There’s something about the gothic fiction genre which continues to captivate us. While much of the content we continue to read today comes from the Victorian era, the tropes and ideas explored in these works of fiction continue to influence all manners and mediums of horror to this day.
The gothic continues to terrify not because of gore or shock value, but because it speaks to the darkness that lurks within all of us. It seeks out the terrifying within the mundane. Gothic novels have shaped the field of horror like no other medium, so without further ado, here are the greatest gothic novels ever written.
The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole
There’s no better place to start than the very beginning, with Walpole’s classic being quite possibly the first ever gothic novel in history. This epic novel follows a reclusive family of Italian aristocrats in their secluded castle, as romance, murder and a hint of the supernatural tear the clan apart. The text is notable for being one of the first to adhere to a hyper-realistic style, which is what makes the sinister events of the story very haunting – and, we assume, even more so back when it was first published, in 1764.
Carrie, Stephen King
Not all gothic classics are several hundred years old. Stephen King is naturally the master of horror and has produced so many gothic titles that it’s hard to choose just one. However, the winner here has to go to Carrie, a blood-chilling saga of a suburban teenage girl imbued with satanic powers, who uses them against her bullies when pushed too far. The novel is both gruesome and deeply tragic, with an ending that will probably never be forgotten. It also spawned the equally-terrifying 1976 film version. You can read Vanity Fair’s explanation of why and how this film left its mark on horror cinema at https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/carrie-horror-influence-40th-anniversary
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson’s first foray into horror is undoubtedly his most memorable. Jekyll and Hyde deals with that most enduring of gothic tropes; the duality of man. The idea that we all have evil lurking within us and are capable of anything in the right circumstances has always been a powerful and terrifying one, and this novel’s legacy continues to endure. As well as endless remakes of the novel for film, stage, and television, Jekyll and Hyde is so compelling to modern audiences that even game versions of the story exist, such as the Jekyll & Hyde slot game at Paddy Power, which you can check out here: https://casino.paddypower.com/c/slots.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
It may not be the first, but Mary Shelley’s debut novel may well be regarded as the gothic novel. When she first gave a reading of this creepy tale to her friends at a crumbling villa on Lake Geneva, several of those in attendance actually fainted from fright. It still has that same power to frighten today, as you can read about at https://theboar.org/2015/11/is-mary-shelleys-frankenstein-still-scary/. This story of a demented scientist who creates a superhuman from cadaver body parts has been retold more times than we can count, for the simple reason that the pace, plot, and language create a pitch-black atmosphere that the reader can’t escape. True horror at its best.
All modern horror owes a deep debt to the gothic. If you want to understand what it is that makes a story truly terrifying, read these novels – just maybe keep the lights on.