Gothic literature cannot exist without history.
In Elizabeth Kostova’s marvellous novel, The Historian, the readers encounter castles, mosques, medieval manuscripts, ancient churches, Oxford sidewalks and cathedrals. It’s a story dripping in history. Hence, the title. Yet The Historian is also a Gothic novel. There’s Dracula, secrets, spellbinding corridors and mysterious thrills. Beyond this, Kostova offers stylish and narrative similarities to other Gothic delights: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. History splatters these stories. Written centuries after the Middle Ages, these novels embody either medievalism or antiquity. A great example is Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, where the stained glass windows, church bells, village markets and choral voices bring late medieval France to life. Here, contemporary readers will understand why history matters to gothic literature. Yet this requires a deeper exploration. In this article, you’ll discover the awesome dynamic between gothic literature and history.
There are no spoilers.
Romantic Roots In Chivalry
In the Middle Ages, chivalric literature fused myth, Christianity, Arthurian legend, tragedy, courtly love and nation-hood into various stories. These were written in medieval vernacular languages: Middle English, Old French, Middle High German, Italian and Old Provençal, to name a few. These tales would later shape modern genres of fiction, such as fantasy, horror, romance and comedy. The visual arts also aided this transition. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Nazarenes incorporated chivalry into portraits and landscapes during the 19th century. In addition, the operas from Richard Wagner and Antonin Dvorak fused medievalism with drama and nationalism. Yet chivalric romances were fond of melodrama, archetypes, idealism and lavish settings. Gothic literature, of course, mirrored this.
As one observes, chivalry mattered to both medieval and modern cultures. One example is Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales still resonate in contemporary times due to the memorable characters, symbolism, political commentary and humour. Beyond the many adaptations of The Knight’s Tale and The Miller’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer’s legacy also stemmed from the fusion of ‘high’ ‘middle’ and ‘low’ literary styles. This fusion of the highbrow and the low would also characterise Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, as well as Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God and The Road. Historically, the gothic took strength from the sublime, the unusual, the supernatural and the unhinged. The films of Guillermo Del Toro speak to this, from Pan’s Labyrinth to Crimson Peak. There’s also an obsession with beauty. Chivalric romances were fond of beautiful heroines, princesses and villains, such as Morgana Le Fay, Iseult and Queen Guinevere. Gothic literature could do this, too: the terrifying Matilda in The Monk by Matthew Lewis fused beauty with horror, as did Buffy from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (a heroic example). Certain scholars and critics have used ‘the monstrous feminine’ and ‘girl in the horror movie’ to describe these characters. Not only is this the result of chivalric literature, but also the interest many contemporary storytellers have in our medieval heritage.
Characters Need A Past
Characterisation is crucial to fiction. As readers, we are drawn to characters with backstories, complex motivations and interests. Gothic literature thankfully delivers here, from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Outside of traditional gothic stories, the ‘Southern Gothic’ genre has resulted in incredible characters, from Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird or Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The best way to write these intricate characters is through engagement with the past. This means writers must consider the character’s lives, relationships and thoughts before the story begins. A novel, after all, is a curated moment in time. It won’t cover every character detail; nor should it. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, our heroine’s upbringing is depicted clearly, but Mr. Rochester’s trials are not. As the story progresses, the reader discovers more about him and how Jane perceives his past. Likewise, the past can act as a potent character motivation. One only needs to recall the tormented Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights!
Imagine history as the nesting doll of Gothic literature….
This is true even if characters did not live in the relevant periods, as is the case in A.S Byatt’s Possession and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murder mysteries also embody this. A subtle and clever way of blending the past into the story comes from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. History has an obvious weight on the events as they unravel. Imagine history as the nesting doll of Gothic literature: there are layers upon layers of secrets, metaphor, knowledge and revelation. A good gothic story, therefore, derives reader engagement from mystery, whether it is based on human history, plot points or folklore. So often, this mystery will evoke various emotions in the reader: wonder, terror, curiosity, sympathy and fear.
From a more mythological standpoint, humanity is drawn to certain symbols and archetypes. This is a point made by Carl Jung, Jordan Peterson and Joseph Campbell. Take the hero’s journey as an example. A writer cannot compose a narrative using the hero’s journey without engaging in centuries worth of literature, from Homeric storytelling to Harry Potter.
