A Beginner’s Guide to Gothic Fantasy
With spooky season upon us, many of us are craving some dark and creepy reads. And some readers, regardless of season, are always on the lookout for some dark fantastical elements (*waves*). Bring on the haunted houses, the creeptastic monsters, the windswept moors, and the shadowy magic with gothic fantasy!
What is Gothic Fantasy?
Gothic literature emerged in Europe in the late 18th century from the romantic literary movement. It’s characterized by passionate emotion—pleasure and terror alike, darkly lush scenery, macabre elements, and an eerie atmosphere. Gothic fantasy is a sub-genre of both gothic fiction and fantasy, and a strict definition is difficult to pin down. Gertrude Barrows Bennett (known by her pseudonym Francis Stevens) is usually credited as the woman who invented the sub-genre of gothic fantasy.
There is a lot of overlap with gothic horror, and many gothic horror books are often categorized also as gothic fantasy. Gothic fantasy tends to be grittier, bloodier, more shadowy, and creepier than your usual fantasy novel. Gothic fantasy includes many of the key elements of gothic fiction and gothic horror, only with a fantastical bent. Take the rundown country manor, combine with a bleak foreboding environment, add a dreadful atmosphere, throw in some high emotions and passions, then add a dash of magic and you’ve got a recipe for gothic fantasy!
The Best Gothic Fantasy Books
Let’s check out ten of our favorite books that fit the Gothic fantasy bill.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
Catherine’s brother is a Victorian missionary to the land of the fae. His sister Catherine begins to suspect that something has gone awry in the magical land of Arcadia when his letters become strange and sporadic. When given the opportunity to see him, she makes the journey to Arcadia herself. There, Catherine finds herself alone in a creepy house in the middle of the foggy moors, where she discovers that the fae are not quite the fairytale folk she imagined them to be. With a mix of eerie fantasy and Christian theology, this story is a lush and creepy trip!
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
In a puritanical society where Immanuelle is already an outsider, she does her best to follow Holy Protocol by leading a life of submission and conformity. But Immanuelle has dark powers, making her very existence a blasphemous to the Church’s teachings. When she finds her dead mother’s diary in the woods, Immanuelle begins to unravel the truth about the Church and its history and her mother’s connection with the witches.
The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
Pitched as Hocus Pocus meets Practical Magic meets the Salem Witch Trials, this is a prime example of a gothic fantasy novel. Centuries ago in the cursed down of Sparrow, three sisters were sentenced to death by drowning for witchcraft. But every summer, the three sisters return, stealing of bodies of three weak-willed girls to lure boys into the water and pull them under.
Claimed by Francis Stevens
From the inventor of dark fantasy is this classic gothic fantasy novel. A new landmass is formed when the Atlantic erupts with lava. The crew from a passing ship investigate the new land and discover an enigmatic box with a mysterious inscription. Strange, since the island only just appeared! The box passes from person to person, and a creepy and eerie fate seems to follow all who come in contact with the box until the true owner comes forth!
House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
“In a manor by the sea, twelve sisters are cursed.” A creepy retelling of Twelve Dancing Princesses comes alive in this gothic young adult fantasy with teenaged Annaleigh and her sisters. In a manor by the sea, Annaleigh lives with her dad, stepmother, and sisters. One by one, the sisters are dying in increasingly tragic and untimely deaths. Annaleigh’s nights are disturbed by strange visions and ghosts, and when she finds out that her sisters have been sneaking out of the manor at night to attend mysterious balls, she isn’t sure whether to join them or stop them. Annaleigh must figure out who her sisters have been dancing with and the meaning of her ghostly visions before the curse claims her next.
The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray by E. Latimer
Lemony Snicket meets Edgar Allen Poe in this creepy middle grade novel inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray. Bryony Gray is a famous young painter in London, and her uncle keeps her locked in the attic where she is forced to paint for his rich clients. But when her uncle’s customers mysterious begin to go missing, Bryony suspects that her paintings may have taken on a life of their own. As Bryony investigates, she discovers that she has accidentally released the Gray family curse, and it’s up to her to break it.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
A graphic novel set in an art-deco steampunk alternate 20th century Asia, this gothic fantasy is a mashup of Asian and European mythologies. Set in the aftermath of a terrible war between humans and animal hybrids called Arcanics. Arcanics are sold as slaves and even experimented upon by the witch-nuns for the life-giving Lilium that they produce. Seventeen-year-old Arcanic Maika has dark secrets in her past and is looking for revenge for her people. After infiltrating a stronghold, freeing captured Arcanics, and brutally attacking the witch-nuns, Maika goes on the run and discovers the limits of the awful power she possesses.
Grim Lovelies by Megan Shepherd
The Pretties live in an opulent society with beautiful fashion, fast cars, and the freedom to fall in love. Unfortunately for 17-year-old Anouk, she’s not really human. Anouk is a Beastie, an animal enchanted to be a human girl who is not permitted to leave her Parisian prison. There, she serves an evil witch mistress who brought her to life. But when Anouk finds the witch in a pool a blood, she is accused of the crime. Grim Lovelies follows Anouk as she goes on the run through Paris pursued by a magical underground society, and Anouk has only three days to find the real killer before the spell that keeps her human fades away.
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
In a small southern town, Lena struggles to hide her powers and the curse that has haunted her family for generations. Meanwhile Ethan has been plagued by dreams about an enchanting girl he has never met. When Ethan meets Lena, he is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover what connection is between them. And within murky swamps and crumbling graveyards, it’s hard for secrets to stay hidden.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
I will read anything that Leigh Bardugo touches, and her foray from YA into adult did not disappoint. Alex dropped out of school and dropped into a world of shadiness with drug-dealing boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and worse. When Alex is the suspect in a multiple homicide, a mysterious benefactor offers her a second chance, and she finds herself as a student at Yale on a full-ride scholarship. Alex is tasked by her benefactor with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies, which prove more sinister and extraordinary than Alex could have imagined. Ninth House is one of my favorite books with a deliciously dark atmosphere and twisty and immersive story.
If gothic literature suits your fancy around Halloween or any time of year, check out some more of our favorite gothic fiction and gothic horror novels!