Morbid History : Gothic Horror

Horror.  For some, like myself, horror is blood, death, dismemberment, and downright grotesque visuals that many individuals can sit back and enjoy every once in a blue moon while actually eating popcorn or Butterfingers.  I am not one of them.  However gruesome horror may have turned out to be in the more recent decades, it was just as gruesome and gory in the times before immediate visuals.  I’m talking about the wonder years, where people’s imaginations rivaled anything Wes Craven could come up with.  The age of the horror novel.

Horror is actually not a new concept.  People loved gore and violence, in fact, they made fun of it almost on a daily basis and even used it for afternoon entertainment.  The citizens in Georgian England watched hangings and be-headings at their leisure almost every week.  But the true feeling and concept of horror came from stories, legends, and rumors that spread around collecting adaptations and revisions so by the time the first horror novel was written in the 18th century, it was bound to be a phenomenon.

So we come to the first horror novels, Gothic horror.  This can be classified into two separate categories: supernatural and non-supernatural.  The supernatural stories frightened because these were things people didn’t know, couldn’t see, and what they feared the most.  The afterlife and the want to see a departed loved one could be a comforting feeling for some, but in the hands of a good writer these could be twisted to make you fear what lies beyond the grave.  The non-supernatural is the fear of a psychopath or murderer of whom you could be married to or who sells you what you think is beef every week.

Some of the first Gothic horror novels written held on to the supernatural storyline and were mostly targeted at women.  Writers such as Horace Walpole and William Beckford are the fore-bearers of what we know as horror.  But in order to be Gothic is style, you had to know the basics.  These are the elements of Gothic writing:

1. A castle…definitely a castle – The action takes place in and around an old castle, sometimes seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied. The castle often contains secret passages, trap doors, secret rooms, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections.

2. Mystery – The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event.

3. An ancient prophecy – This is connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present). The prophecy is usually obscure, partial, or confusing. “What could it mean?”   For me, lovely frustration.

4.Omens A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a coming event.  This could be a shadow…or the clock ticking backwards depending on your author.

5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events – Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or squids (I added that) walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life.  Some say you’re crazy…not anymore.

6. High, even emo-like emotion – The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common. Also normally known as crazy…or bi-polar.7.

Women in distress – A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer all the more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on purpose or by accident), and have no protector at times. Yes…really.  They really did enjoy watching women suffer…a lot.

8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable.  Until we come back with an axe and shovel.

These elements can be found in many great novels from the 19th century as well.  The one that, of course, stands above most others is the great American Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe.  For me, Poe was the first everything.  The first mystery, suspense, adventure, and horror novels…the ones everyone since has been inspired from.  He intrigues you but then makes you uncomfortable as the story comes to a close.  His most famous publications were The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Mask of the Red Death.

When adding up all the elements of Gothic, you can’t help but mention Mary Shelly.  What makes her story so very frightening is she, right before she wrote Frankenstein, was watching the story come to life.  Electricity was the new wonder and many scientists experimented on cadavers to revive the corpse with electric rods and coils.  In Mary’s case, life imitated art.

In the later half of the 19th century, horror came from the most unlikely writers.  Robert Louis Stevenson, the talent behind Treasure Island, also wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The incredible Oscar Wilde who produced Salome also wrote the chilling book The Picture of Dorian Gray.  And what sort of writer would I be if I did not mention Bram Stoker?

Compared to 20th century horror film, these creations tend to be tame but very well respected.  Though many adaptations have been made into movies, for me, the more subdued versions are far more appreciated.

For the horror fanatic in all of…you, please do remember to visit an excellent journal publication specifically dedicated to horror.  Some of you might already know of it, if not then you must go!  The author is a brilliant published  writer who is established within the horror community and posts every week on his blogs so do follow below and enjoy!

Medusa’s Lair  and  Nicolas Gentry’s Horror Journal



  1. Great post. I’m not a fan of horror (re: bloody, gore) in movies. The finesse that a good writer can lend to a compelling tale is a perfect pleasure.

    Alas, I hate to be a nitpicker, but Poe was American not a Victorian writer (i.e., British). Just a slip of the keystroke. Cheers!

    • Oh of course, I was stating a time period, not a specific country. He also lived in England for many years before coming back home but that is all too technical for my tastes on this subject matter. Thank you for the observation though! I am always happy to be corrected in my work! It is how I grow. And I am in total agreement with loving a good classic horror novel.

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