Gothic literature is a specific type of fiction. It is characterized by its medieval settings (castles or monasteries for instance), and its atmosphere of mystery and horror. It builds on the themes of melancholy, sadness and eeriness common theme in Romantic literature. The movement dates back to the 18th century, but a lot of writers have used it as an inspiration and written in a Gothic style since then.
The style is called Gothic because of its specific settings, which are reminiscent of the Gothic style of architecture from the Middle Ages. In fact, buildings and architecture are very important in that literature. The stories usually take place in old houses, castles, or monasteries, whether it be in small towns with cobblestone streets or in the countryside.
The first Gothic novel is considered to be Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1795). It takes place in the Middle Ages, between the 11th and 12th century, and the themes present in the novel have remained staples of the genre. The novel deals with Manfred, a prince whose son disappears before his marriage. However, the marriage was meant to counter an ancient curse. Manfred is haunted by ghosts and driven crazy. The supernatural elements in this book were inspired by medieval novels but Walpole added realistic elements, which led to the creation of the Gothic genre, a new genre of fantasy which was grounded in reality, making it more plausible and therefore scarier. Walpole himself lived in a Gothic mansion, and claimed to see ghosts in this house.
In the Gothic genre, the themes are similar to those of current horror stories, although there is almost always a supernatural element. The plot devices and character types used by Walpole became common in Gothic literature: hidden identities and strangers, medieval castles and houses, secret passageways, supernatural forces, and damsels in distress.
The masters of Gothic literature are considered to be Shelley, Stoker, and Poe. There are three major Gothic works written by them:
- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein;
- Bram Stoker's Dracula;
- Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the house of Usher.