Friday, October 10, 2014

The Book Lover's Den #7: Gothic Fiction and Its 'Spinoffs' (Part I)

Welcome to my Friday feature!

In each weekly post, I explore 
my thoughts on several 
book-related topics.

Halloween is fast approaching! Even the air feels haunted, somehow.....So this is the perfect time of year to dwell on book topics having to do with that spooky holiday! Thus, I have found myself thinking about  the similarities and differences between Gothic Fiction and the modern Horror Genre, as well as their 'spinoffs', Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy. 

According to Wikipedia, the Horror genre is actually a subgenre of Gothic Fiction, and its real title is Gothic Horror. In fact, the article  defines Gothic Fiction as being a combination of fiction, horror, and Romanticism -- specifically, Byronic Romanticism. Writers such as the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allan Poe are cited as examples of the genre. I don't agree with this at all; to me, Shelley and Poe fit squarely within the Horror genre, while I do believe that the Bronte sisters are Gothic Fiction writers.

Byronic Romanticism definitely plays a part in both genres, but only in the early years, in my opinion. There's certainly nothing Byronic or Romantic (in the sense of a literary/aesthetic movement) about the modern Horror genre. Instead, there are only the negative emotions of fear and revulsion.

Gothic Fiction certainly has some recognizable tropes, which to me are typical of Romanticism in general: the mysterious, gloomy mansion, or castle, that hides a powerful secret, the young, inexperienced heroine, the equally mysterious, powerful male she must contend with, omens, visions, portents, an ancient prophecy or curse, scenes of high emotion, and a predominant atmosphere of doom and gloom.

All of the above immediately draw me in, sustaining my interest throughout, with the inconsistent hope that there will be a happy ending. In the case of the romance novel Jane Eyre, for instance, I wasn't sure what to expect when I first read it, so I was delighted when my wishes were fulfilled in the end. In the case of Wuthering Heights, though, I was totally disappointed. That novel is not a romance at all; instead, it's a psychological study of a very twisted, sick man, bent on revenge.

I would never categorize these two novels as belonging to the Horror genre, however, in spite of some of the horrible events that take place therein. They fit squarely in the Gothic Fiction genre.

Another novel categorized as Gothic Fiction is Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. This fascinating work, which, in my opinion, has been unfairly criticized as an imitation of Jane Eyre (it most certainly isn't), contains all the elements of Gothic Fiction mentioned above. It cannot be categorized as belonging to the Horror genre, either; there is no overriding emphasis on fear, and no goriness at all in the plot. The supernatural is not really present in the book, either; instead, there's the pervasive influence of someone who died before the beginning of the story.

The genesis of Gothic Fiction can be traced back to a novel titled The Castle of Otranto, by the English author Howard Walpole, published in 1764. According to Wikipedia, the name Gothic "...refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings in which many of these stories take place." The article goes on to say that this type of fiction became very popular in England and Germany.

Gothic Fiction and Horror both contain elements of the supernatural (with the exception of Rebecca). Both also frequently feature paranormal creatures such as witches, vampires, and werewolves. However, while Gothic Fiction frequently includes the characteristics mentioned above, Horror doesn't necessarily do so. The huge difference I see in the Horror genre, and which I totally dislike, is the emphasis on fear, gory killings, the overwhelming mood of morbidity, in addition to a pervasive doom and gloom, with no hope in sight, and the feeling of revulsion. The genre also includes an emphasis on the criminally insane. (I'm thinking here of The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris.) All of these characteristics are very evident in the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. Back in high  school, I was assigned three of his stories, "The Tell-Tale Heart",  "The Pit and the Pendulum", and "The Cask of Amontillado". I still remember them, unfortunately....Needless to say, I detest Poe.

There are two other writers in the Horror genre that I totally detest: H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. 

I read a King story once, the title of which escapes me at the moment. The plot was horrifying in the extreme. A family moves to a valley where a  series of family  homes are being sold. Everything seems wonderful at first, but then they find out that this is due to yearly sacrifices to the devil....When they manage to escape, and are hitchhiking on the road, they are picked up by a very friendly hippie couple driving a van covered in peace signs and psychedelic art. At the end of the story, the hippies turn out to be demons, and the van becomes a huge mouth that swallows everyone up alive.....

