A Gothic Literature Primer: Suggested Reading
Aside from pure horror, the genre I get asked about most often is gothic fiction. Despite its rich history and cult following, most people still don’t really understand it. And since I’ve accidentally DIY scholar-ed the genre thanks to an unnatural passion, it’s a question I welcome. I could easily write a full-length book on the topic, but today I thought I’d give a sort of primer for the curious. If you’re interested in gothic literature but haven’t done much on your own, my hope is that this will be a good place for you to start—and perhaps a reference to come back to if you find yourself falling as deeply in love with the genre as I have.
What It Is
First and foremost, what is gothic fiction? At its most simple, it’s a literary genre that blends horror and romance. The most popular recent example is Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak. That should at least give you a frame of reference. Think big, old, gorgeous but decaying mansions and castles. Drama bordering on melodrama. Questionable romance rooted in captivity, incest, or naiveté. Evil villains, ghosts, and familial curses. Mysteries, secrets, and locked doors. Above all, these staples of the genre blend in such a way as to create an atmosphere thick enough to walk on. In gothic fiction, setting is so important it becomes its own character. If you’d like more details on the history of the genre and the tropes most commonly associated with it, check out my old blog post “What Is Gothic Fiction?”
Purely balanced gothic fiction—of romance and horror in equal measure—is a rarity in modern books. In the origins of the genre they tended to be fairly balanced, because gothic uses the extremes of contrast to heighten the effect of both. But in modern fiction it’s far more common to spot the tradition splintered into one direction or the other: shelved in romance with a couple swooning in front of a crumbling castle (think sexy vampires) versus shelved in horror with tastefully subtle and atmospheric gore (think ghost stories). Gothic is not a euphemism for horror, nor is it synonymous with “light,” “soft,” or “elegant” horror.
More common still are books that drink heavily of gothic tropes and methodologies without defining themselves by them. Mysteries that utilize dark, brooding atmosphere. Romances with a taste of the macabre for flavor. Horror with a love story at its forefront. Suspense thrillers featuring protagonists with a cursed and hidden past. Once you know what to look for, you’ll start spotting gothic influence in everything from Charles Dickens to Let The Right One In to The Forest of Hands and Teeth.
Intrigued? My suggested reading follows, broken down by time period and indications for each why it might (or might not) be worth your time.
Before I get into the list of full-length novels, I’m going to name a single shortcut: "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe (1839). If you have no idea if you even like gothic fiction, this is a fantastic place to start. It’s true to the genre and long enough to give you a solid idea of the feel of things without begging a week or two of your life. So if you need a sampler, give this classic short story a try and see if you want to get into a longer work. And, honestly, it’s as fine as writing gets, so if you don’t like this one it’s a fairly safe bet that gothic literature is not for you.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
A must for anyone studying the genre (versus reading for pleasure). Almost unanimously agreed upon to be the first novel of the gothic genre. But leisure reader beware, because this very old very crummy book is not exactly a page-turner. The good news? It’s short.
I’m going to say something I might have never said before: I highly recommend you don’t read this book. It’s really not good. It does little to enlighten even those studying gothic roots. I vote read a summary and move on.
A must for genre historians, and thankfully much more enjoyable than Otranto. Radcliffe took Walpole's bare bones and fleshed them out to be the first gothic novel worth reading. Leisure readers take note, this is still a difficult and antiquated read.
The final of the roots, and probably the most fun. Juicy, salacious, easier to read, and still an important staple in the creation of the genre. Leisure readers with an eye to history, start here.
Probably the one most readers are likely to have already read, and an interesting one because many credit it as the first science fiction novel, and Shelley as the mother of modern horror. That’s a lot of genre work for a single book to do. Longer/slower in practice than in memory, but well worth a read for every reader.
True story: I don’t like this novel. It’s probably the safest option for readers who aren’t that into gothic fiction, though, because it’s the least scary and least disturbing of those listed here. It’s also important to students of the genre because parody plays a prominent and long-standing role in gothic lit.
