The creepy footsteps, the howling of wolves, and the weird noises… A horrible shriek of a damsel in distress… Knock! Knock!… the constant knock at the door in the dead of night… Suddenly the light went out…The uncanny movement of the curtain due to the wind or something more—especially the unknown…The horrible creaking at night and the flickering of candles. Boo!!! Such spooky elements of Gothic novels really intrigue me. I am a die-hard fan of Gothic literature and all the tales of horror and mystery extremely fascinate me. I have dedicated this blogpost to share with you some of my favorite classic Gothic novels of all the time. Also, I highly recommend all these classic tales of terror and mystery. But before heading to the topic, let me first tell you briefly about “Gothic fiction.”
What is Gothic fiction?
Gothic literature (also ‘Gothic fiction’ or ‘Gothic horror’) is one of the oldest and widely studied literary genres. It encompasses novels and stories having Gothic elements such as horror, mystery, adventure, psychological torment and supernatural phenomenon. The dark atmosphere, haunted houses full of passage ways, shadowy corridors, hidden rooms and underground tunnels, the windswept moors, and the gloomy and uncertain landscapes or architecture that create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery—all are the characteristic elements of Gothicism in literature.
Gothic literature actually emerged in 18th century Europe as the sub-genre of the Romantic movement. It placed great emphasis on intense emotion and blending old with new, terror with pleasure, and death with romance. This unique pairing helped create a sense of eeriness and estrangement that Gothic fiction is specifically known for. The works of Gothic fiction also intertwined the past and the present. For instance, even though man’s progress seemed to make him increasingly powerful, history continued to haunt him.
The Gothic novelists, under the spell of medievalism, wrote novels of terror, suspense, and psychological thrill. The origin of Gothic novels is ascribed to Horace Walpole who wrote the first Gothic novel “The Castle of Otranto” in 1764. This first Gothic novel skillfully combined the elements of Romanticism with horror and the supernatural. Walpole’s novel inspired a number of writers who introduced the same mechanism of ‘terror’ in their writings and earned great popularity. Among them the most famous were Edgar Allan Poe, Mathew Lewis, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker and others.
Since its earliest days, Gothic fiction has impressed on its audience how pleasant it is to know what to fear. Its recognizable characteristics have sustained the genre for more than two centuries. Whatever form Gothic is in (prose, poetry or movie); it deeply appeals to its audience.
Top 12 Most Famous Classic Gothic Novels
Let me also tell you that though Gothic fiction instantly conjures up ghosts, monsters and gloomy castles, the genre isn’t all about terror. There is much more to explore behind the horrific Gothic tales. Let’s look at what makes Gothic literature so compelling by looking at twelve of the most haunting and heart-wrenching Gothic horror novels that shaped the genre.
1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
The Castle of Otranto, subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’, by Horace Walpole is a classic Gothic novel published in 1764. It is the very first Gothic novel that actually initiated the ‘Gothic horror’ genre. This book triggered the huge burst of interest in medievalism and ‘terror’ fiction that still endures to this day.
Set in the castle of Lord Manfred, the book opens dramatically. A giant helmet falls from the heavens and crushes Manfred’s frail son Conrad on his wedding day. His tragic fate seems proof of the ancient prophecy predicting the awful demise of the castle’s inhabitants. Immediately after the death of his son, Manfred attempts to marry the bride himself and divorce his wife, who has failed to produce suitable heirs. His efforts are continuously interrupted, showing the divine design against his attempts.
Filled with supernatural natural elements and gloomy atmosphere, damsels in distress and tyrannical men, The Castle of Otranto is a chilling read. Walpole has utilized a number of Gothic tropes that would eventually come to exemplify the genre. The backdrop of a medieval castle in a foreign country is the most obvious in the book, paired with elements of the supernatural and the macabre. However, Walpole’s novel is unique as it also includes humor and completely surrealistic additions that other well-known Gothic novels which followed did not.
