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What Defines Gothic Literature?

Updated on November 22, 2015
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

This is one genre that is not quite so popular today. It was hugely popular in the 1800s and in the mid twentieth century. It is a genre that is still read today, although there is very little new Gothic literature being produced. It is also known as Gothic horror due to the terror and suspense that accompanies it.

Let’s start with examples of Gothic literature.


It can be hard sometimes to explain categories. It is easier to talk about the items found within the categories to truly understand them. Here are some popular examples of gothic literature.

  • Wuthering Heights

  • Frankenstein

  • Dracula

  • Jane Eyre

  • The Phantom of the Opera

  • Edgar Allen Poe stories

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame

  • The Turn of the Screw

  • Victoria Holt novels

Each of these authors use a combination of the essential Gothic elements to spin tales that linger in all lovers of books.

Element of Fear

All Gothic literature has an element of fear into. Suspense is high. There is no reading these stories at night and not feel fear. Realize that this is not quite horror fear. It is close. Everything within these Gothic horror stories is implied. You don’t see the horror as much as feel it and anticipate it; it is the unknown that evokes fear.

There are strange noises, flashes of white, ghosts, and unknown people. What is it? Where did it go? Was it real? Was it all in your imagination? All of these questions could be flitting through your mind as you read a Gothic novel or story.

Elements of Romance

Gothic literature typically has a strong element of romance. It is almost as important to have as to have fear. The romance is not easy. It is almost unattainable because of the unknown. The mystery/horror gets in the way and prevents the romance from blooming any more than just hints and desire. There is an attraction. There might be a kiss. But more than that rarely happens as each time they get close the horror rises. Wuthering Heights is an ideal example of a Gothic novel with a suspenseful romantic story.

While most Gothic stories contain a romantic element, authors such as Edgar Allen Poe have a distinct lack of love between the characters; his stories are still no less Gothic than Dracula or The Castle of Otranto.

Typical Characters

Most Gothic novels have the same type of characters. There is the brooding male character who has secrets and could be the one behind the horror. He is also the romantic interest. Then there is the innocent, pure young woman who finds herself caught in a world that is full of so much unknown while trying to understand the attraction for the strange man who might not be who she thinks he is. There could be an old woman who adds to the mystery. There even could be another man who vies for the attention of the fair maiden.

The Setting

Most Gothic stories are situated in a castle or a large manor that is gloomy. When you see the house, you just know there is something creepy going on. There is usually fog, storms, and lots of scenes at night. Anything that increases suspense and fear is part of it. You won’t find fields of daisies or rainbows in these stories.

While everyone knows the story of Dracula and Frankenstein, we don’t have the same Gothic literary characters that are of contemporary age. The language of a genre that was created and became wildly popular in the 19th century can be difficult for a new reader; a novel such as Jane Eyre might be harder for a reader to get into due to some of the anachronistic language. The good news is is that although the Gothic genre is not as nearly as popular as it has been in the past, there are still authors producing works. If you feel as though Gothic works might be for you, but you have a hard time feeling the flow of older language, here are some books you might want to check out:

Bellefleur- Joyce Carol Oates - a vast clan, the Bellefleurs, are shrouded in mystery and eccentricity. Based in upstate New York.

Interview with the Vampire- Anne Rice- a bestseller, this one delves into suspense and love that only a good Gothic novel could.

Floating Staircase- Ronald Malfi- a husband and wife move into a new house on a lake, only to find strange, mysterious things happening. A perfect Gothic novel.


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