Bias alert: I’m obsessed. If you’re studying the lineage of gothic lit, which includes most modern-day vampire novels, it will become very clear why I think Wuthering Heights has clear vampire elements buried in it. It’s also one of the most popular gothic novels of all time, and so is a must-read for gothic lovers of any ilk.
Another must-read due to popularity alone, but thankfully Jane Eyre stands up to the fandom. It really is a fantastic book, and a stellar example of gothic’s revival heyday.
We can’t forget Dorian Gray, despite its being left out of many gothic lists. As with both horror and romance, gothic literature tends to get snooty nose-turns from the intellectual crowd, which means any literary canon novels that happen to be gothic slowly lose the designator. Whether it gets labeled such or not, this classic is a textbook example of gothic literature.
Enter: the vampire. (Again.) Enter: the obvious vampire. Dracula is a fascinating but very slow read for modern readers. Full of diversions and unnecessary backstory, it’s nonetheless a must-read for horror lovers, vampire lovers, and gothic lovers alike.
A less-discussed but surprisingly good novel very solidly in the gothic corner. A bit old-fashioned for most leisure readers, this is still a enjoyable book for those used to antique prose. It struck me as a shallow read in the good way: not too important, but very fun.
(Note: if you want more book summary + reader reaction to help you choose, see also Meredith Border’s The Top 10 Scariest Gothic Romances, most of which are also included in this list.)
What happened between 1909 and 1979? Well, gothic literature seems to have taken a little nap and woken up… icky. The beginning of contemporary gothic saw its resurgence with a healthy influence from popular horror—darker, grosser, and a lot more fun.
A great read for those who like old-fashioned feeling books without the tiresome prose. Better than the movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, this novel is well worth a read. Classic with an eye for modern pacing and structure.
The first in a trilogy of long, rich, intricate gothic fiction based around a family of witches. Not for those seeking a fast, easy read, but perfect for readers wanting utter submersion in a scary, sexy, subtle world.
Easy to skip if you’re studying, but a must-read for the leisure reader. It is just so damn good. Fingersmith is a particularly exquisite blend of creepy and sexy. (Like actually sexy, not just romantic or swoony, which is what much of gothic tends to lean to.)
Decidedly not sexy, and leaning more toward horror, this is a stellar example of southern gothic. Short but dense and difficult, and breathtakingly beautiful, this novel is like if Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King had a secret lovechild they locked in the basement.
I’m reading this now. So far it’s not too scary and not too sexy but still somehow incredibly engaging. Full of historical intricacy and layered throughout many characters’ tales, this is another example of the permanence of the vampire in gothic literature.
Perhaps the best example of true classic gothic fiction told for the truly modern reader. Accessible but smart, true to its roots, and quite good. Not required for study, but well worth reading for fun.
A surprising but perhaps inevitable consequence of gothic lineage and modern consumers: gothic zombies. Important for study in that it took gothic lit into the mega-popular age group of YA, as well as using it to explore existing subgenres through a gothic lens. A fun read that effectively merges horror and romance in the old tradition for young readers.
Not seminal to the genre, but my personal favorite example of contemporary gothic literature. This one tends to slip under the radar, but is a great example of gothic’s lasting influence on modern literature. A memorable and fantastic read for fans of literary fiction – highly recommend.
(Note: if you want more book summary + reader reaction to help you choose, see also my post 9 Gothic Novels Less than 40 Years Old, which goes into more detail about each of the books included here.)
So readers, what’s your gothic IQ? Count how many of the suggested novels you’ve read. There are 20 total, so multiply by 5 to get your percentile. If you’ve read 5, you’re 25% through the list. 10 and you’re halfway there. 15 and you’re probably quite well-versed by now. 20 and you’re headed down that DIY scholar route. ;)
Score sharing, questions, and additions all welcome in the comments!
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