Gothic Literature: A Brief Overview

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Gothic Literature has influenced numerous contemporary films, books, tv shows, and aesthetics, such as Crimson Peak (2015), The Haunting of Hill House (2018), and Stranger Things (2016-). The aesthetic of the Gothic is dark, eerie, and unsettling, yet so many are drawn to it. This article will illustrate a brief overview of the gothic literature in Britain (and a few American examples) since its origin and some recommendations.


Gothic Origins

The gothic aesthetic started during the 16th Century as an architectural movement based on the aesthetics of Romanesque architecture that originated in the middle ages.[1] Gothic architecture was grand, ornate, and intricate and often featured in the design of churches and cathedrals. Key characteristics of these buildings were large stained-glass windows, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and elaborate decoration.

Stone, ribbed ceiling of a church with windows on the side.


Most people regard Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) as the first gothic novel, a story that features gothic castles, ghosts, and familial murder. This instigated a rise in the Gothic literature during the 18th and 19th centuries by authors such as Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), Matthew Lewis (1775-1818), Mary Shelley (1797-1851), and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1949). These authors wrote some of the most well-known gothic literature that went on to influence much of contemporary gothic culture. Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), is the story of the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a creature through his own scientific methods and then rejects the creature when it is not what he expected. This leads to a hateful and vengeful creature who ends up being the perpetrator of many awful atrocities. This creature features in films, such as Van Helsing (2004) and I, Frankenstein (2014), and the TV Show Penny Dreadful (2014-).

Speaking of Penny Dreadfuls, these cheap, serial magazines were sold for a penny, starting in the 1830s and losing popularity by the 1860s, when they were targeted more towards children.[2] Because they were cheap, they were catered to the working class and were popular amongst young, working-class men because of their sensational stories which feature ghosts, vampires and robbers.

Black ad White sketch of a vampire


Contemporary Gothic

When gothic literature moved into the 20th century, it intertwined with literary movements of the time such as modernism and postmodernism. Modernism followed a tradition that focused on new forms of art surrounding aesthetics and realism. Modernist authors such as T. S. Elliot and James Joyce followed the tradition of gothic modernism through ghostly figures and abject scenes in their works. For example, ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ in Eliot’s poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,[3] or ghostly images in Joyce’s Ulysses such as ‘The ghost candle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face.’[4]

After modernism came post-modernism which encompassed the weird, surreal, and metaphorical aspects of the gothic literature. Canonical gothic authors such as Angela Carter and Stephen King published their best works in this era. Both of these authors explored the supernatural in the context of the real world, Carter created a gothic twist on traditional fairy tales, whilst King moved the Gothic and traumatic to everyday settings, such as a telekinetic teenager in school, or a possessed father in a haunted hotel.

White sheet with the silhouette of hands and a body behind it.


Many ghost stories also surfaced in this time such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), many of which were written by women. What is also foundational to gothic writing was the sense that women were regarded as equal (if not better) to men within this genre, in regards to the quality of the writing and its popularity. Some of the most famous works of gothic literature have been by women and women continue to create outstanding works in the field to this day. Some noteworthy 21st-century female authors of gothic literature that come to mind are Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Attwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Purcell, and Anne Rice.



If this article has perked your interest in gothic literature, here are some recommendations of gothic literature:

18th Century

  • Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764)
  • William Beckford’s Vathek (1786)
  • Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796)
  • Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797)

19th Century

  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)
  • Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847)
  • Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla (1872)
  • Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

20th Century

  • Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)
  • Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
  • Stephen King’s Carrie (1974)
  • Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979)

21st Century

  • Margaret Attwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000)
  • Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching (2009)
  • Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions (2017)
  • Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein (2019)


As this was a brief overview of the Gothic, there are many branches of the Gothic that have not been touched on such as the Transnational Gothic, Eco-gothic, and Queer Gothic. Please refer to further reading to learn more about these as well as gothic literature overall.


Further Reading

Simon Bacon, The Gothic: A Reader (2018)

Catherine Redford, The Connell Short Guide to The Gothic (2017)

Charles L. Crow, A Companion to American Gothic (2014)

Jerold E. Hogle, The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic (2014)

Hilary Cunningham Scharper, EcoGothic (2013)

Monika Elbert, Bridget M Marshall, Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century (2013)

Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (2006)

George Haggerty, Queer Gothic (2006)

Roger Luckhurst, Late Victorian Gothic Tales (2005)

David Punter, A Companion to the Gothic (2001)



‘Gothic Novel’, Encyclopedia Britannica

Kelly Richman-Abdou, ‘What We Can Learn From the Exquisite History and Ornate Aesthetic of Gothic Architecture’, My Modern Met (2017),buildings%20in%20Europe%20and%20beyond.

Judith Flanders, ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, The British Library (2014)


[1] Kelly Richman-Abdou, ‘What We Can Learn From the Exquisite History and Ornate Aesthetic of Gothic Architecture’, My Modern Met (2017)

[2] Judith Flanders, ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, The British Library (2014)

[3] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’

[4] James Joyces, Ulysses


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