Gothic horror is back. By “gothic” I don’t mean the sad teenager scene punctuated by faces spackled in white makeup with lank, jet black hair mooning around Camden Market. That’s “goth”, a style driven by post-punk bands like Souxsie And The Banshees. Goth is no less important than Gothic literature, but, by virtue of being completely different, does not belong in this article. But I encourage you to listen to Souxsie, Joy Division, The Birthday Party and so many other bands that will make you melancholy, contemplative, and possibly dance. One thing those goth bands had in common was the influence of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, published in 1976. That ubiquitous novel brought gothic literature back into favor, and here we are, full circle, back to musing over the gothic novel.
Everything described above happened in the late 1970s and early 80s. Why, in the mid 2010s, should the gothic horror genre be coming back with such fervor and skill? We have already seen examples of this resurgence in the excellent True Blood series and, even more recently, American Horror Story, which has already run to seven seasons with series eight and nine recently announced. Everything runs in cycles, of course. But something had to trigger this new cycle. If you take the view, as we do, that fiction and other forms of entertainment reflect as well as shape the public mood, then dark times call for dark stories. Not always. Some people prefer the light, the contrast to the shade. But not this writer, nor millions of readers around the world. Some of us are always drawn to the night, and we don’t need very much of an excuse to rummage under the bed.
The first ever gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which I’ve had the dubious pleasure of reading, isn’t really much. I only bought it because someone told me it was the first gothic novel, and it is. But that doesn’t make it great. It was published in 1764, which means it is not Victorian and mercifully escapes consideration here. The person who really helped the gothic novel find its way was Ann Radcliffe who, in the 1790s, established the aesthetic, typical hero, and credible supernatural element into the genre. All that said, why should you care about Victorian Gothic literature? Because it is about to experience a resurgence. I have nothing to base this on other than being an avid reader, writer and reviewer of books of all kinds. But I’m sure of it and I’m sure you don’t want to be left in the dark. Or maybe you do.
The very best gothic novel, and it is truly Victorian, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was Stoker’s fifth of his twelve novels, and the only one that is still widely read and remembered. It is famous for all kinds of reasons. It is not a straight novel but a collection of diaries and letters, a so-called epistolary story. It heavily features Whitby, a fishing town in North Yorkshire, England, that still trades off its Stoker connections today. Who can forget that amazing natural theatre up on the headland, in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church, next to the ruin of the abbey?
Strangely enough, by the time Victoria reached the throne, the romantic gothic was fading out. Its prime was firmly behind it across Europe, as people like Sir Walter Scott developed the historical romance. However, it might have been slipping from prime time, but the very best gothic stories were yet to be written. In many ways, it was just hitting its stride.
After Dracula, my all-time favourite of the genre is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Made famous for children of the 1980s by pouting songstress Kate Bush, it was a very dark tale set in, you won’t be surprised to learn, Yorkshire.
Dickens himself was a huge fan, and wove gothic elements into some of his most famous works such as Bleak House. Then they come thick and fast. Jekyll and Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Trilby, The Turn of the Screw, with Dracula rounding out the century in 1897.
Along with Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s foremost practitioners was H. P. Lovecraft. Not well known in Britain, Lovecraft’s influence is perhaps felt more through his incessant letter writing. Psycho author Robert Bloch was one of Lovecraft’s correspondents, as was Conan The Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard. Most famously, of course, his ideas pushed Stephen King to a life of horror.
Although the gothic and horror do not necessarily always go together, sooner or later they intertwine. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of Sherlock Holmes’s best-loved adventures, and it has all the gothic hallmarks: the craggy, remote stately home, blood and gore, weird creatures human and otherwise. Yes, it is a yardstick of the genre, which slowly fell out of favor until it was truly a tropey old thing of the past.
Then, in Britain (of course), after a particularly long hiatus, the genre hit the big time again in the 1950s when Hammer Films of Bray, in Berkshire, began churning out a vast number of gory gothic howlers. Sure, they weren’t novels, but they were still gothic as hell. Featuring legends such as Sir Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and busty lovelies such as Barbara Shelley. Their 1950s exploits were made possible by a new X certificate for cinematic films which Hammer strategically profited from for a quarter of a century. Very recently, in 2007, the franchise was revitalised by a Dutch entertainment entrepreneur who is most famous for inventing the Big Brother format. What Hammer did back in its heyday was supremely modern. It made vast sequences of films, especially those based on Frankenstein and Dracula, which kept their addicted fans queuing up for more. This is remarkably similar to the box set binge made famous by Netflix.
Back to books, my favored medium. The genre did indeed give Anne Rice the opportunity to become wildly rich and famous in the 1970s and 80s. Her good fortune led her to actually believe her own hype, and retire to a forbidding, darkened house in New Orleans. That’s how powerful the gothic spirit can be; you are forewarned. With that said, get to a local library or bookstore as soon as you can, in the event you’re feeling too cheerful, full of life, and unafraid. That’s a condition that cannot be tolerated.
It’s time for you to blow the dust off those old books, and give them a go.