Written by Jonathan Séguin


The Gothic Genre of Story Telling

    As the New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language indicates, the word “gothic” originally came from the latin gothicus, in reference to the Germanic tribe of Goths who violently invaded the Roman empire using arrows and swords (1). Over the decades and centuries, the Goth tribe literally vanished, leaving only its name used as an adjective, first synonym of “barbarity”, later used to designate a tall and unique architectural style seen from the 13th century up to the Renaissance period (1). 

     The Gothic genre of storytelling, or Fantastic as we know it now, was a literary style popular during the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. However, this does not imply that people were indifferent to scary tales that involved werewolves, ghosts and the living dead before that era; the Bible, for example, contained various tales of demon hunting. Portraying fantastic tales dealing with horror, despair, the grotesque and other “dark” subjects, the Gothic genre got its name from the apparent influence of the dark gothic architecture. Moreover, it is a counter current genre, created to reflect the fear of the people who were exposed to a disruptive new kind of bourgeois democracy in the end of the 18th century (2). 

   Often criticized for its sensationalism, its melodramatic qualities, and its play on supernatural, the Gothic novel dominated English literature from its conception in 1764 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, to its “supposed” demise in 1820 with the publication of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. Many of these Gothic tales took places in such “gothic” surroundings, sometimes a dark and stormy castle as shown in Mary Wollstoncraft Shelly’s Frankenstein, or Bram Stoker’s infamous Dracula. Other times, the story of darkness occurred in a more everyday setting. Such a story is told in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” where a man goes mad in a house from the “beating” of his guilt. The genre took its intense images from the graveyard poets who mixed a landscape of vast dark forest, concealed ruins, horrific rooms, monasteries and “a forlorn character that excels at the melancholy”. (3) Recurring themes of the Gothic novel include seclusion, the menacing night, space and architecture, a dream-like state, and lunacy.

   Cited by modern critics as defining parameters of the Gothic canon are tales of high artistic achievement such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). In essence, these stories were romances, largely due to their love of the imaginary over the logical, and were told from many different points of view.

   This literature later gave birth to many other forms, such as suspense, ghost stories, horror, mystery, and detective stories. Gothic was not as different from other genres in form as it was in content and its focus on the bizarre aspects of life. This movement literally opened people’s eyes to the possible uses of the supernatural in literature.

    Still today, the effects of the Gothic genre reverberate through modern literature. From Carlos Fuentes, to Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Rice, the literary motifs set forth by Horace Walpole almost 250 years ago can be found scattered throughout various forms of literature, for the pleasure of all readers.

 Works Cited