The Dark Allure of Gothic Literature

By Posted in - On Reading & On Writing on April 8th, 2010 6 Comments

This week I participated in an engrossing #LitChat discussion of Gothic Romance and an hour just wasn’t enough time to explore all the questions that came up so I thought we’d continue the chat on #ScribeChat, the chat for writers that I host every Thursday for The ScribeChat Review.

Now, lads, before you throw up your arms and run away screaming thinking this is only for the girls, I’ve got to tell you that Gothic Romance isn’t what it sounds like.The ‘romance’ refers to the genre’s genesis as a throwback to the medieval romantic movement, but with a dark twist, and only took off in the late 18th and 19th centuries in England as a genre that combines elements of both horror and romance (as in legends and courtliness).

In this 18th and 19th century re-emergence, Gothic romances were mysteries, moving away from the fantastic and magical realms of the medieval romances and into the realm of the eerie. Often involving the supernatural and heavily tinged with horror, they were frequently set against dark backgrounds of medieval ruins and haunted castles.

Characteristics of the Romantic:

  • The Romance is of loftier origin than the novel and approximating poetry.
  • Standards are very much those of the epic
  • Invests individuals with an absorbing interest, hurries them rapidly through crowding and exacting events in a narrow space of time, requiring unities of plan, purpose and harmony of parts
  • Seeks for its adventures among the wild and wonderful, not confining itself to what is known, or even what is probable, grasping instead at the possible.
  • Places a character in hitherto untried situations and exercises ingenuity in extricating him from them, describing his feelings and fortunes in the process.

(Adapted from William Gilmore Simm’s prefatory letter to The Yemassee, quoted in Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition, p. 16)

Characteristics of the Gothic:

  • An atmosphere of gloom, terror, or mystery
  • Elements of the uncanny (unheimlich) that challenge reality, including mysterious events that cause the protagonist to question the evidence of his or her senses and the presence of seemingly supernatural beings
  • An exotic setting isolated in time or space from contemporary life, often a ruined mansion or castle. The building may be associated with past violence and contain hidden doors, subterranean secret passages, concealed staircases, and other such features.
  • Events, often violent or macabre, that cannot be hidden or rationalized despite the efforts of the narrator.
  • A disturbed or unnatural relation between the orders of things that are usually separate, such as life and death, good and evil, dream life and reality, or rationality and madness.
  • A hidden or double reality beneath the surface of what at first appears to be a single narrative.
  • An interrupted narrative form that relies on multiple methods—inserted documents, letters, dreams, fragments of the story told by several narrators—to tell the tale.

(Definition supplied by Dr. Donna Campbell at the WSU website)

In many ways, the 19th century version of the genre was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the darkness of the settings and the sense of decay reflecting the pessimism many felt about the environmental and lifestyle changes being wrought by global industrialization. It provoked a quest for atmosphere in a world where the machine threatened craftsmanship in its race for homogeneity and mass production.

Yet despite this doom and gloom, as a literary offshoot of the Romantic Movement, Gothic literature also embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness, awe of the sublime, admiration of the grand or heroic, and a quest for atmosphere. In the ruins of gothic buildings were represented the inevitable decay and collapse of human creations. English Gothic writers often associated medieval buildings with what they saw as a dark and terrifying period, characterized by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious, fantastic, and superstitious rituals.

Today, many people once more feel that we live in a maelstrom of change, that technology is moving faster than we are, and that there’s little time to think about the path we’re on developmentally. So what do we see? A re-emergence of dystopian novels and gothic literature reveals that writers, ever the litmus paper of social change, explore the beast within by exploring beasts on the page. By facing the shadows of decay and mortality in literature, we are more able to appreciate the light of life.

Of course, not all writers are aware of the reasons why they’re drawn to this genre. For some it’s merely a personal preference for the dark and dangerous, for living vicariously on the edge in a way they wouldn’t dare to do in real life.

Explore WSU’s site for a more complete academic definition.

{ Why do you read or write Gothic literature? Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing for an online gift card to feed your reading habit }

Tonight #ScribeChat will ask the following:

  • What are the primary elements of gothic literature?
  • How much or how little have these elements changed since the genre’s early beginnings?
  • What is the source of its enduring commercial appeal?
  • What are your favorite traditional and contemporary gothic reads?
  • Is Hannibal Lecter a Gothic romance? Or horror?
  • Why do you think this genre has such a hold on the young adult market?

Special Guest:

Read the transcript:

Want to know how to join future chats?

  • Go to: SCRIBECHAT (at 6-7 pm Pacific or 9-10 pm Eastern)
  • Sign in using your Twitter id


Prominent features of Gothic fiction include:

Terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernaturalghostshaunted houses and Gothic architecturecastlesdarknessdeathdecaydoublesmadnesssecrets, and hereditary curses.

The stock characters of Gothic fiction include:

TyrantsvillainsbanditsmaniacsByronic heroespersecuted maidensfemmes fatalesmonksnuns,madwomenmagiciansvampireswerewolvesmonstersdemonsangelsfallen angelsrevenants, ghosts,perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew and the Devil himself.

Examples of Early Gothic Romantic Literature:

Victorian Gothic Literature:

Contemporary Gothic Literature:

Contemporary Gothic Young Adult Literature:

Satire of the genre:

Useful Links:

(6) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Raquel Byrnes - Reply

    April 8, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I agree, there is something so alluring about those old homes, superstitions and traditions. Turn of the Screw, Stir of Echoes, The Lottery…those are some of my favorite bone chillers. Great topic.
    .-= Raquel Byrnes´s last blog ..G is for Genre Hopping =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    April 8, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Oooh, yes, great additions to the list, Raquel! Anyone else got more bone-chilling favs? We're not just talking about horror or ghosties here, it's more than that—more like the way one feels fascinated, almost in love, with the thing one fears most…

  • JJ - Reply

    April 8, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Based on last night's Scribechat, I have decided that you and I are like…the same person and that we must become friends.

    That is all. 🙂
    .-= JJ´s last blog ..Literary Fiction =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    April 9, 2010 at 7:54 am

    HA! I feel the same way, JJ! You even have me half convinced I should try skydiving…

  • JJ - Reply

    April 10, 2010 at 6:28 am

    You should indeed try skydiving! There are some great dropzones out in California. 🙂
    .-= JJ´s last blog ..Literary Fiction =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    April 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Do you know of any reputable teams that won't kill me on the first drop?

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