The Importance of Mystery & Discovery
The previous point highlighted the importance of mystery. Without repeating myself, I cannot stress enough why readers must embark on their own journey of discovery alongside the characters. This ‘journey’ can take multiple forms, but usually involves the reader learning something new about human nature, the environment, history or about certain communities. In Neil Gaiman’s novel, Coraline, our protagonist crawls through a tunnel and enters a peculiar world. This is symbolic of Gothic literature: we too, are about to experience our own revelations.
Mystery is key to Gothic literature. Many great works of gothic literature use mystery to explore the unusual, the macabre and the peculiar. One example is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a terrific Gothic tale. I’m also fond of Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and of course, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, where a villainous woman haunts lovers beyond the grave.
In Neil Gaiman’s novel, Coraline, our protagonist crawls through a tunnel and enters a peculiar world. This is symbolic of Gothic literature: we too, are about to experience our own revelations.
Yet not all Gothic novels use explicit mystery. Take Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, where the reader embarks on their own discoveries as the story unfolds. Likewise, Gothic dramas are fond of intimate character profiles, such as Jane Campion’s 1992 film The Piano and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North. Here, history itself requires discovery and the character’s understanding. Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Shadow Lands also speaks to the power of history and how it shapes lives. Gothic literature is obsessed with the past. While researching this article, I noticed this link throughout various eras and subgenres of Gothic literature, whether it’s Southern Gothic, Tasmanian Gothic, Gothic Fantasy or a traditional murder mystery. So often, characters uncover secrets and the ‘hidden truths’ about themselves and the places they live in. Gothic horror is a prime example of this, with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House being a prime example, as well as the weird fiction by H.P Lovecraft. Stephen King deserves a mention, too. The famed horror novelist has drenched New England with terror in both It and Pet Sematary.
Gothic literature is also prone to commentary on human nature. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: Story of a Murderer shows the depravity lurking in troubled souls. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a great example.
Beauty is paramount to the Gothic. Even when Gothic literature revels in ugly scenarios, there is always a focus on beauty: what it is, why it matters and its historical roots. This is most apparent in the Harry Potter series. J.K Rowling always had a magnificent skill in transforming landscapes into characters. One brilliant example is the Hogwarts castle, which embodies Rowling’s ideas about magic, education, wonder and family. Of course, the Hogwarts castle represents a Gothic style of architecture, mirroring Mont St Michel and other delights in Normandy and Brittany, as well as Gloucester Cathedral in Southwestern England. Gothic novelists adore historical settings. This is not just about Europe, either. Cormac McCarthy ties mythology and Gnostic thought into Blood Meridian, where the United States-Mexican borderlands deliver both manmade and natural horrors throughout its skull-ridden streets.
Here, atmosphere is an urgent priority to the Gothic novelist. Regardless of his or her birthplace, there is an intense desire to create memorable moods and atmospheres. I find this to be a strength of Tim Burton – Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands are not easily forgotten. Likewise, Weimar Germany produced ‘M’, an incredible thriller drama by Fritz Lang. These moody scenes would later influence The Night of the Hunter, a 1955 noir film directed by Charles Laughton. Even when we exit history and enter science fiction, one can observe the Gothic’s presence in Blade Runner (1982), City of Lost Children (1995) and Dark City (1998). History, after all, is an ongoing wheel, picking up souls as it tumbles along its journey. To quote Confucious, ‘study the past, if you would divine the future.’
In architectural history, the Neo-Gothic period resulted in splendid churches, halls and colleges mirroring the greatness of the High Middle Ages. One favourite and local example is St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. In Western Germany, the towering Cologne Cathedral fused both the Gothic and Neo-Gothic periods. Of course, some experts in gothic architecture and literature are quick to argue there is little connection between Gothic architecture and literature. Yet I struggle with this; both embody medievalism and the Middle Ages. There are intricate ties to Romanticism as well. In addition, both Gothic literature and architecture are seen as competitors to neoclassicism and Enlightenment-era rationalism. It’s also no surprise that many Gothic novels are drawn to castles, cathedrals and colleges, whether it is Dracula, Harry Potter, The Secret History, The Historian, The Monk or The Castle of Otranto. From this, authors who are already well-versed in Gothic literature will probably incorporate some elements into their own fiction.
This wasn’t a comprehensive list on Gothic literature and history. However, I hope to have provided a detailed overview on the importance of history within Gothic stories.
What are your thoughts on history and Gothic literature? Comment below.