Our goal is to help you help students better understand and ENJOY classic literature! Specifically, the genre of Gothic Literature. We offer a suggested framework for teachers and students to better understand the genre and identify exemplary works and authors who embrace its precepts. We encourage teachers to offer constructive ideas to make this guide more useful for other teachers and students. Please email your suggestions, with "Gothic Literature" in the subject field to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The genre of "Gothic Literature" emerged as the darkest form of Dark Romanticism in its extreme expressions of self-destruction and sin involving sheer terror, personal torment, graphic morbidity, madness, and the supernatural. Put simply, they are stories that scare the bejesus out of you! Edgar Allan Poe wrote some of the finest macabre tales in this genre. Other prominent authors of the genre include Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Algernon Blackwood, Guy de Maupassant, Amelia B. Edwards, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Elizabeth Gaskell, W.W. Jacobs, W.F. Harvey, and Robert W. Chambers.
We offer an exceptional collection of macabre tales: The Gothic, Ghost, Horror & Weird Library
Both of the above pages offer summaries, the stories and author biographies, so you can find just the right kind of "scary" to suit your mood. See our section of Quotes to get a taste for some lesser known works of gothic fiction you may also enjoy.
The etymology of the word "Gothic" is from the French gothique and in Latin, Gothi, which means "not classical." A reference to the ancient Germanic people's language, it became a medieval style of art and architecture that emerged in Northern Europe in the 1640s, and by the 19th century became a literary style that used medieval settings to suggest mystery and horror. Romantic and Victorian authors who embraced this genre included Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and with a particular focus on psychological terror, the entire canon of Edgar Allan Poe. The word "gothic" has had a resurgence of popularity with selective young people: "goth" has come to represent a culture of dark music, dress, and attitude intent to be shocking or disturbing to others.
Originating in England and Germany in the later part of the 18th century, it grew out of Romanticism, a strong reaction against the Transcendental Movement. Dark Romanticism draws from darker elements of the human psyche, the evil side of spiritual truth. Gothic literature took that further, involving horror, terror, death, omens, the supernatural, and heroines in distress. The first recognized Gothic novel was Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). In the nineteenth century, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu became a leading author of horror and ghost stories. His female lesbian dracula novel, Carmilla (1872), inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).
Because of its superstitious elements, combining history with fiction, intellectuals of the Enlightenment were offended by Gothic literature's "fake" facts. Though some were convinced; reviews from Cambridge were that the book "made some of them cry a little, and all in general afraid to go to bed o' nights." Several authors helped legitimize the genre by imposing realism to give credibility to their fantastic supernatural elements (authors such as Ann Radcliffe and Clara Reeve, whom we do no feature here). Read H.P. Lovecraft's fascinating book with chapters on the dawn of the horror tale, Poe, and weird traditions in America and the British Isles: Supernatural Horror in Literature.
What made American Gothic Fiction distinctive from European authors? Three words: Edgar Allan Poe. Poe owns the genre; the tragic events of his own lifetime helped him see and write about the world's worst evils. His curiosity with psychological trauma, the supernatural, and experience with mental illness extended a degree of horror that is unparalleled. As Poe wrote in The Tell-Tale Heart: "What you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses." While other American authors, including Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Prophetic Pictures) and Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), contributed to the genre of gothic fiction, nobody tops Edgar Allan Poe. Not even contemporary horror author, Stephen King, though his diabolical clown story movie remake, It is enjoying a successful resurgence to invigorate the genre once again.
The historical context of Gothic Literature has evolved with the prevailing social, political, and personal events of the authors and their times. Regardless of the context and setting, such as the Salem Witch Trials, the American Revolutionary War, the Vietnam War, the post-Zombie apocalypse, unrequited love (a timeless theme), works of Gothic literature utilize common elements that keep readers coming back for more. Though the genre has come in and out of popularity, authors throughout the ages continue to have an audience for their stories of terror, horror and mysteries of the supernatural.
Explain what the following quotes meaning and why they are exemplars of Gothic Literature:
"It was, indeed, an exquisite symbol beneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things; forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current."
-- The Great God Pan (chapter 6), Arthur Machen
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
-- The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
"As the gate swung wider and the sorcery of the drug and the dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hope to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.”
-- Ex Oblivione, H.P. Lovecraft
"The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead; he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit."
-- One Summer Night, Ambrose Bierce
"I touched these human remains, which must have belonged to a giant. The uncommonly long fingers were attached by enormous tendons which still had pieces of skin hanging to them in places. This hand was terrible to see; it made one think of some savage vengeance."
-- The Hand, Guy de Maupassant
"I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect--in terror. In this unnerved-in this pitiable condition--I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."
-- The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
"'The sin of witchcraft.' We read about it, we look on it from the outside; but we can hardly realize the terror it induced. Every impulsive or unaccustomed action, every little nervous affection, every ache or pain was noticed, not merely by those around the sufferer, but by the person himself, whoever he might be, that was acting, or being acted upon, in any but the most simple and ordinary manner."
-- Lois the Witch, Elizabeth Gaskell
"I perceived myself outside my body-- saw my body near me, but certainly not containing me...I was a great cloud-- if I may express it that way-- anchored to my body. It appeared to me, at first, as if I had discovered a greater self of which the conscious being in my brain was only a little part."
-- The Stolen Body, H.G. Wells
"A phantom haunts and hallows the marble tomb or grassy hillock where its material form was laid. Till purified from each stain of clay; till the passions of the living world are all forgotten; till it have less brotherhood with the wayfarers of earth, than with spirits that never wore mortality,—the ghost must linger round the grave. O, it is a long and dreary watch to some of us!"
-- Graves and Goblins, Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung."
-- Ode on Melancholy, John Keats
1. Identify the characteristics of Gothic Literature and examples of work which fit the genre. Identify the different types of "scary" that qualify.
2. How does "Gothic Literature" differ from "Dark Romanticism"?
3. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's story, Luella Miller. It is about a female vampire who is a parasitic host, consuming her victims with her own dependency, helplessness, and fear. Explain whether you consider it an example of Feminist Literature, in addition to Goth Lit.
4. Which is scarier: lots of blood and guts (graphic morbidity) or madness (psychological thriller)? Is your critiera for what makes a good horror movie different from what makes a good horror story?
6. Explain the use of foreshadowing and elements of suspense in The Monkey's Paw.
7. Discuss elememts of realism and the supernatural in one of the stories you've read (e.g., Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Stolen Body). Gothic fiction often includes a level of naturalism and other plausible elements to keep the reader 'hooked' and to tolerate the elements of horror. Why is this so important?
9. What makes a good ghost story? Consider The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell, who conveys many gothic elements such as a sense that nature is gloomy and demonic, organ music coming out of nowhere, and the ghost of the dead master "wailed and triumphed just like a living creature." What's the moral of the story?
The Rise of Gothic Literature, an overview of its origins and many forms
American Literature Lesson Plans: 19th Century, including Poe, Bierce, Dickinson, Hawthorne
Visit our Teacher Resources, supporting literacy instruction across all grade levels