A Brief History of Gothic Horror

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
October 18, 2018
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
Die Rabe, an illustration of a castle

Die Rabe. Art and Picture Collection, NYPL (1912).

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1702644

Gothic fiction as a genre was first established with the publication of Horace Walpole’s dark, foreboding The Castle of Otranto in 1764. In the centuries since, gothic fiction has not only flourished, but also branched off into many popular subgenres.

Early novels in the gothic horror subgenre heavily feature discussions of morality, philosophy, and religion, with the evil villains most often acting as metaphors for some sort of human temptation the hero must overcome. The novels' endings are more often than not unhappy, and romance is never the focus.

The battle between humanity and unnatural forces of evil (sometimes man-made, sometimes supernatural) within an oppressive, inescapable, and bleak landscape is considered to be the true trademark of a gothic horror novel. These are the core elements that separate gothic horror from its cousin, gothic romance. (Check out our brief history of gothic romance here!)

In 1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s debut novel, Frankenstein, marked a shift in gothic horror by changing the typical gothic villain from an evil man or supernatural creature into an physical embodiment of human folly, brought to life through the power of science. Edgar Allan Poe managed to condense elements of gothic horror within his short stories, starting in 1839 with the release of "The Fall of the House of Usher." For more information on the Father of American Goth, check out our post: Where to Start with Edgar Allan Poe

The Victorian era (1837-1901) produced some of the most well-known examples of gothic horror with the publication of such novels as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and novellas such as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). H.P. Lovecraft borrowed heavily from the genre, as did the authors of pulp fiction novels and comics that were published in the years following the end of the Victorian era. As a film genre, gothic horror saw a boom during the earlier days of cinema, with the release of film adaptations of many of these novels, such as Universal’s Dracula (1931).

Although the genre was named after the gothic castles and crumbling medieval ruins so prevalent in early novels, many modern gothic novels have moved away from this traditional setting towards more contemporary locations, such as the haunted house featured in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) or the Bramford apartment building in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby(1967). As long as the environment invokes a disturbing sense of unease and/or terror within the reader, then anywhere is fair game in a gothic horror novel!

So whether you’re a fan of creepy castles or terrifying apartment complexes, we’ve gathered a list of 15 gothic horror novels and novellas that are guaranteed to chill and thrill! (Summaries adapted from the publishers.)