The Castle of Otranto is one of the most read Gothic novels, indeed a bulwark of Gothic literature. It is not a very quick read but it’s good to read considering its significance to the genre and its development. Walpole’s novel is arguably the blueprint for many famous Gothic novels that tried to imitate its style.
2. Vathek by William Beckford
A classic among Gothic novels, Vathek (1786) by William Beckford is an Arabian tale surrounded by Gothic weather and elements. Beckford originally drafted the story in French, regardless of being English himself. Later it was translated and published in English. The book centers on the reign of the Caliph Vathek whose quest for supernatural powers leads to his fall from power. Beckford’s book actually capitalizes on the popular 18th century interest in ‘Orientalism’ and the Eastern cultures.
The Caliph Vathek is a deeply hedonist, ambitious, and selfish man whose thirst for knowledge has no limits. He is always after the knowledge of what he can’t gain. For the sake of his ambitious and insatiable curiosity, he even doesn’t hesitate to sell his soul to the dark forces. From then on, we accompany his doom. While reading this book, you can find yourself rolling from vanity palaces to dark, mysterious cliffs. Ambition, deliciousness, greed, love, purity are well processed in the book. Enthralling and surprising from the beginning to the end, full of unusual and fascinating events and elements, however, to the extent of being bizarre, Vathek is able to keep many readers’ attention high. The abating evil and dark fantasy, the relentless high tension, extravagance and the grotesque elements are as evocative and fascinating as they are creepy and somewhat absurd.
Vathek is an enjoyable Gothic novel with the taste of fairy tales. It’s a book that captures you the moment you start reading it, surprises you with its fairy tale fiction, and enchants you with its dreary atmosphere. The book so well explains the end of those who deny the Creator. It’s definitely a good read for those who love horror novels.
3. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is another famous Gothic novel. The book depicts the mechanism of the ‘terror’ as prescribed by Horace Walpole and his followers, but combines it with a sentimental but effective description of scenery.
Set in France and Italy in the late 16th century, The Mysteries of Udolpho tells the story of an orphan girl, Emily St. Aubert. An innocent, beautiful and virtuous young woman, the orphaned Emily falls in the hands of a heartless villain named Montoni. He confines her in a grim and isolated castle full of mystery and terror. There she must cope with an unwanted suitor, Montoni’s threats, and the terrors and wild imaginings that threaten to overwhelm her. There are a number of strange occurrences in the novel which seem to be supernatural, but are revealed to have rational explanations.
The Mysteries of Udolpho portrays her heroine’s inner life, creating a dense atmosphere of terror, and providing a gripping plot that continues to thrill and entertain the readers today. Radcliffe’s brilliant use of history, exotic settings, the supernatural, and poetry makes the book truly a classic in the Gothic genre. The way the author has described the natural places and the really creepy Gothic castle makes you feel as if you are personally there. I highly recommend this beautifully written Gothic romance novel!
4. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Gothic Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
One of the most famous Gothic reads, The Fall of the House of Usher is a quintessential spooky house story. It is full of gloomy atmosphere, sickness, death of loved ones, and dark metaphors. The story is melancholy and descriptive, including Gothic themes of madness and isolation.
The story begins with the unnamed narrator who arrives at his friend, Roderick Usher’s old, disheveled mansion, after receiving his letter complaining of an illness and asking for his help. He is ill physically as well as mentally. The story also reveals that Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline, is also ill and falls into deathlike trances. Along with Mr. Usher’s constant fear and dread, Madeline’s catalepsy also plays a great role in his decay. The eerie setting and twist of plot has made this story a perfect combination of chaos and madness.
Edgar Allan Poe’s other famous Gothic stories include The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado. The Tell-Tale Heart is a disturbing and creepy look at the psychological torment. The main character is suffering from madness and possesses evil thoughts. He believes he hears the constant heartbeat of a man he once killed. As the story escalates, he is constantly thinking of violence and murder in order to silence the noise. His full blown psychosis ultimately leads him to disastrous consequences.
