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How Gothic Horror has Shaped Contemporary Writing

Haunted castles, tortured souls and unexplained mysteries - oh my! Who doesn't love a bit of Gothic horror from time to time? This is a genre that grew to prominence back in the mid-to-late 18th Century, and it's had a profound impact on a lot of media ever since, from fiction and poetry to film and architecture.

I think Gothic fiction will always have a place in contemporary writing, as a lot of its themes are timeless and can be adapted for a present-day audience. There's also something deeply romantic about the genre - it was, after all, a genre that emerged within the larger literary movement known as Romanticism.

Here are some of the earliest Gothic works that probably had the biggest impact on Gothic lit as we know it (and on contemporary lit today).

The Castle of Otranto (1764)

It's widely believed that The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole was where it all began for Gothic literature. Walpole's novel, filled with atmosphere, intrigue, supernatural elements and prophecies, laid the foundation for a lot of literary tropes and traditions.

The story is set in the medieval Castle Otranto, ruled by the tyrant Manfred. Doesn't sound too bad, right? Well it gets creepy from there. Manfred's son dies suddenly on his own wedding day, which sets off the twisted plot. A mysterious helmet appears from seemingly nowhere, revealing a prophecy that hints at Manfred's downfall.

One of the best things about the setting is the castle itself, a labyrinth of corridors and shadows and secret chambers. This personification of the setting is a literary device that's been used in many great works of horror and Gothic fiction (one I can draw to mind immediately is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, where the city of London becomes a terrifying labyrinthine hunting ground and almost an accomplice to Mr Hyde's devilish whims).

If you've always wanted to read classic Gothic fiction, this is a good place to start.

Frankenstein (1818)

Ah, my FAVOURITE. Possibly my favourite novel of the 19th Century (certainly right up there with Jane Eyre in my heart's bookshelves). But it's not just a Gothic story, it's also one of the most well-known examples of early science-fiction. What a combination!

What was so remarkable about Mary Shelley is that she was just a teenager when she wrote Frankenstein. That's mind-blowing. At that time, many female writers were using male pseudonyms (such as George Eliot) from fear that their work wouldn't be taken seriously if people knew their true gender. In Shelley's case, she published the first edition anonymously.

Shelley delved into the depths of human ambition and the consequences of playing god. Her novel combined science and the macabre to create a monster whose story still haunts us to this day. It's an incredible feat. There have been a gazillion adaptations of Frankenstein since its first publication, spanning many different media, and you can kind of understand why.

A lot of the themes in Frankenstein still resonate with us. At its core, Shelley's work grapples with the following:

  • The Pursuit of Knowledge and Ambition: Shelley explores the consequences of unchecked scientific ambition and the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Driven by his desire to conquer death, Victor Frankenstein creates a creature that ultimately becomes his undoing. At its heart the novel is a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of playing god.

  • Moral and Ethical Implications: This should be a fairly obvious one. Is it OK to steal dead bodies and cobble together a humanoid being that doesn't understand itself or the world around it? Probably not. This also draws attention to the wider ethical conundrum of certain sciences in the modern day.

  • Nature versus Nurture: Shelley examines the age-old debate surrounding the influences of nature and nurture on an individual's development and actions. The monster is initially innocent and yearns for acceptance, but he's rejected by society due to his grotesque appearance. The novel raises questions about the role of society in shaping an individual's character and the profound impact of isolation and rejection.

  • Monstrosity and Otherness: Frankenstein challenges conventional notions of what it means to be a monster. Victor's monster, despite his physical deformities, possesses a complex range of emotions and intellect. Shelley invites us to question our preconceived notions of beauty and ugliness, and forces us to recognise the humanity and empathy within so-called monsters.

  • Responsibility and Accountability: This also relates to the ethical question above. Victor Frankenstein avoids responsibility, casting out the monster to fend for himself, which as we know leads to tragic consequences.

  • Alienation and Loneliness: Frankenstein explores the profound sense of isolation experienced by both Victor Frankenstein and his monster, and highlights the devastating effects of social exclusion and the yearning for companionship and acceptance. This is something that many people struggle with today and will continue to struggle with in the future. Shelley's novel underscores the importance of human connection and the sense of belonging.

  • The Sublime and the Supernatural: The sublime, a concept popular in Romantic literature, refers to the overwhelming sense of the infinite and the awe-inspiring power of nature. The novel juxtaposes the sublime with the dark, supernatural elements, which heightens the sense of mystery and terror.

It's a brilliant novel, and if you've never read the original Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley, I highly recommend it.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

As the years passed, gothic horror evolved and spread across the literary landscape. Edgar Allan Poe is a well-known author in Gothic lit, with stories like The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart.

In The Fall of the House of Usher, we're introduced to the narrator as he visits his friend Roderick Usher, a reclusive and tormented man, in his crumbling ancestral home. The narrator arrives at the House of Usher, a gloomy mansion surrounded by a desolate landscape that reflects the somber atmosphere of the story. Yes, another story where the imposing setting plays a part in creating unease in the reader.

Oh, and there's a curse. It had to be either a curse or a prophecy, right?

The story blends psychological terror and supernatural elements, making us uncertain about the boundaries between reality and delusion.

Dracula (1897)

A little later, Bram Stoker came blazing onto the scene with his iconic vampire novel, Dracula. This is another Gothic monster who has been repurposed, adapted and cameoed in tons of other media over the years.

Count Dracula is the embodiment of seductive evil and a device for Stoker to explore themes of sexuality, fear of the foreign and the struggle between good and evil. The Count also influenced the way vampires are portrayed in media.

One of the things I like about Dracula is that the entire novel is presented as a collection of diary entries, letters and journal excerpts from multiple characters. This format adds depth to the narrative and provides different perspectives on the events. Some readers might find this format difficult to penetrate at first, but it's effective in unfolding the true horror of the story.

Fast forward to the present day, and the influence of Gothic horror is undeniably obvious in a lot of the media we consume. Over time it has taken on new tropes and themes, but its fundamental elements continue to shape contemporary horror.

American Horror Story

This awesome TV series pays homage to the Gothic tradition, resurrecting its eerie ambiance, complex characters and intricate plotlines and often framing it within our modern culture. AHS is presented as an anthology series, with ach season telling a self-contained story with its own characters, setting and themes, although it's well-known for recycling actors and crossing-over its seasons, which connects the show as a whole and makes you think that there is a Far Bigger Plot going on.

I'm not going to lie, you either love AHS or hate its bold choices to explore some of the darknest, nastiest characteristics of horror. There is no sugar-coating and it's rarely subtle, but to great effect. It tackles taboo subjects, the depths of human depravity, and challenges conventional storytelling norms. I love it for this reason, but I'm sure many are put off by how... raw and unflinching it can be.

To Wrap Things Up!

Gothic's impact extends beyond storytelling, though. You can find it in fashion, music and even architecture, with emphasis on the macabre, the ornate and the uncanny. It's also become something of a symbol of rebellion and individuality within certain subcultures.

I love Gothic influenced media, but I tend to now prefer it when it's given a fresh spin, something that modern audiences can connect with. What are some of your favourite Gothic stories or adaptations? Feel free to drop a comment below.

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