by Brittney Reed
Crimson Peak, one of my favorite movies, is widely regarded as a failure. I think that this is largely due to mismanaged expectations on the part of audiences. They bought tickets expecting a $50 million horror movie, but what Guillermo del Toro had made was something far different: a Gothic romance.
Gothic and horror are related, but they’re not the same thing. I think of it as a matter of adrenaline. You’re not going to feel that kidney-spike survival instinct kick in when you’re reading or watching a Gothic. Rather, you’re in for creeping dread and lingering wistfulness.
Both are things that Crimson Peak has to spare, along with all of the tropes that make a Gothic so darkly delicious: a determined heroine, a dark and brooding hero (who inhabits that role with ambiguity), a crumbling old mansion, plots leading to doom, disturbing family secrets, and, of course, ghosts (and, for my money, the most stylishly-designed ghosts in the history of cinema, but I adore del Toro and might be a smidge biased).
I bring up Crimson Peak because I think it’s a perfect example of Gothic fiction in film, and because we’re heading into the perfect time to read Gothic literature. As the days shorten and the weather takes a turn for the dreary, some people seek escape in lighter reads or the warm bustle of Christmas books. I much prefer to lean into the current season and embrace the somber atmosphere of November.
Here are some Gothic novels, from classic fare to more recent explorations of the genre, available through RCLS.
If you want to get down to the origins of Gothic literature, you’ll need to go all the way back to 1764, to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. It is considered to be the first Gothic novel.
Two out of three Brontë sisters published Gothic classics during the Nineteenth Century: Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily, Wuthering Heights. (Anne Brontë wrote less… intense love interests in her novels.)
If you want to read a send-up of the Gothic and the way it inflames readers’ imaginations, you’ll want to check out Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Crimson Peak gets its inspiration from classic Gothic literature, but also from Gothic romances, which are distinct from other Gothic novels in their focus on a romantic plot. Often a plucky heroine finds herself in a spooky house with a creepy kid and a brooding guy who might or might not have committed a crime. She might be depicted on the paperback cover wandering through a corridor with a candlabrum, or else fleeing from the house wearing a gauzy nightgown, looking back over her shoulder in abject terror. (Neil Gaiman’s 2006 poem “The Hidden Chamber” incorporates this trope.)
Gothic romance following this formula, also called “romantic suspense,” had its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, and it’s still what a lot of people think about when you talk about Gothic novels. When you look at books from this era, three authors come up again and again: Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt.
Gothic in the 20th Century:
Romance isn’t the only game in Gothic fiction, and the 20th Century also featured less pulpy examples of the genre.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is an essential Gothic novel, exploring the classic “I wonder how my new husband’s ex-wife really died?” plot. She also wrote Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel, which was adapted for film in 2017.
Shirley Jackson’s work is getting increased attention for the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, but the original is far, far different… and regarded by many, including Stephen King, as the best horror novel of all time. You should also read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or, to explore her short fiction, the collection Dark Tales.
Susan Hill’s 1983 slim novel The Woman in Black reads like a much older book, and is a good example of slow-burn terror. If it sounds familiar and you don’t know why, it might be from the 2012 adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe.
Of course, a supremely fun and easy way to get a dose of Gothic goodness or to acquaint yourself with the hallmarks of the genre is Edward Gorey. His signature pen-and-ink illustrations accompany odd and macabre tales that are immersed in Gothic aesthetics. Beyond his own writing, he also had a prolific career as an illustrator of other people’s books. He had a penchant for lending his pen to creepy stories, so you can often take his byline as illustrator as an endorsement. (An example being the Louis Barnavelt series, starting with The House with a Clock in Its Walls.)
Luckily, since the turn of the 21st Century, the Gothic lives on as contemporary authors find new ways to work within this old genre.
Sarah Waters writes historical fiction featuring lesbian characters and richly detailed settings. To read her work is to be immersed in the time period in a sort of Dickensian fashion. Fingersmith is set in Waters’s signature Victorian London, while The Little Stranger takes place postwar in a Georgian mansion.
Sarah Perry knows the Gothic genre well; she a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic from the University of London. She brings this knowledge to bear in Melmoth, in which a strange letter found in a library leads to encounters between a translator and a shadowy figure who moves throughout history.
If you’re only familiar with Audrey Niffenegger through The Time Traveler’s Wife, you should know that her other writing tends to be just as good but much darker and weirder. Her Fearful Symmetry, a ghost story set near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, is a perfect example.
Though the popularity of Gothic romantic suspense has waned, the genre still attracts authors who no longer feel the need to adhere quite as strictly to the original plot conventions. One such author is Simone St. James, whose novels (among them The Haunting of Maddy Clare, An Inquiry Into Love and Death, and Silence for the Dead), feature historical settings, creepy hospitals, psychics, and ghost hunting.
Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours plays with the time-honored trope of a mysterious letter summoning the heroine to an old castle, where eccentric sisters share history related to her mother. The Forgotten Garden, meanwhile, is set in Cornwall and Australia and preoccupies itself with family secrets and the search for one’s true identity.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books trilogy (The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven) begins with one reader’s quest to discover why books by an author he loves are being systematically destroyed. Perhaps the blurb describes it best: “an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love.”
Although contemporary Gothics often aren’t labeled explicitly as such, once you know the conventions, you find that they’re lurking on almost every bookshelf. As you can see, there’s plenty to choose from, and even more when you open up the criteria to include Gothics that blend more strongly with other genres, such as fantasy, or if you decide to explore Southern Gothic. But that’s a subject for another day…
In the meantime, steep a cup of your favorite tea and settle in for a dreary autumn of suitably atmospheric reading.