by Sophie Turner
The first Gothic novels began to emerge in the mid to late 1700s, and this style of literature continued to gain in popularity throughout the 1800s and in the early 1900s. There are several common and distinct themes that can be seen across the genre, including components such as the isolated protagonist, a brave hero, a distressed virgin, an evil villain, and an eerie setting such as a crumbling old castle or other such Gothic architecture. Many works of Gothic literature feature a combination of horror, romance, and mystery, with tales that often centre on kidnap, death, the supernatural, and debauchery.
There are hundreds of amazing Gothic novels that are worth reading, but if you’re new to the genre and need a little guidance, this list of ten of the greatest Gothic novels of all time is a great place to start. If you have a Kindle device or app, most of these books are available for free; if you prefer to read an actual book, you can pick most of them up fairly cheaply online, or keep an eye out for them whenever you visit a charity shop.
If you’re a part of the gothic subculture, enjoy dressing in alternative and gothic clothing, appreciate the dark beauty of life, and you enjoy reading, you’re sure to love this list of the best gothic novels and novellas of all time. So without further ado, here’s the list, in chronological order…
The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole, 1764
Generally regarded as the very first gothic novel to be published, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto sparked the beginning of a literary genre that would span several centuries and inspire classic stories from authors like Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker.
The Castle of Otranto has everything that one would expect to see in a gothic novel: the hero, the villain, the distressed virgin, and accidental and murderous death, all set across the backdrop of an eerie castle.
The protagonist, Lord Manfred, is driven by his insatiable greed, which sets into motion a tragic tale of mysticism and eeriness. After his son dies, Manfred seeks to marry his betrothed, Isabella, in an attempt to produce another male heir and avert an ancient prophecy.
The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe, 1794
Ann Radcliffe was heavily influenced by the literature and works of Horace Walpole, so if you’ve read and enjoyed The Castle of Otranto, then The Mysteries of Udlpho is a must-read. Radcliffe’s fourth, and most popular, novel features all the usual gothic suspects, including the maiden in distress, an ominous old castle, and plenty of untimely deaths.
The story’s protagonist, Emily St. Aubert, is an orphan who becomes entrapped by her uncle after the death of her father. Not only is she denied her the inheritance that she is owed, but strange and supernatural things begin to happen, and she is left to investigate these mysterious happenings from within the castle.
Often cited as the quintessential, archetypal gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, along with Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, heavily influenced Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey which features further down this list.
The Monk; A Romance – Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1796
The Monk; A Romance by MG Lewis is one of the earliest continental gothic novels. It takes place in Madrid, Spain, and explores the archetypical tale of evil and weak clergymen. It incorporates elements from traditional gothic literature, for example the isolated protagonist, the virginal woman, the evil villain, and the brave hero, but builds on these classic elements with themes such as power and morality.
The Monk is an archetypal devil-in-disguise tale, in which Evil persuades an upstanding Spanish monk, named Ambrosio, to rape and murder a woman who is later revealed to be his sister. MG Lewis’ tale of religion and scandal was vilified at the time due to its obscenity and profanity, which actually only served to increase its popularity.
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen, 1817
Jane Austen was heavily influenced by The Mysteries of Udlpho when she produced her satirical novel, Northanger Abbey. It was the first of her novels to be completed for publication, but wasn’t actually published until after her death in 1817.
Northanger Abbey tells the tale of 17 year old Catherine Morland, a tomboy from a family of ten children, who is very fond of reading gothic novels, including The Mysteries of Udlpho by Ann Radcliffe. Catherine is invited to go to Bath with some family friends, the Allens, where she is introduced to the social scene, new friends and acquaintances, and young love.
The novel is a satire on the gothic genre, but it still manages to have become one of the best-loved gothic novels of all time. Laced with Austen’s usual light humour and romance, Northanger Abbey is a thoroughly enjoyable book to read.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley, 1818
Considered by many to be the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also has many of the elements of a classic gothic novel too. The fantastical aspects of the tale are rooted in science; yet Frankenstein also features the terror, power, romance, isolation, murder, death, and good versus evil which make it a classic work of gothic literature.
The story centres on Viktor Frankenstein and his scientific experimentation that resulted in the creation of life from inanimate flesh. Shelley’s classic novel requires the reader to abandon all existing notions of morality, social convention, and construct, and it was written during a time of real life scientific exploration that was swathed in fear and awe of religion.
