The best Gothic novels, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The following list is not supposed to represent the ten most definitive Gothic novels ever published – it’s a list to inspire debate and discussion as much as it is a list of recommendations of classic Gothic works of fiction. Nevertheless, we reckon the reader of Gothic fiction could do worse than seek out these ten important Gothic novels. We’ve included some of our favourite interesting trivia about each novel as we go.
William Baldwin, Beware the Cat. What’s this? Surely any list of the best Gothic novels in English has to begin with The Castle of Otranto? But no: that book comes second on our list. Instead, we begin with this obscure short novel written during the early 1550s, during the reign of the boy-king, Edward VI (1547-53). Contrary to what many scholars of the novel claim, the English novel didn’t begin in 1719 with Robinson Crusoe – and nor, we would contend, did the Gothic novel begin with The Castle of Otranto. Instead, the first recognisably ‘Gothic’ novel in English is this wonderfully inventive comic skit that features werewolves, talking cats, jokes about poo, jibes at Catholicism, and even – anticipating Terry Pratchett by some four-and-a-half centuries – jokey footnotes and marginal glosses to the text. We discuss Beware the Cat in more detail in our book, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. You can read Baldwin’s novel online here.
Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto. This 1764 work was the book that started it all – it effectively invented modern Gothic fiction. (Though, as Beware the Cat above demonstrates, ideas of ‘the Gothic’ existed in English fiction prior to Walpole’s founding-text.) Walpole, who also gave us the word ‘serendipity’, was mad on the Gothic: his house at Twickenham, Strawberry Hill, even helped to spark a Gothic revival in architecture. He originally published this tale about a noble Italian family as fact, before coming clean in the second edition, published in 1765, and confessing that he’d made the whole thing up. Walpole got the idea for the novel from a dream he had: all he could recall when he woke was ‘that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine, filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate.’ Recommended edition: The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (Oxford World’s Classics) by Walpole, Horace (2008).
William Beckford, Vathek. This was another important early Gothic novel, written by the wealthy Englishman William Beckford in 1782 when he was just 21 (supposedly, he wrote it in just a few days). He actually wrote the book in French, and didn’t bother to translate his own novel into English: he left that to Samuel Henley to undertake in 1786. (Jorge Luis Borges dryly commented that ‘the original is unfaithful to the translation’.) Vathek cashed in on the vogue for all things Oriental in the late eighteenth century: the novel concerns a ninth-century caliph who renounces his faith and, Nero-like, gets up to all sorts of forbidden acts with his own mother in an effort to attain supernatural powers. Recommended edition: Vathek 2/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance. Although The Mysteries of Udolpho is a more famous Ann Radcliff novel, we’d recommend this shorter 1790 novel as the perfect ‘gateway drug’ to Radcliffe’s brand of Gothic horror. Unlike Udolpho, which suffers from dull moments, A Sicilian Romance packs all of the crucial ingredients of early Gothic – the castle, the crypt, the family secret, the supposed supernatural sightings – into a short, readable novel. Recommended edition: A Sicilian Romance (Oxford World’s Classics).
Matthew Lewis, The Monk. Written in around ten weeks while Lewis was still a teenager, The Monk was a huge success upon its publication in 1796, and earned its author the sobriquet ‘Monk’ Lewis. Set in eighteenth-century Madrid, the novel focuses on the scandalous activities of a monk, Ambrosio, who gives in to sexual temptation and ends up getting involved in a whole host of other sinful crimes, including rape, murder, and black magic. The novel received mixed reviews (from, among others, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who both loved and hated it), but it became a defining work of Gothic fiction. Recommended edition: The Monk (Oxford World’s Classics).
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Also sometimes referred to as the first ever science fiction novel, Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley when she was still a teenager, following a ghost-story competition at Lord Byron’s villa in Lake Geneva in 1816. The novel, which tells of a student creating a man out of old body parts – and young Victor Frankenstein’s subsequent abandonment of the creature he has made – has been interpreted in a diverse number of ways, but might best be viewed as a cautionary tale about the need for personal responsibility or ‘good parenthood’. Recommended edition: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text (Oxford World’s Classics) by Shelley, Mary (2009) Paperback.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson supposedly wrote the first draft of this classic 1886 novella in just three days, but burnt the original version after his wife criticised it. He then rewrote the book over several weeks. The result is a mixture of Gothic horror and detective fiction with one of the most famous twists in all of fiction; Stevenson’s novella would go on to influence a raft of later writers, such as the less celebrated master of the Weird, Arthur Machen. Recommended edition: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales (Oxford World’s Classics) by Stevenson, Robert Louis published by Oxford University Press, USA (2008).
Bram Stoker, Dracula. Although it wasn’t the first vampire novel – there had been a number of vampire novels published earlier in the nineteenth century – Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, has come to define the genre. Told from a variety of character perspectives and utilising various modes of recording (including logs, diaries, letters, and even phonograph recordings), Dracula is a classic Gothic horror novel whose story has been transformed in the popular imagination through various cinema retellings: the titular vampire isn’t dispatched with a stake through the heart in Stoker’s novel, but you’ll have to read it to find out how (or whether) he does meet his end. Recommended edition: Dracula (Oxford World’s Classics) by Stoker, Bram, Luckhurst, Roger New Edition [Paperback(2011)].
Richard Marsh, The Beetle. Published the same year as Dracula, The Beetle was originally more popular with readers. Written by Richard Bernard Heldmann under the pseudonym Richard Marsh, it is a quintessential late Victorian Gothic horror novel. Like the London in which Sherlock Holmes moved, the world of The Beetle is all fog and hansom cabs, with unsavoury figures seemingly lurking in the dark spaces between the lampposts. The novel touches upon something that Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes stories also tap into: the notion of London as a foggy den of vice, crime, and unspeakable horrors. And like many of the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Beetle is about what happens when ‘the empire strikes back’ – in this case, in the form of a shape-shifting creature from the Middle East who is a member of the cult of Isis (yes, you read that right). A remarkable novel which seems to prefigure our own world as much as it reflected Marsh’s own. Recommended edition: The Beetle: A Mystery (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural).
Stephen King, Carrie. We could have picked any number of Stephen King novels to conclude this pick of the best Gothic horror novels. Although King’s work has received mixed reviews (perhaps inevitably for someone who enjoys such popularity), his fiction has cast a long shadow over the Gothic horror genre over the last forty years, to say nothing of the dozens of film adaptations of his novels and stories. We’ve opted for King’s very first published novel here, from 1974 – a tale of a high-school student who discovers she has telekinetic powers and wreaks vengeance on the school bullies. King reportedly threw the first draft of the novel into the bin, and it was only thanks to his wife Tabitha’s retrieval of the manuscript that Carrie – and, perhaps, any of King’s subsequent work – was published.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best Gothic novels, you might also enjoy our rundown of the ten greatest classic science fiction novels of all time.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.