Types of Gothic Fiction - The Gothics - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Types of Gothic Fiction
The Gothics
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

In the second edition (1765) of The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole subtitled his novel “A Gothic Story.” Although it is difficult to deny that Walpole did, after a fashion, give birth to the Gothic novel, we should be aware of a number of caveats surrounding this conventional assertion. Firstly, as James Watt reminds us (Contesting the Gothic 3), most novels under consideration here did not refer to themselves as “Gothic” novels but as “romances,” reflecting a desire to segregate themselves from the realistic novels of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett. Moreover, Gothic fiction took its own time in developing; Walpole’s work did not suddenly impel a legion of imitators. In Frederick S. Frank’s definitive listing of 422 Gothic novels (1762—1826) in Marshall Tymn’s Horror Literature (1981), we can gain a good idea of how quickly the Gothic novel proliferated; broken down in roughly five-year intervals, the rate of production is as follows:

1764—1770: 4 1796—1800: 107

1771—1775: 6 1801—1805: 71

1776—1780: 3 1806—1810: 64

1781—1785: 7 1811—1815: 26

1786—1790: 30 1816—1820: 38

1791—1795: 47 1821—1826: 5

(The total excludes a certain number of titles that are undated.) It can be seen from this breakdown that the true explosion of Gothic novels did not begin until the late 1780s, probably through the simultaneous influence of Ann Radcliffe and the founding in 1790 of William Lane’s Minerva Press, which was consciously designed to capitalise on the burgeoning interest in Gothic fiction, with the result that it published some of the worst drivel ever seen in English literature.

What, exactly, does it mean to refer to a work as a “Gothic novel”? Linda Bayer-Berenbaum provides a compact definition of the term:

The word Gothic originally referred to the Northern tribes that invaded Europe during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. The term was later applied by Renaissance critics to the style of architecture that flourished in the thirteenth century, because these critics thought that the style had originated with the Goths. This architecture was held in low esteem during the Renaissance, and the word Gothic therefore developed pejorative connotations suggesting the uncouth, ugly, barbaric, or archaic. It implied the vast and the gloomy, and subsequently denoted anything medieval. Later the word indicated any period in history before the middle or even the end of the eighteenth century. Gothic loosely referred to anything old-fashioned or out of date. The ruins of Gothic cathedrals and castles were naturally termed Gothic, and soon any ruins—the process of decay itself—became associated with the Gothic as did wild landscapes and other mixtures of sublimity and terror. (19)

It is because, among many other reasons, the Gothic novels almost always drew upon the mediaeval past—with the exception of Frankenstein and a few others—that the term “Gothic” should be restricted to the works of this period and not extended to the entire range of supernatural, horrific, or weird fiction.

It is, moreover, inaccurate and misleading to speak of “The Gothic Movement” as if it were a monolithic entity. Even though the great majority of the immense number of Gothic novels produced during this period (1764—1820) were crass imitations of a handful of illustrious exemplars, the movement (if it can even be called that) quickly fragmented into a number of discrete subgenres that had relatively little to do with one another. Even if a few of the leading figures of Gothic fiction made a token acknowledgement to The Castle of Otranto as the fons et origo of their own work, it becomes clear that several writers, especially Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, consciously departed from the model established by Walpole and worked in very different directions; by the end of the period (roughly coinciding with the emergence of the greatest of Gothic novels, Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, 1820), Walpole’s absurd little novel had largely been forgotten as a model, even if it continued to be reissued and read. By around 1795, indeed, Radcliffe in turn had become both the pinnacle of Gothicism and the springboard for still further deviations from it, especially in the work of M. G. Lewis and, later, William Godwin, Charles Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley, and Maturin.

We can, therefore, identify the following types of Gothic fiction:


The pure historical novel set in mediaeval times;


The mingling of the historical novel with the supernatural tale;


The “explained” supernatural, where the supernatural is suggested only to be explained away (usually implausibly) as the result of misconstrual or trickery;


The Byronic Gothic—a shorthand term not intended here to suggest any direct connexion with Byron, and featuring a focus on a hero/villain who seeks to transcend human bounds;


What I would call the Christian supernatural, where supernaturalism is manifested in a specifically Christian mode, either by the utilisation of the actual figure of the Devil, or of demons in league with the Devil, or subordinate entities (evolving out of Christian theology, even if their ultimate origin predated Christianity) such as witches and vampires.

Of these schools, I will have nothing to say of (1)—whose pioneering work was Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783—85)—and relatively little of (2), since I maintain that these works had a very slight influence on the progress and development of subsequent supernatural literature, or even the non-supernatural literature that might conceivably be considered horrific. Indeed, it is worth noting that, of the 422 works cited in Frank’s list, only 106 can be clearly identified as supernatural. It is true that Frank’s idea of what constitutes “Gothic romance” is rather generous, including everything from Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (but, oddly, excluding Faust) to the pornographic novels of the Marquis de Sade to the early historical novels of Sir Walter Scott to Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangeureuses, but nevertheless the relative paucity of actual supernaturalism in the fiction of this period is noteworthy.

The Gothic novel has been the subject of an immense amount of scholarly and critical work—far out of proportion, in my judgment, to its merits on abstractly aesthetic terms. This work ranges from largely historical accounts—including the pioneering studies by Edith Birkhead (The Tale of Terror, 1921) and Eino Railo (The Haunted Castle, 1927)—to those utilising every conceivable sort of theoretical presupposition, including recently even that of queer theory (see Haggerty, Queer Gothic). Of this work I intend to say little, as the great majority of it is not germane to my overriding purpose of establishing the nature, purpose, and function of the supernatural in literature. There is, perhaps, some justification in the critical obsession with this period, since the Gothic novel really was a dominant branch of prose fiction during this time and is therefore of significance to the overall literature and culture of Europe and the United States; but the single-minded focus on this period, conjoined with the deliberate ignorance of subsequent strains of supernaturalism that are of immensely higher literary calibre, makes one seriously doubt the critical judgments of the scholars involved. I shall have more to say about their theorisings about the nature and direction of Gothic fiction at the end of this chapter; for now it may be more productive to gain some idea of the particulars of the leading instances of Gothic fiction before offering some theoretical proposals of our own.