Quick and Dirty: Gothic Literature

gothic lit

I have been struggling with when to stop reading for this post.  Every time that I have read enough books to put together a short Gothic primer I have put it off to complete one more book to discuss.  But then, if I include them all, this post won’t be a short Gothic primer, it will be a long Gothic primer, but then is it really a primer?

I have included six books that are classic examples of this genre, most of them faster reads than one might expect.

My son is playing cars with one of his two nephews right now. I love it.

But first, what is Gothic Literature?

There is a post on For Reading Addicts that outlines the basic tenets of Gothic Lit: http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/reading/so-what-is-gothic-literature-and-why-are-we-still-obsessed-with-it

The author of that post also lists their top five Gothic reads in a different post and some of the chosen books are decidedly more contemporary than I plan on putting into my short quintessential Gothic story list of 6 with an optional 7.

Just as a clarification/refresher, (or if you did not reference back to the post) basic features of Gothic literature include (from the For Reading Addicts post, I did not come up with these myself):

Dark, gloomy and suspenseful

Gloom and horror

Mysterious and unexplained events

Large isolated setting

Ancient prophecy or family curse (more traditional than modern Gothic books)

Omens, portents and visions

Religion

Psychological trauma

Return of historical events/repressed emotions

Psychology and the supernatural…delicious. It is no shock to me that this genre can claim some contemporary works.

Dirty, horrific and mostly quick Gothic books:

1.       The Castle of Otranto. If you only read one novel to taste this genre that was wildly popular in the late 18th and early 19th century, you could start and end with the first one, the Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  It is a whirlwind in 125 pages, or three hours of listening and encapsulates all the essential features listed above.  It starts off with a bang and the backstory is sprinkled throughout the events in the plot and in dialogue, rather than being laboriously in the beginning, which I have noted before can make older novels more of a press to really get involved in.  Short, with all the major elements of the genre, immediately engaging and fast paced.  I wish I had known about this book when I started to commit to reading classic novels.

2.       Carmilla.  Before Twilight and even before Dracula, there was Carmilla. Lovely and mysterious and bloodthirsty.  This one is also short in length and laboriousness, but I think most people read it due to its being the first vampire novel, rather than its being particularly exceptional in any other respects.  It is included because it is first!  And I think reading old books is sometimes about reading origins of ideas that have been built upon today.

3.       Jane Eyre or Dracula. I feel like one could read either one of these two to throw in a longer Gothic classic to know the genre.  These do not count as quick reads, so just one will do. As I have said in earlier posts, both start out painfully slowly and need to be endured for that reason, but both end up being gratifying reads, and famous examples of mysterious, dramatic and dark events.

4.       Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Gothic literature at times likes to warn against giving in to our baser desires, like a temptation to be God (Frankenstein) or readily indulging one’s less civilized side, for fear that we will lose our cultivated, civilized one (Jekyll and Hyde).  The genre likes to stretch and make these warnings fantastical but they are lessons nonetheless about the dangers of acting against mores of the time.  Science was emerging and, like today, people wondered about what’s possible when science makes us too arrogant and too powerful.  I wondered while reading Frankenstein who really came up with the popular image of a green man with bolts in his neck and a square head.  I don’t think that Shelley intended him to be green.  And way to go on a teenage girl forging the science fiction genre.

5.       The Turn of the Screw. Yes, this book involves potential madness/supernatural events and a carefully crafted and intentional confusion of events, but this story really exemplified in my mind how inferior women were considered to be to men. The eleven year old boy in the story appears to neither feel the need to explain to his governess why he was not allowed to return to school and moreover felt that he should be allowed to return to a different school as she, an adult woman, had no more that she could possibly teach him as a young man. I often felt confused as to what was happening in this story.  When the governess is insisting that the dead servants are tempting the children into the other realm, do other characters agree or believe her mad? Is she just another silly woman who is being humored in her concerns?

There are other books considered to be quintessential to the genre that I have not included:  The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which I have not read yet.  Also not short. The story is still too fresh from the movie and my husband listening to it over Librivox and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Edwin Drood is Dickens’ last and unfinished novel.  I am just not in the mood to tackle an unfinished novel at this point. And then there is Wuthering Heights, which captures the limited prospects of women along with some ghostiness and some obsessive love and seriously crazy behavior, but I have a hard time endorsing the book because it is so unhealthy and depressing.   Which probably makes it even more appealing to those consideringf reading it. And The Mysteries of Udolpho, referenced in The Turn of the Screw as well as Northanger Abbey.  Mysteries definitely requires some work to get into and hang in there with.

I am also considering compiling a list of lesser known Gothic novels, once they are selected and consumed, or re-consumed, as it were, because I am finding myself re reading books for the purpose of posting about them.

What have I missed?  Leave a comment!!!

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