The Cask of Amontillado is another famous Gothic story by Edgar Allan Poe. Set in Italy, it narrates a sad tale of misunderstanding and betrayal. After a perceived slight, Montresor decides to take his friend Fortunato’s life. What follows is a shocking tale revealing a terrifying ending. All of Poe’s Gothic tales have been in the must read list of Gothic fans since ages.
5. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Written in 1796, The Monk by Matthew Lewis is one of the cornerstones of Gothic literature and an early precursor of the horror genre. This is a story where fate connects neither time nor place or hope, but something else—something human, something eternal. The book explores plenty of topics such as corrupt religion, sexual assault, murder, morality, the literal devil as a character, people pretending to be something else, etc. While reading this book, you can find yourself rolling from castles to abbeys to dark corners.
The novel takes us to the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The story revolves around a highly respected young monk named Ambrosio who spends the first thirty years of his life in strict piety. He is sure that there is no one stronger to face the temptation of sin than him. Until the real temptation comes to him… After an incident, Ambrosio is led down a dark path of sorcery, murder, incest, and torture. The book is full of visits from beyond the grave, moist dungeons, mutilated bodies, and occult practices. Long and detailed descriptions make this dark scenery literally appear before your eyes, which is a true feast for your imagination.
A masterpiece of Gothic fiction, The Monk combines sensationalism with acute psychological insight. It explores how erotic and fierce impulses can break through the barriers of moral and social restraint. Amidst all the melodrama are sympathetic reactions to unfortunate circumstances. Lewis’s deep exploration of psyche is what makes this story truly shocking and terrifying. To put it simply, The Monk is an outstanding work and despite the years it is continuously appealing to horror classics lovers. Must read this Gothic story at least once in your lifetime!
6. Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
Regarded by many as the first American Gothic novel published in 1798, Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown is full of frightening revelations, devilish voices, murderous intent and even a shocking event of spontaneous combustion. The dramatic first-person narration acts to remind the reader that the novel will have a horrific, bloody conclusion.
Wieland is the main character, but the story is narrated by his sister, Clara. Coming from a troubled, chaotic lineage, filled with suicides and mysterious deaths, they are the only survivors of the Wieland family. Their family history begins in Europe, then we get to know about the life of their father, a man with very firm religious conceptions. He comes to America, setting in Philadelphia, and has a tragic destiny, which will influence the lives of the two characters. And then the family saga begins, involving religious and supernatural issues. Clara’s confessions of how much she is struggling with reliving the terror of her tragic experience whilst writing it down added to our investment in the mysterious events to follow. The terror stands in the atmosphere and the suspense is firm in the characters’ dubious actions and in the null understanding of what is happening.
The ventriloquism central to the novel is employed for sinister purposes, creating competing false narratives in the minds of various characters. Everything becomes so complicated and obscure for the family that they become uncertain as to whether they can trust their own senses. And when one of them blindly trusts the manipulative voice they hear, chaos descends and gory senses ensue. The main themes of the plot are religious fanaticism, psychological manipulation, and unexplainable phenomena. Filled with suspense and mystery, Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown is a book worth reading for its historical context and importance to Gothic literature!
7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a classic novel that combines Gothic literature with Romanticism. It’s a gripping horror novel with elegant prose and compelling imagery. The book brings a story about science versus nature and the dangers of playing God. It covers the themes of guilt, burden, losing loved ones, alienation, and the question of evil.
Frankenstein tells the epic tale of Victor Frankenstein, a natural science student who creates a monster in a laboratory without thinking about the consequences of his actions for science and winning death. The creation of the monster triggers the never ending struggle of revenge between the creator and the creation. Told in an epistolary style also containing embedded narrative, the structure of Frankenstein is almost triangular, where each of the major characters has conversations with the others, excluding all other characters from the story. There is no omniscient narrator here. The characters’ narratives act almost as testimonies to what they have done, learnt and witnessed.
