What is Gothic Horror?
On a hill there is a house. In the attic there is a ghost. On the moors there is a wolf. In the woods there are monsters. In the house there is a lonely woman.
Pinning down what, precisely, makes a story gothic horror is a tricky task. Is it the house? To be certain, I have never seen a gothic horror story that doesn’t have a location as a primary character, and often antagonist. Is it the woman? It seems likely that there are one or two stories that fall under the genre and center a non-female character. Is it the terrifying sense of foreboding? Well, now we are onto something.
The New York Public Library traces the roots of gothic fiction to Horace Walpole’s 1764 The Castle of Otranto. They say: “The battle between humanity and unnatural forces of evil (sometimes man-made, sometimes supernatural) within an oppressive, inescapable, and bleak landscape is considered to be the true trademark of a gothic horror novel.” Gothic romance, which can have a happier ending, tends to focus on a relationship in peril (see: Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Dragonwyck), so it follows that gothic horror focus not on a romantic relationship but on other personal (and sometimes external) demons.
Unlike its sister genre, gothic horror almost never has a happy ending—at least not in a traditional sense; who is to say that Eleanor is not happy at the end of The Haunting of Hill House?
A gothic horror story should fill you with unease in its quieter passages and full-on dread at other times. Here are a few examples of the best of the genre.
Classic Gothic Horror
The Sandman, The Nutcracker, and Other Dark Fairy Tales by E.T.A. Hoffman
You may not associate Hoffman with the gothic, or even know his name, but you are very likely familiar with popular adaptations of his work. He wrote “The Nutcracker,” among other stories, and I would be very surprised to meet someone who is not at least passingly familiar with Tchaikovsky’s ballet score. There is a new volume of his stories forthcoming, but it does not yet seem to be available. Suffice to say they are simultaneously more terrifying and more absurd than you might expect.
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by Carmen Maria Machado
I recommend this version specifically, for the reasons Danika lays out here. The original Le Fanu story, released first as a serial and later as a book, is one of the earliest vampire novels, predating Dracula. In the new edition, Machado plays William Goldman to Le Fanu’s S. Morgenstern, but instead of distilling the book down to a good parts version she adds new (fictional) context and increases the gayness.
Castle Eppstein by Alexandre Dumas
I have not yet read this one, but based on the description I can’t wait. In the House von Eppstein, women die on Christmas eve but continue to live a half-life and can return on the anniversary of their death. Count Maximilian von Eppstein kills his wife Albina in childbirth, believing that the child is not his. Albina lovingly “haunts” her son Everard, who is brought up by a forester and falls in love with the forester’s daughter Rosamund, causing the count to rage as Albina tries to stop him.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The mysterious Count Dracula moves to London and strange things start happening to and around Mina Murray, her fiancé Jonathan Harker, and her best friend Lucy Westenra. Although preceded by both Carmilla and Varney, Dracula’s popularity brought vampires and the gothic together in the collective mind.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein creates a sentient and intelligent creature which he then abandons. The creature frames Justine, who works for the family Frankenstein, for murder, and when Victor confronts him the creature demands that he make him a mate. Victor attempts to comply but stops when he has a vision of the two monsters threatening all of human life. The monster’s threats follow Victor as he attempts to resume his normal life, putting Victor’s fiancee Elizabeth in danger. Told from multiple perspectives including the monster’s, this is a stunning work of gothic horror.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Originally published as a serial in Collier’s Weekly.
A governess cares for two children in Bly Manor, a remote estate that she becomes convinced is haunted. Not only that, but she believes that the children are aware of the ghostly presence.
Honorable Mention: Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest
Originally published as an anonymous serial in the form of “penny dreadful” pamphlets, this is essentially a pulp adventure about the many victims of Sir Francis Varney’s “insatiable appetite for blood.” Many of the now near-universal “rules” for vampires were first established in these stories.
Modern Gothic Horror
Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith
Also very much a southern gothic, Blackwood tells the story of Red Bluff, Mississippi, a town that has seen better days and is haunted metaphorically by its own history of violence and more literally by kudzu vines that have “enveloped the hills around it, swallowing homes, cars, rivers, and hiding a terrible secret deeper still.”
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
In Thomas’s stunning debut novel, Ines attends the titular mysterious private college, a place of isolation and secrets where she attempts to forget her past. But she cannot help question the school’s elite and secretive concentration of new materials (plasm), and her digging may uncover a huge conspiracy…or worse. This book is a slooooow burn with a frustratingly uncurious and unreliable narrator. I absolutely loved it.
Crimson Peak by Nancy Holder and Guillermo del Toro
Crimson Peak is the best gothic horror movie, and the novelization is a delight.
This ghost story might just as easily be categorized as a gothic romance, but the literal ghosts and the ending put it firmly in gothic horror for me.
Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters
Another debut! In Waters’s novel, Shady Grove inherits her father’s ability to talk to ghosts, but she doesn’t want it. When her brother is accused of murder, she picks up their father’s fiddle to use her gift and try to clear his name. I haven’t read this one yet, but it comes highly recommended.
His Hideous Heart Edited by Dahlia Adler
Edgar Allan Poe was one of the great writers of the gothic short story, but his work is dated. In this brilliant anthology, modern writers reinvent 13 of his stories, and their retellings are presented alongside the originals.
The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado and Dani
Did someone say Pennsylvania Gothic? In this graphic masterpiece, Machado tells the story of two teenagers trying to find the cause of a mysterious plague afflicting the small mining town of Shudder to Think, Pennsylvania, destroying the memories of the afflicted.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Socialite Noemí travels to High Place, a mysterious house in the countryside where her cousin lives with her new husband; her cousin who has written to Noemí begging for help. In High Place she finds her cousin unwell, with a mysterious English husband, his strange father, and his younger brother who wants to help Noemí. She also finds herself drawn to the house as it creeps into her dreams. Can she uncover its secrets? Will she ever escape?
The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Geisbrecht
The city of Elendhaven is stalked by a thing without a name, a man-shaped monster doing the bidding of a mysterious master. The city has been wronged and the monster will have its revenge.
Sawkill Girls by Clare Legrand
On the island of Sawkill Rock, where “gleaming horses graze in rolling pastures and cold waves crash against black cliffs,” three girls’ stories come together to fight against an evil that has been disappearing girls on the island for decades.
Honorable Mention: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth (October 20)
Though not strictly horror or strictly gothic, this book will appeal to readers of both.
In 1902 Flo and Clara, in love with each other and obsessed with a forbidden book, die on the grounds of the Brookhants school. Today, Merritt Emmons’s book about Brookhants is being made into a movie starring It girl Harper Harper and former child star Audrey Wells. But will the mysteries of the past be revealed when the gates of Brookhants are opened again?
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