GOTHIC NOVELS – Kay J. Mussel

7/17/2011 06:07:00 PM 0 Comments A+ a-


The gothic novel had its greatest general popularity in a relatively brief period of literary history, the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of nineteenth centuries. It was originally an English literary form. The influence of the gothic in fiction, however, has been much more significant than its relatively short period of great popularity would indicate. The audience for the gothic novel, from the works of Ann Radcliffe in eighteenth-century England to those of Phyllis Whitney in twentieth-century America, is primaly female. Women are attracted to gothic novels by the combination of romance and terror, a blend that has remained relatively constant over the past two hundred years.

The gothic novel is fiction with a characteristic world view supported by a particular set of conventions, It consists of a story set in a remote place or a remote time in which a usually impropable and terrifying mystery is completely interwined with a successful love story. Gothic novels do not provide a logical solution to the mystery; to the contrary, the mystery and the love story are so coincidentally interconnected that it is virtually impossible to separate them. The novels depend upon a setting in which the social structure is hierarchical; the conventions of gothic fiction, such as mysterious inheritance, hidden identities, lost wills, family secrets, inherited curses, incest, and illegitimacy, require a world in which social mobility takes place through family identity and marriage rather than individual worth.
                   
Although the gothic novel as a form is capable of containing and exploring sensitive and sophisticated questions in fiction, in its popular version version it has been both formulaic and predictable. The gothic novel over two centuries reaffirms the romantic belief in love as the cure for and defense against devil. In its earliest British form, as written by Horrace Walpole, the gothic novel was synonymous with supernatural horror; but within a few years, in the works of Ann Radcliffe and Clara M. Reeve, the gothic took on more sentimental and romantic characteristics. The gothic novel may have been submerged or out of vogue during some periods, but it was never entirely absent from the literary scene.
                  
Beyond the problem of definition, another impediment to the serious study of gothic fiction is that the audience for the form has been primarily female, relative inarticulate, and lacking in access to the outlets for critical expression. Gothic influenced detective fiction, science fiction, and the Western. Critics of gothic novels traditionally have divided them into several categories: sentimental-gothic, terror-gothic, historical-gothic, and some subcategories of lesser significance. Sentimental-gothic novels emphasize the love story and use supernatural terrors with rational explanations. The primary writer of this type in Britain was Radcliffe, and her work was most influential upon American fiction. Terror-gothic novels emphasize the supernatural, often using depraved monks or nuns as villains. Historical-gothic novels were much more influential in America. Such works romanticized the past, usually with anachronistic elements, exploiting the exocitism of a remote time to heighten the atmosphere of terror.

Gothic novels again attracted the attention of publishers early in the 1960s. There were some contemporary gothic novels. These contemporary gothic novels can also be divided into categories. Some are gothics with contemporary settings in which the strange and terrfying events come from the exotic nature of the environment; an example is Phyllis Whitney’s Black Amber (1964), which takes place in Turkey. Others are classic gothic stories set in the past in which a young woman (governess, bride) endures the terrors of an old house with ancient legend, superstitions, and family secrets; an example is Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck (1944). Recently, a new type of fiction related to the gothic has been gaining popularity, overshadowing, and outselling the work of Whitney and Seton.

It is clear that there is much more research and study to be done on gothic novels. Only the gothic novel for women has been neglected, and it’s clearly deserving of the same analytic treatment in its own right.