We in the Northern Hemisphere have passed the autumnal equinox and are progressing steadily toward the year’s longest night, in late December. The shadows lengthen, and we can only hope that there’s nothing sinister hiding in the dim corners. The intensifying darkness of our natural environment is reflected in traditions and holidays that celebrate a thinning of the boundary between life and death: Dia de los Muertos, Halloween, and even Halloween’s pagan precursor, Samhain…In short, everything is a bit spooky. It’s the perfect time of year for one of my favorite genres: Gothic fiction.
Gothic fiction—sometimes called Gothic horror—is named for the medieval architecture of Western Europe, where these chilling tales traditionally took place. Think castles, crypts, and convents: these are dark, foreboding stone structures where things go “bump” in the night and you never know what’s around the next corner. Gothic horror is characterized by a sense of dread and mystery. Unlike contemporary horror, which can be off-putting to some audiences because it depicts graphic physical or psychological violence, the scariest parts of Gothic tales are unseen. It’s the sense of paranoia and fear of the unknown that creates tension in these tales. Other common themes are captivity, isolation, secrecy, deception, and madness (this genre, of course, predates our modern understanding of mental illness). Often, the protagonist is a woman isolated from both society and her personal social network. Is this where the much later horror trope of the “final girl” originated?
The first time the term “Gothic” was applied to literature was in the title of Horace Walpole’s 1764 The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Not too much later, in the first half of the 19th century, Gothic fiction became entwined with Romanticism, a movement that emphasized emotion, creativity, and drama over rationalism. What better way to reject the Enlightenment ideals of reason and scientific proof, than to read and write tales of spooks, specters, and unexplained phenomena? A great example of Romantic Gothic fiction is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. Later in the 19th century, Victorian writers like Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw) perfected this genre. Into the twentieth century, authors like Joyce Carol Oates and Daphne du Maurier picked up the legacy of earlier writers, incorporating markers of Gothic fiction into more modern settings. This genre has been around for over 250 years, and it’s STILL thrilling and relevant. That’s pretty powerful. Gothic fiction is dead; long live Gothic fiction!
So there you have it: the trees are bare, a fierce wind is howling at the gables, and all this talk of spirits has you in the mood for something spine-tingling...If you want creepy but not graphic, classic but still daring, allow me to suggest something of the Gothic variety. Staff at any of our locations are always happy to help you find your next great read (Gothic or otherwise), and we even have a book display at the Main library with several selected titles to help you get started. Happy hunting, and happy haunting.