1. When was it?

Mid-18th century – present

Gothic literature reached the height of its popularity in the 19th century.

2. Who was writing?

Ann RadcliffeMary Shelley
Edgar Allan PoeBram Stoker
Henry James

3. History

Gothic literature grew out of literary habits and styles of the 18th and 19th centuries. The long, sweeping romances of early novels were being replaced by more realistic writing, yet the darker elements of life that had existed in folk tales still had an audience. Gothic literature put those darker elements into the sweeping stories, but with a realistic style.
The first attempt at writing a Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, attempted to combine these three elements. The book was not a literary success, but the idea of a scary but semi-realistic form of writing found a market as authors found an array of possibilities in creating horror or threatening characters and situations.
The fact that literacy had grown from being only available to scholars and the social elite to now include most of the population helped Gothic fiction. Reading became a form of common entertainment, and reading habits shifted away from the scholars’ choice of enlightening, moralistic classics. Now the masses wanted periodicals and shorter stories that were seen as more consumable and appealing. This would eventually lead to the ‘penny dreadful’ magazines of the 19th century, in which sensational or scary stories were printed in weekly editions, each costing one penny.

4. Traits

Mood is a key part of Gothic literature. It requires a sense of vague lingering danger, often connected to a location or history. As a result a common technique is to have a threatening mystery overshadow the characters, who consequently feel danger and unease from an unknown force. Common traits include suggestions of curses or hauntings; large isolated mansions (giving rise to the term ‘Gothic mansion’); references to a character’s or location’s tragic history; largely silent characters who hold a secret; and characters who hold a threatening or violent side to their personality.
Gothic literature is not pure horror – it is generally seen as a ‘pleasing terror’ – and therefore frequently includes elements of romance and melodrama. Travel, especially to and from a mysterious location, is sometimes used to create a sense of adventure as well as heighten the threat of a person or place to which the characters must return.
The language used in Gothic literature is important. Generally, the syntax is serious, but with bleak, grand, and mysterious adjectives used to describe the setting. Meanwhile, leaving information voids – secrets, unspoken histories, quiet characters – allows the reader’s imagination to heighten the unease.

5. Timeline

6. Examples

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Know Your Book

Title: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
Published: 1886
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; novella; Gothic
Plot: Gabriel Utterson believes the dastardly Edward Hyde is blackmailing Dr. Henry Jekyll. When a witness sees Hyde beat a man to death in the street, Utterson visits Hyde’s apartment but finds Jekyll. Then a letter of apology from Hyde is in Jekyll’s handwriting. Jekyll becomes a recluse, locked in his laboratory. When Utterson and Jekyll’s butler break into the lab, they find Hyde dead while wearing Jekyll’s clothes. There is also a letter in which the secrets of Dr Jekyll are revealed.
Setting: London
Characters: Gabriel Utterson; Dr. Henry Jekyll; Mr Hyde; Mr Poole

Excerpt from Chapter 4 ‘The Carew Murder Case’:

Nearly a year later, in the month of October, 18—, London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim. The details were few and startling. A maid servant living alone in a house not far from the river, had gone upstairs to bed about eleven. Although a fog rolled over the city in the small hours, the early part of the night was cloudless, and the lane, which the maid’s window overlooked, was brilliantly lit by the full moon. It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box, which stood immediately under the window, and fell into a dream of musing. Never (she used to say, with streaming tears, when she narrated that experience), never had she felt more at peace with all men or thought more kindly of the world. And as she so sat she became aware of an aged beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention. When they had come within speech (which was just under the maid’s eyes) the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it some times appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content. Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognise in him a certain Mr. Hyde, who had once visited her master and for whom she had conceived a dislike. He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience. And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.

by Bram Stoker

Know Your Book

Title: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker (1847-1912)
Published: 1897
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; novel; horror; Gothic
Plot: Solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to the Carpathian Mountains to meet new client Count Dracula, who wishes to purchase a London property. While wandering  Dracula’s castle, Harker meets three vampire women and realises that the count too is a vampire. Harker escapes, but the Count travels to England. There, Lucy, a young friend of Harker’s fiancée, becomes ill with ‘acute blood loss’. Dr Van Helsing, however, recognises the condition and puts together a vampire hunting team.
Setting: Transylvania; Whitby Bay; London
Characters: Jonathan Harker; Mina Harker; Count Dracula; Dr Abraham Van Helsing; Lucy Westenra

Excerpt from Chapter 3:

I was not alone. The room was the same, unchanged in any way since I came into it; I could see along the floor, in the brilliant moonlight, my own footsteps marked where I had disturbed the long accumulation of dust. In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them, for, though the moonlight was behind them, they threw no shadow on the floor. They came close to me and looked at me for some time and then whispered together. Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red when contrasted with the pale yellow moon. The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great, wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at the moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain; but it is the truth. They whispered together, and then they all three laughed—such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water-glasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on. One said:—
“Go on! You are first, and we shall follow; yours is the right to begin.” The other added:—
“He is young and strong; there are kisses for us all.” I lay quiet, looking out under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.