Spine-chillers and suspense: A timeline of Gothic fiction
Tales of terror
Gothic novels have been scaring us for 250 years.
The mid-18th Century - an era of dark, satanic mills at home and nightmarish social upheaval abroad - saw public taste shift from traditional tales of romance and adventure to an appetite for terror.
It is a wide-ranging genre which includes Frankenstein, Dracula and Wuthering Heights. The success of recent novels such as Twilight continue its popularity. This timeline spotlights key moments in the evolution of spine-tingling Gothic stories.
The Castle of Otranto: The first Gothic novel
English aristocrat Horace Walpole combines the supernatural and horrific to create the first Gothic novel.
Purporting to be translated from an earlier manuscript, The Castle of Otranto introduces what have become classic Gothic devices, such as a foreign location, a dark and ominous castle and a naïve young woman fleeing from an evil, lustful man. In a direct imitation of Shakespearean tragedy, Walpole introduces comedy to relieve the novel’s most melodramatic moments.
The Mysteries of Udolpho: The dawn of female Gothic
Ann Radcliffe helps to define what makes a Gothic novel and enjoys massive commercial success.
In her best-known novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe introduces ‘the explained supernatural’, a technique by which terrifying, apparently supernatural incidents have a logical explanation. Over the course of her previous novels, Radcliffe developed the formula of ‘the female Gothic’, first introduced in The Recess by Sophia Lee. The formula is perfected in Udolpho, and has since become a Gothic norm.
The Monk: Shocking society
Matthew Lewis scandalises the literary world.
Lewis’s novel about the misdeeds of a spoiled priest features incestuous necrophilia, matricide, cannibalism, voyeurism, and a satanic pact – not to mention an incredibly gory finale. It was one of the characters censoring the Bible, however, which most upset its contemporaries – as well as the fact that its teenage author was an MP. The novel, which has been retrospectively classed as ‘Male Gothic', features the genre’s typical themes of a lone male, exiled and an outsider.
The Vampyre: Birth of the tale in English
On the shores of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron challenges his friends to write a ghost story.
Among them is John Polidori. He writes The Vampyre, the first vampire story to be written in English. The novel introduces the Byronic hero to Gothic. He is the attractive, dangerous outsider, whose struggles with melancholy will feature in numerous classics of the genre. On publication The Vampyre is incorrectly attributed to Byron instead of Polidori, to the annoyance of both writers, but the novel is a success and sparks a craze for similar vampire tales.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: Raising the dead
Lord Byron’s competition produces another Gothic classic: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
Shelley’s story features many Gothic spine-tingling elements, including the macabre horror of raising the dead. However, the novel in which a creature created from disparate body parts is brought to life is often considered to be the first in the science fiction genre. Many believe it to be a warning about the dangers of contemporary science.
Northanger Abbey: Austen plays with Gothic
Jane Austen parodies the genre.
While not the first satire of Gothic to be published – The New Monk (1798) and The Heroine (1813) were among a number preceding it – Northanger Abbey is perhaps the most memorable of the genre. The novel, whose lead character is a young girl obsessed by Gothic stories, contains direct references to The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk.
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque: Psychological terror
Edgar Allan Poe’s collection of short stories is published.
While the tales feature many traditionally frightening Gothic themes, Poe’s characters also suffer psychological terror - “terror of the soul”. The collection includes Poe’s famous story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, which charts the descent of Roderick Usher into madness through fear. Other stories in the collection feature a collection of madmen and unreliable narrators.
Wuthering Heights: Gothic close to home
Emily Bronte transports Gothic to the wild and dangerous Yorkshire moors.
The classic romantic novel has become synonymous with the idea of the Female Gothic: where women are trapped in a domestic space and dominated by men. In addition it includes many other Gothic traits: stories told within stories, the supernatural, the tyrannical ‘villain’, and Wuthering Heights itself, the imposing building in which much of the story is set. In the character of Heathcliff, Bronte creates the ultimate Byronic hero.
Carmilla: The female vampire
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s story establishes the formula for the female vampire.
Le Fanu’s tale of the mysterious Carmilla owes a debt to Samuel Coleridge’s unfinished poem Christabel, but becomes influential in its own right, second only to Dracula in terms of popular vampire characters. Le Fanu draws on emerging ideas about female sexuality to depict a vampire whose lesbian inclinations are surprisingly explicit by Victorian standards. Carmilla becomes the model for female vampires in film, with variations of the character appearing in Hammer horrors, among others.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Anticipating Freud
Robert Louis Stevenson explores the nature of good and evil.
A literary success in the Victorian era, the tale has lived on and like Frankenstein and Dracula its characters have transcended the original text to become a modern myth. The novel is also the fullest articulation of the important Gothic theme of the double: the contrast between good and evil in people or places. Stevenson anticipates the ideas of Sigmund Freud, whose first psychoanalytic studies were to be published just five years later.
Dracula: The vampire’s vampire lands at Whitby
Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire is introduced.
While Richard Marsh’s horror novel The Beetle was the bigger seller in 1897, it is Stoker’s story that has captured and engaged the public’s imagination. The tale of the Transylvanian count transferred well to screen, helping to cement the myth of Dracula and, in turn, dominating our idea of how male vampires look and behave.
Gormenghast trilogy: Stylised Gothic
Mervyn Peake publishes Titus Groan, later followed by Gormenghast and Titus Alone.
Peake's epic trilogy for adults introduces the castle-kingdom of Gormenghast, an exaggerated, baroque, stylised world that merges Gothic and fantasy literature inspiring future generations of children's writers.
Salem's Lot: King Gothic
Stephen King creates the Gothic horror blockbuster.
King’s vampire story ‘Salem’s Lot is a critical and popular success. The author is lauded for breathing new life into the traditional vampire story by incorporating modern fears and realistic settings. Two years later his supernatural horror The Shining is published. A film adaptation of the story becomes a classic Hollywood horror.
Interview with the Vampire: Sensitive blood-suckers
Anne Rice establishes the idea of the ‘sympathetic vampire'.
Rice's vampire couple, introspective, guilt-ridden narrator Louis and charismatic, amoral anti-hero Lestat are far removed from the traditional idea of the vampire. This paves the way for the brooding romantic vampire found in modern popular culture, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels. These achieve great popular success, reigniting interest in vampire tales and introducing Gothic to a new audience.
The Bloody Chamber: Feminist Gothic
Angela Carter rewrites fairy tales from a feminist perspective.
Carter's collection of short stories is perhaps the most famous example of feminist Gothic. Her retelling of traditional children’s stories exposes some of the major Gothic themes, including incest, violence and the objectification of women.
House of Leaves: 21st Century Gothic
Mark Z Danielewski’s cult 700-page novel redefines Gothic for the twenty-first century.
The novel brings many traditional elements of Gothic together, while turning the process of reading itself into a labyrinth with convoluted footnotes, different typefaces, elaborate arrangements of text on the page, and passages in code, mirror writing, musical notation and Braille.