We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.
The term “Gothic” can range across a swath of things. While there are certainly scary Gothic stories out there, it’s not limited to that. I mean, “Wuthering Heights” is absolutely a Gothic novel, but it’s not really horror (though Heathcliffe is scary in other ways). The same can be said about “Jane Eyre”. But for this post I want to focus on the horror side of the genre, with tales that send chills down your spine along with the isolation aspect.
Gothic horror, for me, has to have a few elements. The first is, like any good Gothic novel, general isolation or isolated feelings. I want a protagonist to be in a situation that has them cut off for whatever reason, be it physically or emotionally, or sometimes both! I also want a lingering foreboding threat that is unseen or unknown to the protagonist. Sure, let the mystery of whatever the threat is unfold as the story plays out, but let it be a question. Sweeping romanticism isn’t a must, but it can be fun to spice things up. And for me, while the threat doesn’t always have to be supernatural, it’s kind of a plus! There are plenty of examples in horror literature, from the old school like “Frankenstein” and “The Count of Otranto”, to newer stories like “The Little Stranger” for the 21st century and “The Woman in Black” for the 20th. The choices on this list are some of my personal favorites. They usually deal with an isolated setting, a protagonist that has no idea what they’re getting into/finds themselves struggling with their emotions/mental health/reality, there is some kind of supernatural threat, and there are enough moments of utter dread that unsettled me beyond my time reading it.
Book: “Dracula” by Bram Stoker
I have to start with a classic. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is the Godfather of modern vampire lore, its mark stamped firmly not only on vampire stories, but on the horror genre as a whole. While a lot of it takes place in London (as Count Dracula makes his way to England and starts sinking his teeth into the trouble he can get into there), our first moments involve Jonathan Harker going to an isolated Castle in Eastern Europe, only to be held prisoner in this lonely setting by the Count. Along with that, the unknown threat of the Count slowly starts to seep into our group in London, as he preys upon Lucy Westenra in a manor house, torments those around her on the estate with his lurking presence, and has influence over his servant Renfield, who is imprisoned in an insane asylum. This all ends with a showdown in the desolate mountains of Transylvania, the West meets the East. This remains one of my favorite horror novels of all time, and it just oozes Gothic sensibilities.
Book: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson
Ghosts tend to have a big part to play in Gothic horror, as the haunted house story goes hand in hand with the themes in the sub-genre. One of my favorite traditional haunted house stories is “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. Four people decide to investigate the notorious Hill House, an isolated mansion that has rumors of ghostly activity and a tragic past. As they stay at and spend their time in the house, strange things begin to happen, and they find themselves affected in different ways. For Nell, a woman with sensitivity and a fragile spirit, she starts to lose her grip in reality, and starts to feel connected to the house, and whatever is living there. Bumps in the night, unreliable characters, a little bit of melodrama, and the theme of decay, be it of an old house or one’s sanity, are abound in this book! Maybe don’t read it late at night. Or maybe DO read it late at night.
Book: “The Shining” by Stephen King
Being the huge Stephen King fan that I am, of course he was going to end up on this list one way or another. But darn it, “The Shining” is absolutely a Gothic horror novel! The Torrance family goes up into the mountains to serve as winter caretakers at an old hotel, knowing that once the snows come they won’t be leaving. That’s your isolation. The father, Jack, is struggling with addiction and anger issues, as well as the fact that he has been violent towards his loved ones in the past. That’s your tenuous grip on keeping it together. Oh, and the place also happens to be haunted by spirits of those who have died there, and the hotel itself may be an evil force hoping to corrupt not only Jack, but psychic little boy Danny. SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS! And given that this book has so many damn scares, it hits all of my sub-genre points check list. “The Shining” is considered one of King’s masterworks, and the Gothic elements just pump the dread up even more. How do you escape from a homicidal patriarch when you’re snowed in?
Book: “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I think that it’s important to think outside the sub-genre box a little bit, and that is what Silvia Moreno-Garcia set out to do with her horror novel “Mexican Gothic”. After all, Gothic horror, and the Gothic milieu in general, has been pretty White and Western centric since its inception. But Moreno-Garcia was ready to push the boundaries, and created a Gothic gem in a setting some may not think of for the genre: 1950s Mexico. Noemí is a young woman living a fun party life in Mexico City, but when her newly wed cousin sends her an urgent letter, she rushes to be with her in an isolated mansion in the countryside. The family that lives there is English in origin and runs a mine, and they are both mysterious and alluring. When Noemí decides to stay to see what’s up, she starts to dream of threats, doom, and blood, as if the house itself is an ominous presence. The secrets of the family, the strange atmosphere, and the plucky heroine in over her head all make for a great Gothic tale of terror!
Book: “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski
“House of Leaves” is a book that I read probably about ten years ago, and fully intend to revisit at some point. But only when I am willing to take on a huge commitment that is filled with complicated mind fucks, and stories within stories. The book has multiple narratives stacked into each other, with footnotes, deliberate design choices, and imagery to tell a huge and sprawling tale. But at the heart of it is the story of a family that buys a house that is impossibly larger than the blueprints and floorplan would imply. As the family tries to figure out what is going on, the house changes, and things become more and more sinister as they are seemingly unable to escape. But on top of that, there is someone who has stumbled upon the story of this family, who then in turn becomes mentally isolated and completely obsessed with the story. We have layers of isolation and creepiness here, folks, and while I’m not QUITE ready to revisit it, when I do I know it will suck me right back in.
Book: “Daughters Unto Devils” by Amy Lukavics
For a lot of people, the traditional Gothic setting is usually a house or castle in a European moor or forest or something along those lines. And while those are absolutely Gothic, how many people have thought about the vastness of the American prairie? I give you “Daughters Unto Devils”, one of the scariest YA horror novels I’ve read in my entire life. Teenager Amanda Verner and her family move from their home in the mountains to a new abandoned cabin in the prairie (which was completely covered in blood on the walls when they arrived, foreboding to the nth degree). The setting is new, the family has endured recent hardship, and Amanda is hiding the secret that she is pregnant. It slowly becomes clear that something is outside their cabin, something that has been stalking Amanda even before their move. Family secrets? Check. New setting that has cut them off from the rest of the world? Check! A woman coming into her own identity who is starting to question her sanity? Check and mate, my friends. “Daughters Unto Devils” messed me up pretty good, and the Gothic elements in a unique setting really make the book.
What horror books would you categorize as Gothic horror? What are some of your favorites? Share in the comments below!