The gothic novel was a genre of fiction that became popular in England in the late 18th century. Set in gloomy forboding locales, gothic novels titilated readers by creating a sense of terror from supernatural or seemingly supernatural events. Gothic novels were also noted for their awe-inspiring descriptions of the untamed power of nature.

The first gothic novel was Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic Story (1764), from which the genre derived its name. Walpole's work was a huge success and inspired many imitators, including Clara Reeve, Charles Maturin, Matthew Lewis, whose lone entry to the genre - The Monk (1796), is the most unrestrainedly sensational of the gothic novels, and Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein (1816) is considered one of the last gothic novels. The undesputed queen of the gothic genre, however, was Ann Radcliffe, the reclusive housewife who exploded on the the scene in the 1790s with three tremendously popular gothic novels - The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797) - and then just as quickly gave up writing and retreated into a life of seclusion.

During the same period the gothic novel was popular in England, the Germans created the similar, rival genre of schauerromane, or "terror fiction" novels, many of which were widely translated with great success, most notably Friedrich Shiller's Die Geistersher (The Ghost-Seer) and Karl Grosse's Der Genius (translated as "Horrid Mysteries"). In the early 19th century the gothic novel became the subject of mockery, especially in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey, but its influence was lasting and can be seen in the writings of Coleridge, LeFanu, Poe, and the Bront√ęs. There were notable revivals of the gothic novel as popular fiction in the 1890s (of which Stoker's Dracula was part), in the 1960s, and in the 1990s.

Some Common Elements in 18th Century Gothic Novels:

  • Usually set in France or Italy (these countries were mysterious to ordinary Englishmen and women).
  • Main action takes place in an old castle, monastery, or crypt.
  • The villain is often an evil patriarch, either the father of the family or a Catholic monk/priest.
  • The plot revolves around an ancient family secret or a hideous past transgression.
  • One of the main characters is an innocent young virgin, alone and bereft of a mother or guardian.
  • Inanimate objects (portraits, statures, helmets, walls) tend to speak, bleed, or fall from the sky.
  • Descriptions of inanimate landscapes are designed to inspire a sublime terror.
  • Transgressive themes such as incest, matricide or patricide, and pacts with dark forces are common.
  • Veils (on women) and cowls (on men) play an important symbolic role.

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