This classic horror novel evokes fear as it’s scary and horrific throughout. It is, indeed, one of the best Gothic novels of all time. The book not only is full of grotesque imagery to fuel the imagination. But it also brings into light the questions of morality as to who the real monster is. In the end you’ll be wondering which side you would choose, and what that means to you. The book is worth reading for the fans of classics, horror, and science fiction.
8 . Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin
Gothic literature was not limited to merely English productions. It was in Ireland that the last work of the classical period of Gothic literature appeared—Malmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Robert Maturin. The book tells the tale of a cursed covenant that haunts European culture since the high Middle ages. The famous medieval legend that inspired the novel was the legend of the ‘Wandering Jew’. He was the man they claim to have taunted Christ on the way to the Crucifixion. Because of this act, he was abhorred in both Heaven and Hell. Being worthy neither of one nor the other, he was condemned to wander around the world eternally, in a miserable existence until the end of time.
Melmoth the Wanderer is a violent story about a man who sold his soul to the devil for a longer life. But he repented of his covenant, and now hunts the destitute people, in their most desperate moments, offering to relieve their sufferings if they accept to exchange places with him and free him from the centuries of tortured wanderings. Maturin’s book deals not just with visceral horror, but existential, spiritual, and intellectual horror as well. It is a truly and surpassing Gothic book that nearly obviates the need for all other books in the genre.
Looking at the development of classical Gothic literature, it’s impossible not to mention Melmoth the Wanderer. This was one of the books that helped shape Gothic fiction itself and, along with ‘The Castle of Otranto’, ‘The Monk’ and the works of Ann Radcliffe, is absolutely essential to understand the aesthetics of literary terror of the turn of the century in the European context. It’s a book worth reading!
9. The Vampyre: A Tale by John William Polidori
A must-read for fans of classic horror, William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) is a short novel about a lurid and ominously surreptitious vampire, Lord Ruthven. Polidori’s depiction of Lord as a wealthy aristocratic vampire in his story was one of the first romanticized characterizations of the vampire figure in literature. From a character in folklore, Polidori transformed the vampire into the form we widely recognize today—an aristocratic devil who preys among high society. It’s Polidori’s story that actually laid the foundation for the modern vampire legend. The theme of love and hate, which has now become a staple of vampire fiction, is integral to the book.
The Vampyre narrates the tale of a young man, Aubrey, who is seduced by the mystery of Lord Ruthven. Aubrey soon discovers that there are aspects to the Lord which he did not first recognize for what they were. He begins to notice the disaster and deaths of everyone he and Lord Ruthven encounter. Towards the end of the story, Aubrey makes an oath to the mysterious Lord, the consequences of which are extremely devastating. The book aptly deals with aristocratic seduction and murder, the connection between a vicious young aristocrat and vampirism, the moral collapse of the characters being seduced, and the inability of their family to protect them.
Neither as modern nor as fancy as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (or any other modern vampire story), The Vampyre is a must read for those who search for a more grounded or original fantasy novel. So if you want to read a chilling, gothic story then this isn’t really it. But if you’re interested in the evolution of the mythos of vampirism in English literature, in the forebears to classic Gothic novels such as Frankenstein, or Dracula, then this book is worth a read.
10. Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu
Written by the Irish author Sheridan le Fanu, Carmilla (1872) is one of the earliest vampire stories, one that predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The book is intense, romantic, brief, well written, pioneering, and ahead of its time.
The story is set in Styria (former Austro-Hungarian empire) in the old, austere castle of Laura’s father. Laura, the narrator of the story, is a young woman who lives isolated with her father. She has her life literally transformed after the arrival of the guest Carmilla, a beautiful and enigmatic young woman. Laura narrates how her life goes from peace and calm to puzzling and appalling when Carmilla appears and awakens contradictory feelings in her. The story narrative becomes tense as Carmilla’s past begins to be revealed in contrast to Laura’s childish love. Part of the traditional vampire mythology is told in this story that will present a different form of love between a dark being and a human that is precursor to various vampire stories. Men in general are portrayed as somewhat passive in the novel, allowing their daughters a great deal of self-agency and freedom.
