Horror literature has always been around but early gothic novels brought a new standard to the genre. Some of our favorite elements of horror and romance originate with the gothic. The setting and the environment of these early novels typically depict a gloomy, shadowy atmosphere with dark, brooding males and na´ve, chaste females. The chilling design of the early gothic brought us an element of psychological horror that was not seen in much of the earlier literature.
Horace Walpole generally gets credit for the first major gothic novel. His tale, The Castle of Otranto, was original for its time in 1764. Even to this day, it would be difficult to find a plot more original than having a giant helmet fall from the sky and crush a groom on his wedding day. To make things worse, the father of the newly deceased groom pursues the young bride-to-be in order to secure an heir to the throne.
Regardless of the plot, the typical gothic novel will weave an environment in which architecture and atmosphere sets a mood of ruin and decay. Crumbling and sinister castles, mansions, and monasteries are often filled with dark and secretive corridors or damp dungeons. The wind will howl, doors will slam, stairs will creak and emotions will be on-edge. The novels seldom take place in the city, preferring instead an isolated environment thick with overgrown forests, high cliffs, lonely moors or secretive caverns.
The essence of the gothic is a world in ruin with an impending sense of doom. In gothic horror, the supernatural is present often in the legend of a ghost or possibly a family curse. A simple haunting may be used to expand on feelings of foreboding and terror. In a traditional gothic novel, a vulnerable young woman may be pursued by a dark, aloof male. She will end up frightened and possibly on the run down dark corridors or through dank caves. The gothic tale will be melodramatic as well as ominous and supernatural.
Mad men and mad women are staples in gothic horror. Long held secrets of aristocrats are exposed or the evil of a depraved monk comes to light. The suspense, mystery, and build-up to the exposed secret inflict the reader with feelings of fear, terror, and sorrow.
There is often a fine line between a gothic horror and a gothic romance. The gothic romance will have similar elements to the gothic horror such as in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Gothic horrors often contain elements of romance such as in Dracula and Frankenstein. Ultimately Horace Walpole, with his original use of the gothic novel, aroused emotions of fear and pity in his work and many gothic authors are still following in his footsteps.
If you enjoy reading the classics of gothic horror literature, you might enjoy reading (or re-reading) The Castle of Otranto or Frankenstein. I downloaded Frankenstein to my Kindle for free.