As a Gothic studies Masters student I am somewhat biased when it comes to Gothic literature. Many works have inspired me over the years and I feel like its time to share some of my favourites.
What IS Gothic Literature?
Many scholars have endeavoured to answer this question but a concrete definition has never been agreed on. HOWEVER its largely accepted that the Gothic is a genre that evokes fear and terror and is characterised by elements of death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements such as nature, individuality and high emotion.
With that in mind, (in no particular order) here are five classic Gothic novels that everyone should read:
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula was published in 1897 and is still popular all over the globe today. Everyone has heard of Dracula and has come across it’s many adaptations, whether that be films, TV shows, comics, etc, but many people have never read the original text. New readers may be surprised to learn that Dracula wasn’t always the slick, Lugosi-esque Count, but is introduced as an old, creepy aristocrat with blazing red eyes and white hair and moustache.
The narrative is written solely through letters and journal entries, giving a voice to all the characters in their hunt for Count Dracula.
The novel mostly takes place in London, England not Transylvania, as the Count travels to the foreign land to claim it for himself, through the recruitment of the undead.
Its an exciting read, with Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker and Mina along with their ‘crew of light’ putting together the pieces of the puzzle to discover the Count’s weaknesses and to save Mina from transforming into a vampire herself. There are many suspenseful moments and some that are even quite creepy. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has heard of Dracula and would like to discover the original story.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein was first published in 1818 and a second edited edition was published in 1823. It follows the narrative of Victor Frankenstein, a young student from Geneva who decides to create life and solve the mysteries of God himself.
Of course, we all know this doesn’t go to plan and his protegee is in fact a hideous creature (who is not called Frankenstein). Shunned by his creator the creature is left to haunt the earth utterly alone, as humans tend to run away screaming in his presence (poor guy).
He soon discovers a cottage of kind village folk and soon learns language, and morals through observing their everyday lives, however he is again shunned when he declares himself to them and is forced to flee.
In a fury the creature confronts his creator and begs him to make a ‘wife’ so that he can spend the rest of his days of solitude with his similarly exiled companion. But will Frankenstein agree? And what effect would that have on his morality?
Frankenstein asks many questions on science, morality and the importance of paternal upbringing. Although a short book it is jam packed with an exciting story and leaves the reader questioning life itself.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
What would this list be without Dorian Gray?! Those who know me are aware of my deep devotion of this book, so of course it made the list!
Dorian Gray was first published in 1890 and caused quite a stir.
Dorian Gray is a handsome young man who is introduced to the reader as his portrait is painted by his artist friend Basil. When Lord Henry visits his old friend he is delighted to meet Dorian for the first time and its instantly enamoured with him.
He thus decides to take the naive young Dorian under his wing and teach him the values of hedonism.
Wishing to be young and beautiful forever Dorian discovers all that the world has to offer. It does not take long for his mind to be corrupted by Lord Henry and he begins to experiment with various philosophies and ideas. However, his ultimate downfall occurs when he realises that his wish has come true, his portrait now takes on all the moral corruption of Dorian’s soul, as Dorian himself remains flawless and youthful.
Of course the world is now at his mercy and Dorian fully exploits his new freedom with various drug consumption, sexual exploration and even murder. What makes this book such a fascinating read is watching the degradation of Dorian’s character, and makes you wonder, would you be the same if you remained young and beautiful forever?
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
First published in 1938 Rebecca is the youngest novel on the list, but that does not make it any less Gothic.
Although perhaps better known for Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation, Rebecca still remains a Gothic classic today. Narrated by an unnamed protagonist, it follows the narrator’s memoir of her time at Manderley, an old stately home on the coast of Cornwall, which becomes her marital home after her marriage to Max de Winter, a wealthy widower.
Inferior in class to her new husband the narrator feels insecure and uncomfortable in her new home, which is worsened by the ominous presence of the creepy old housekeeper Mrs Danvers. Mrs D is a classic Gothic figure, always skulking in the shadows as if holding a dark secret.
The narrator soon discovers that the previous Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, was killed in a boating accident and was the epitome of upper class society. Mrs Danvers kindly reminds her on a regular basis that Rebecca was her superior in every sense and that she will never live up to her standards. Haunted by Rebecca the narrator begins to feel unseen presences in the house and becomes suspicious of its occupants, especially her new husband who refuses to talk about his past.
A creepy, suspenseful book Rebecca is a classic psychological thriller, set in an old creaky house with an unreliable narrator.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Last but not least we have Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Although not a traditional ‘horror’ book, it still falls into the Gothic category as it contains many Gothic themes and elements, such as; an old ancestral manor house that is ‘haunted’ by a woman in the attic, wild moors and romance, as well as a male protagonist with a mysterious past. Sound familiar? That’s because Du Maurier is believed to have based Rebecca on this classic novel.
Jane Eyre is about an impoverished orphan who begins her story living with her nasty, abusive relatives and is subsequently sent to a bleak boarding school to carry out the rest of her journey into adulthood.
After staying on as a teacher for two more years she finally decides to go out into the world and becomes a Governess for a young french girl in the countryside. Thus she begins her life in Thornfield Hall. The stately home consists of a kind housekeeper, a few servants and the master’s ward Adele. Jane enjoys her time at Thornfield but is curious to meet the infamous lord of the manor, Edward Rochester.
Well as luck has it, she soon bumps into her master on the moors when she rushes to his aid after an accident with his horse (how romantic!). Shortly after their meeting the two begin to fall in love although Rochester is first reluctant to admit it. After many ups and downs Rochester finally proposes to Jane and they are set to get married. However a mysterious feral-like woman appears to Jane on the night before her wedding and rips up her wedding dress. The secret is now out: the woman is in fact Bertha Rochester, her fiance’s wife who has been locked in the attic for many years due to her mental instability and violent outbursts. As they are still married Jane cannot legally marry her love and flees from Thornfield in the dead of night.
But what will happen next?! Will Rochester and Jane get their happy ending? Or is Jane doomed to roam the moors for the rest of her life?!
This book is a thrilling read that has quite a few twists and turns, and in my opinion had more content and story line than I expected on the first reading. It’s one of those books in which you think you know the story until you actually read it.