Carmilla is loaded with Gothic touches, mystery, and sometimes the scenes that put hair on end. This is a classic that deserves reading by the approach made in the vampire figure and also by the form of the approach to homosexual love that was previously a taboo for the time of the original publication of the work. The theme of the femme fatale reaches its top exponent here, and the echoes of this magnificent Gothic novel make it one of the main references of today’s horror.
11. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the greatest Gothic fiction classics. It presents an intriguing combination of fantasy thriller and moral allegory. The tingling suspense and intellectual and sensitive portrayal of man’s dual nature reveal Stevenson as a writer of great skill and originality. His power to terrify and move us remains, even years later, undiminished. On a psychiatric level, this book is very interesting as it almost represents an example of dissociative identity disorder (DID), a disorder in which the patient has at least two identities that control him or her alternately.
The book depicts the gripping struggle of two opposing personalities—one essentially good, the other evil—for the soul of one man. Dr. Jekyll, a Victorian chemist is curious about the duality of human nature. His experiment of separating two states of human nature goes beyond his control and the result is a disaster. Since its publication in 1886, this haunting tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become synonymous with human duality, and the battle between light and dark within human nature. Reading this story, one instantly sucks into the macabre, delving into Stevenson’s prose in all its Gothic glory as he builds suspense before his nightmarish reveal.
Stevenson’s book does spread out a lot of detailing yet concealing quite a few things which keeps the reader pondering. The disconnected ends of the strings of the weaving of the story reveals the gaping holes of the Victorian society and it’s terrible stigmas of homosexuality, prostitution, and split personality because of schizophrenia. It’s definitely one of the most immortal stories that should be read at least once in a lifetime. I recommend it to everyone who loves Gothic atmospheres and search for a short but intense story.
12. Dracula by Bram Stoker
One of the most flagship works of Gothic horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is the creepiest horror story ever written. In a charming Gothic setting with supernatural elements, Dracula impresses the reader with its diversity, whether in its narrative or striking characters. The dark and tense charge of the narrative transports us into history in a most scary way.
In an epistolary narrative—composed of letters, journals, memos, and newspaper clippings—the story of Dracula begins when young lawyer Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to visit a client, Count Dracula, to deal with some business matters. Count Dracula keeps him prisoner and Harker guesses his dark purposes. He is travelling to London to plant terror and harvest victims with which to fill his blood appetite. In England, Lucy Westenra moves from happiness for her future marriage to an unexpected lethargy. Her friends are anxious about her getting weaker and paler day by day. Also, they notice some strange wounds on her neck. Lucy’s friend, Dr. Seward, decides to call on Professor Van Helsing to take matters into account. Soon, the circle around Lucy will undergo a terrifying experience that will test its value.
Although Dracula is a 19th century novel, written by a man, we are introduced to a strong female figure, Mina Murray. She is Lucy’s friend and fights against all the odds with resistance, intelligence, common sense, and courage. Another flagship character is Van Helsing, a name to date used in numerous stories to refer to vampire hunters. From the beginning to end, the story is wonderful and quite unpredictable. I highly recommend it since it’s one of the true classic and unmissable Gothic horror novels.
As a lover of Gothic novels, nothing makes me happier than to read about the exploration of potentially haunted castles, the supernatural phenomenon, the struggle between good and evil (where the good overwhelms the bad) etc. And there is a lot in these books to quench my thirst for horror fiction!
To put it simply, Gothic fiction has everything we could ever want in a tale of horror. Moreover, the unsettling and enthralling tales of Gothic horror shock us out of our everyday experiences, entertain us, and teach us as well. They’re so captivating that one may desire to remain in their realms of fright forever. All these Gothic novels are interestingly spooky, and definitely worth looking into if you are a true fan of Gothic literature.
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