The 18th Century saw the birth of novel. There was already a readership for autobiographies, journals and memoirs; however, the novel brought a new style to the emerging middle classes. Daniel Defoe is credited as the founder of the English novel, with Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Both novels were written with a sense of realism and human dilemma which proved extremely popular to his readership.
By the middle of the 18th Century, Horace Walpole: English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician was also keen fanatic of all things Gothic, and is acknowledged as the person who invented the Gothic novel, with his tomb, The Castle of Otranto (1764). In the first edition Walpole claimed the story was a translation based on a found manuscript dated from 1529. Once the Novel was received positively, Walpole would confess that the work was from his own imagination.
For the 21st Century reader,Walpole’s story lends themselves more to an episode of Scooby-doo, with his over the top characters and cliché plot devices. These include the family curse, a haunted castle, and of course, a maiden in distress. What is interesting to note are that many of the elements that Walpole created are reimagined in many modern-day Gothic novels. For example Stephen King’s The Shinning (1977) replaces the haunted house on the hill with an out of season hotel. The main protagonist, Jack Torrance, becomes possessed by the hotel’s curse, while his wife becomes a Twenty-First Century maiden in distress.
Although common now, it would take a few more years before the Gothic genre would truly be embraced by the reading public. In fact it would be another thirty years before the next celebrated Gothic tale would make any impact. This time the tale was penned by celebrated writer Ann Radcliffe and her equally over the top Gothic offering, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Once again a young woman is holed up in a cumbering castle, this time her tormentor is her evil aunt and the aunt’s lover. Radcliffe already had a large female following among the upper-classes and the newly emerging middle-classes. It was these readers that would champion the gothic style, embracing the high (camp) drama, knowing that by the final page the hero and heroine would both live happily every after.
Two year later, Matthew Lewis would release his own Gothic tale, titled The Monk (1796). In comparison to what had come before, Lewis’ novel was more explicit in its subject matter, but as with all good Gothic tales, it made its mark. At the time, literary giant Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that Lewis was, “the offspring of no common genius”
Around this period a selection of artist abandoned the traditional landscapes and portraits for something darker. One of the most iconic paintings to embrace the Gothic elements came from Henry Fuseli and his 1782 painting, The Nightmare. The painting depicts a young woman draped provocatively on a bed. Sitting upon her stomach sits a ‘Mara’, an evil spirit that brings nightmares to those it visits.
These images of sexuality and horror are key to many Gothic tales, particularly in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, were ‘the other’ contaminates the innocent Mina and her friend Lucy. Interestingly, the character of Mina is less submissive, but it is the gallant male protagonists who once again save the day.
In the 21st Century the Gothic tradition is as popular as ever, with contemporary writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Anne Rice showing the dark side of the modern world, where the monsters no longer live far away in castles, but may just be in the house next-door.