Gothic Fiction An Introduction
The term “Gothic” first appeared in the 17th century as a derogatory term meaning barbarous and uncouth especially in relation to the Goths (Germans) and their language (McCalman et al, 526). By the 18th century, the term had taken on additional meanings including medieval, unenlightened and superstitious. At the height of the neoclassical age, anything Gothic was decidedly anti-Roman, irrational and backward.
Yet toward the middle of the century, a revival was underway. A new found interest in medieval architecture and ancient romance culture resulted in the first Gothic novel: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). A keen participant in the Gothic resurgence, Walpole had already built his own Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill, before writing what he described as the first “attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern” (9).
Walpole’s novel established the popular formula for the Gothic romance which was emulated by authors such as Mathew Lewis (The Monk, 1796), Anne Radcliffe (The Italian, 1797), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Christabel”, 1816), John Keats (“Eve of St Agnes”, 1820), and John Polidori (The Vampyre, 1819), and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein,1831) among others.
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Gothic Machinery-Gothic Fiction
The Gothic is characterized by a set of conventions or “machinery”. Events often take place in a gloomy medieval castle or Abbey and generally include a heroine trapped or pursued by a mysterious villain through labyrinthine passages. Much of the action occurs at night and involves supernatural events, dreams, prophecies, or psychological disturbances. The frame of the “discovered manuscript” is also common and functions to lend authenticity and antiquity to the story.
Some of the themes of Gothic fiction include: fantasy, subversion of authority or convention, parent/child relationships, nobility and servitude, rationality and nightmare. The interest in the supernatural, in particular, is often viewed as a reaction to the hyper-rationality of the scientific Enlightenment and Romantic writer’s growing interest in nature and the inner self.
Horror Fiction-Gothic Fiction
Anne Radcliffe, one of the most famous of all the gothic romance novelists, was also the first to distinguish the difference between terror and horror. For Radcliffe, terror “expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.” Horror, on the other hand, “contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them” (643). Terror, in other words, is pleasurable because it is cloaked in obscurity and mystery while horror is graphic and unequivocal.
In a review of Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Coleridge notes this distinction: calling the novel “wonderful and gloomy,” he writes, its “mysterious terrors are continually exciting in the mind the idea of a supernatural appearance…and the secret, which the reader thinks himself every instant on the point of penetrating, flies like a phantom before him, and eludes his eagerness till the very last moment of protracted expectation” (361).
But not everyone was as enthusiastic and the dangers of reading Gothic fiction, especially for women, were widely debated. Excessive consumption was thought to distract young people from their duties, to plunge them into a fantasy world that promoted unrealistic expectations and stirred forbidden desires. Famously satirized in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, women who read too much Gothic fiction were deemed irrational and false.
While many of these early examples no longer attract the readership they once did, they established the conventions of horror and supernatural fiction and film that are still popular today. From Dracula to Twilight, Frankenstein to Halloween, the Gothic’s concern of a barbaric past returning to haunt the present still manages to delight and chill. To appreciate terror and supernatural fiction and to understand its continuing appeal, these early texts are well worth another look.