to be endlessly analysable.

That brings me to the end of the 19th century. Join me soon in part two of my guide to the Gothic, in which I will examine how the form fared in the 20th century and beyond.

image sources:

The Castle of Otranto title page (Wikipedia)

Fonthill Abbey (Wikipedia)

An illustration from The Monk (Amino: The Monk by Matthew Lewis (Book review))

Frontispiece for 1831 edition of Frankenstein (Wikipedia: Frankenstein’s monster)

Harry Clarke illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (The Public Domain Review: Harry Clarke’s Illustrations for Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1919))

D. H. Friston illustration for “Carmilla”, 1872 (Wikipedia)

Ayesha unveils, by Maurice Greiffenhagen, from a 1912 edition of She (Visual Haggard: She, New Impression (1911) Reissue)

1st US edition of Dracula (1899) (Wikipedia)

1/1/1818 “Frankenstein”: the dawn of science fiction

Two hundred years ago today the novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published. Its author was the 20 year old Mary Shelley. The novel’s strange gestation is well-known. Shelley and others, including her lover Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, were staying in the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Seeking to amuse themselves, they endeavoured to create ghost stories. In a dream Shelley imagined a scientist engaged in the process of creating life; the thought horrified her and from the dream came the novel.

Frankenstein is sometimes hailed as the first science fiction novel. The eponymous scientist creates his Creature not through magic but through science, though the exact processes by which he does so are not described (supposedly to prevent readers from replicating his obscene experiments). Nowadays most people know Frankenstein through its many film adaptations but the novel has its charms and is worth exploring. Much of the book deals with Shelley’s progressive social and political ideas, with a recurring question being whether the Creature is an evil monster or an unfortunate driven to terrible acts by the rejection of its creator.

Shelley’s later writings may well have produced better books than her first novel. Nevertheless, in Frankenstein she created stories and characters that have become modern myths, cautionary tales for us of the dangers of unfettered science.

image sources:

Title page of Frankenstein first edition (Wikipedia: Frankenstein)

Frankenstein’s Creature, by Marek Oleksicki, from the comic Frankenstein’s Womb, by Warren Ellis & Marek Oleksicki (Marek Oleksicki on Behance)