Frankenstein led to a long list of novels, plays, films, and television shows inspired by the story of an experimental scientist who brought life to inanimate flesh and grew to regret his actions as the monster became sentient and evil.
The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe, 1839
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the leading writers from the Romanticism literature movement, and American literature as a whole. He was one of the United State’s first practitioners of the short story, and was the first well-known American writer to attempt to earn a living through writing alone.
The Fall of the House of Usher is one of many short stories penned by Poe, who was one of the first writers to bring psychological madness to the gothic genre. The story begins as the unnamed narrator arrives at the home of his friend, Roderick Usher, after receiving a letter detailing an illness he was suffering from, and asking for the narrator’s help.
Poe’s gothic novella has all the elements you would expect from the genre: an old, crumbling house, which stands on the brink of destruction and is actually symbolic of the crumbling Usher family, as well as the usual death, mystery, and intrigue. Sinister familial secrets and jealousy set the stage for a dark and chilling horror story that will get into your head, refusing to leave you alone.
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë, 1847
Regarded by many literary critics as the best of the works from the Brontë sisters, Emily Brontë’s one and only novel, Wuthering Heights, is an English classic that has spawned a number of film, television, and radio adaptations, and the 1978 Kate Bush song of the same name.
The lead male character in the story is Heathcliff, an outcast with questionable social origins and bloodlines. Heathcliff succeeds in infiltrating polite society, where he meets Catherine, with whom he seems to have a sort of supernatural connection.
By highlighting the issues faced by women in the time, via the psychology of Catherine, Brontë’s classic gothic novel helped the advancement of the female gothic subculture. Wuthering Heights incorporates plenty of those gothic elements that we love, including isolation, death, mystery, power, and male versus female, set against the haunting backdrop of the Yorkshire Moors.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish author who penned this classic gothic novella whilst under the influence of cocaine. The story tells of a physician named Dr Henry Jekyll who transforms into a psychopathic monster, named Mr Hyde, after ingesting a drug which was intended to separate the good from the evil in a personality.
Dr Jekyll slowly descends into madness as he eventually succumbs to his murderous, evil alter ego. The full details of his transformation are gradually revealed in layers, with the science behind the transformation being chronicled.
Stevenson’s novel is a shocking account of good and evil, leading the reader to confront and remark upon the good and evil, the dark and light that resides within all of us. The impact of the novel can clearly be seen in modern society with the regular and apparent use of the term “Jekyll and Hyde” to describe a person whose moral character changes vastly from one situation to another.
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde, 1890
The majority of Oscar Wilde’s literary work revolved around short fiction, essays, and theatrical scripts; The Picture of Dorian Gray was, in fact, the only novel that Wilde wrote. And what a novel it is! The story is a beautiful and brooding account of a man, Dorian Gray, whose inherent vanity leads him to wish for everlasting youth.
Gray makes a sort of Faustian deal, although we don’t know who grants it, and he stays forever young in human form, whilst the portrait of him, painted by his dear friend Basil Hallward, ages instead. Eventually Gray’s ego and madness escalate and he spirals into a hedonistic life of wanton decadence, sin, and violent ends.
Although The Picture of Dorian Gray was written 126 years ago, it is often startlingly modern in its sexual and moral ambiguities. The novel provides a great insight into the lives of the upper classes in society in the late 1800s.
Dracula – Bram Stoker, 1897
Widely considered to be the godfather of all vampire novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula spawned a whole genre of books, films, and television shows. If you’ve ever read the Twilight books, or watched the films, you should definitely read Dracula; it will give you a new-found love for the gothic vampire genre.
The story of Dracula focuses less on Count Dracula, himself, and more on the hunt for him. The most famous vampire in history acts as a metaphor for the pollution of English blood; and the hunt for Dracula is symbolic of the determination to stamp out and eradicate the source of the corruption.
Dracula has strong elements of graphic violence, sexual tension, and the vampire as an enigma, which all serve to explain why the novel, like its lead character, has become immortal. At the time of its release, Dracula didn’t make very much money for Bram Stoker; it was later on in the 20th century, when movie adaptations began to emerge, that the novel became much more significant and its popularity rose.
Article by Sophie | www.blackrose.co.uk
“Hey I’m Sophie, I’m 27 and live in London. I’m currently the social media and content manager for Black Rose, an online retailer of gothic and alternative clothing and accessories. I’ve been into the alternative scene for as long as I can remember, always favouring the darker and more mysterious side of life! When I’m not busy writing content I can be found in Camden hanging out with friends or scouring the market for unusual items!”