Introduction: The Gothic

The word "Gothic", originally meaning "Medieval", has come to denote a mode of writing that relies on the macabre and the supernatural to inspire imaginative excitement and terror in the reader. The Gothic novel achieved huge popularity in the latter half of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, finding its most remarkable proliferation in the 1790s. In this period, the two greatest practitioners were Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, both of whom were innovatory in their approach to the form in very different ways. Radcliffe created poetical novels that relied on imaginative terror and the sublime, looking back to the novel of sensibility, while Lewis's work flaunted a "libidinous minuteness" (Coleridge) and wrote with an ironic outlook. The literary term originates in what is generally agreed to be the earliest example of the genre: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, subtitled "A Gothic Tale". This was the work that established such staple Gothic devices as the castle setting, supernatural occurrences and the terrifyied fleeing girl. However, there is no clear-cut formula for the Gothic novel, and the term encapsulates such disparate works as Beckford's Vathek, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and later works such as Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. What distinguishes these works as Gothic is not solely the use of castle vaults, strange family histories and secrets, and ghosts, but an imaginative power that appeals to the emotions rather than reason and an impulse to exceed the restraint of realism.

What follows in this guide are summaries and commentaries on the key texts of Gothic fiction. These are followed by detailed discussions of the common themes that draw together this peculiarly formulaic but nonetheless diverse genre.

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