Top 10 Gothic Literature Classics
Victorian literature enjoyed a golden age of gothic fiction that carried over into the early 1900s, before the dawn of motion pictures offered a new canvas to explore all that was frightening on screen rather than on the page. Yet it was remarkable mystery and horror novels like these classics that both influenced early cinema and continue to scare, intrigue and inspire us today. Come and visit the fiction where the delicious danger and creepy creatures of the night first came into being and found their way into our nightmares…
1. Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
Take one unmarried teenage mother who has eloped to Europe with a famous (and married) poet. Take some literary friends and a proposal to each write a horror story. Take a consequent nightmare about reanimating the dead – and nineteen year-old Mary Shelley gives birth to what she called her ‘hideous progeny’. Contrary to pop culture beliefs, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster, but the question of who is more inhuman in this novel of murder, madness, and fire and ice reveals how the mistake was made.
2. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) Victor Hugo
This is not the Disney version: this is a dark violent story of thwarted and twisted love, set against the glorious gothic backdrop of the Notre Dame cathedral and the crazy corrupt world of fifteenth-century Paris. Quasimodo the eponymous anti-hero, an exotic gypsy dancing girl, a lecherous archdeacon, a dashing captain of the guard – and a goat who can spell: Hugo’s strange tale has it all, including a very unexpected finale that Disney obviously couldn’t deal with.
3. The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allen Poe
Many a torrid tale by Poe deserves a place among gothic classics, including The Pit and Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Cask of Amontillado, but this macabre masterpiece is particularly perfect in form and theme. Everything in this eerie story of a haunted house and its disturbing inhabitants is both meaningful and mysterious, and the famous ending gets into your head and just won’t leave you alone…
4. Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu
It was a fellow contestant in that writing competition that provoked Frankenstein called Polidori who is credited with the first real vampire story, but it was the gothic author and Irishman Le Fanu who wrote the first female vampire tale. This extraordinary novella is rife with lesbian seduction and blatant sexual tension, and also a little wistful and ambiguous romance: Carmilla is beguiling, and you’re never quite sure just who you want to ‘live’ happily ever after.
5. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885) by Robert Louis Stevenson
Sadly this mystery novel has become too much a part of popular culture for the success of the plot twist, but the morality tale about confronting our dark sides is still tormented and terrible fun. The exploration of the psychological as gothic motif is at its best in this clash of a dubious doctor and the enigmatic Hyde: written by Stevenson in less than a week under the influence of cocaine, the violence is still shocking to read and the division of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ more problematic than modern versions ever acknowledge.
6. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde
A minor masterpiece from an unexpected source, but Wilde tempered his society comedies of error like The Importance of Being Earnest, his masterful play Salome, his delicate fairytales and his other witty and profound writings with this cautionary Faustian tale. The possessed painting that represents the real effect of an hedonistic life has become an unforgettable image, and this story is still wonderfully readable and startlingly modern in its sexual and moral ambiguities.
7. Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker
Sorry Twilight fans, but the great ancestor of vampirism would eat Cullens for breakfast. This eerie, unexpected, engrossing tale will actually upset lots of your preconceptions about the Dracula myth, and the sexual tension, graphic violence, and enigma that is the titular character demonstrate why the novel has itself become immortal. First story to contemplate the scientific possibility of a blood transfusion, and written by a man living in the shadow of the great actor Henry Irving as his theatre manager, Dracula still has wonderful bite, and ferocious things to say about our fears of oligarchy, sexually aggressive women, and the dark things that haunt the night.
8. The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
One of the most beautiful, terrifying and ambiguous ghost stories ever written – James took a rather tired and clichéd genre, and recreated it into a remarkable examination of the thin line between supernatural sightings and the onset of madness. A governess is hired to care for two strange children, only to find her predecessors died in curious circumstances and may have come back to haunt the house. The question of who – or what – to be afraid of in this story intrigues readers to this day, and does the abrupt finale that leaves us catching our breath.
9. The Monkey’s Paw (1902) by W. W. Jacobs
This short but delicious horror story has influenced many an urban legend and crept into many a nightmare with its gothic take on the warning to be careful what you wish for… The caveat applies to messing with mysterious powers, raising the dead and thinking before you speak: enjoy the slow but relentless approach of the grotesque terror that has been unearthed…
10. The Phantom of the Opera (1910) by Gaston Leroux
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s glitzy kitchy pop culture musical played havoc with this literary gem: you won’t find the mysterious Persian, the hideous Rat-Catcher or the terrifying torture chamber in the music theatre version of the tale. A ghost story, the biography of a serial killer, a look behind-the-scenes of the nineteenth-century Parisian opera world – and ultimately a love story: Leroux created an unforgettable monster who has haunted the world’s stages ever since.
Like a revenant, these remarkable novels are as immortal and enduringly undead as some of their protagonists, and rise afresh to frighten and fascinate new generations. Despite having been adopted by pop culture in so many forms, the original stories are still addictive reading, and may well leave you not wanting to turn out the light afterwards…