As for Lovecraft, I have never read his work, and have no interest in doing so. All I know of him I learned through Wikipedia, and I'm leaving it at that. 

The one characteristic of the Horror genre that I absolutely loathe, and which I've left for last, is the triumph of evil. This is something I simply cannot tolerate. As exemplified in the King story above, the villains have the last laugh in the end. There is no hope, no last-minute rescue by the good guys. This might seem more realistic to some people, as evil does seem to triumph quite often in the real world. However, I read mostly fantasy fiction precisely because I don't like this unpleasant reality we have to live in. If evil does seemingly triumph in the end, there has to be a ray of hope somewhere, at least. I'm thinking of the ending of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities here.

My extreme dislike of the Horror genre might seem ironic in view of the fact that I love vampire romance novels, such as The Twilight Saga. Such novels are frequently classified as belonging to the Horror genre, but I don't think this is accurate. True, they feature vampires, but these are not the vampires of the Dracula variety. Not at all! These are actually tortured heroes who fall in love with human women, and fight against their own bloodlust, so as not to harm the women they love. While there might be elements of fear in such novels, as well as elements of the supernatural, there is no emphasis on inducing sheer terror in the reader. More importantly, there's clearly an element of hope, which means that the atmosphere of doom and gloom does lift in the end.

Gothic Fiction seems to  have somehow morphed into the genres of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy, which are usually paired in modern novels, while the Horror genre has become more narrowly focused on the depiction of fear and the dominant position of evil.

There's a huge difference between  writing, and reading, a novel containing supernatural elements and an atmosphere of foreboding, with a resolution that leaves the reader feeling hopeful, and one in which there is no such resolution, as evil overwhelmingly wins the day. The first type of fiction, I definitely enjoy; the latter, I totally abhor.

I will have more to say on this matter next week, so stay tuned!

For Further Information
Wikipedia Articles

What do you think of my views?
Leave me a comment
and let me know!



  1. Another great post Maria.

    At the risk of harping on a favorite subject of mine, I do think that horror, Gothic Fictions, some aspects of Urban Fantasy really are attempts to dig into the dark side of the Universe, or at least the human psyche's perception of this. You are indeed correct that the works that you mentioned tie together and I think one of the ties is this attempt to model a part of existance. I am seeing some of this in Jane Eyre.

    I had been a fan of Lovecraft. His stories seem to really illustrate what is a malevolence in the Universe. I also find his work very entertaining. Though my view of view of existence is much more positive then his, I think that in his horror writings that he made a worthy contribution.

    With all that, I recently found out that he was a hardcore, dedicated racist. That is not just unfortunate but would likely have prevented me from reading him in the first place.

    1. Hey, Brian!

      Thank you for the compliment!

      I think you have a great point there, when you say that these fiction genres "...are attempts to dig into the dark side of the Universe." Indeed. However, they do make for some very unpleasant reading.... This is why I totally avoid the Horror genre. I'm speaking of authors like the ones I mentioned in the post. I also avoid Clive Barker and V.C. Andrews. I've heard of the Goosebumps series, which is actually geared to kids!! Unbelievable!! The author is R.L. Stine. If I had had kids, there's NO WAY I would have EVER let them read this trash!

      You're right that there are some dark aspects to "Jane Eyre". However, they can't compare to the unrelenting darkness to be found in "Wuthering Heights". That book was sheer TORTURE for me to read! Heathcliff is certainly a DIABOLICAL character!

      Oh, just the mere mention of Lovecraft makes me shudder....I'm sure I would have nightmares if I ever read his work! I'm not at all surprised that he was a racist. I think there's a very strong connection between the horror genre and racism. After all, this genre deals in fear and suffering. The KKK does the same, and the Nazis did, as well.

      What I like about paranormal romance is what I mentioned in the post -- the hero doesn't want to be a monster (this is more typical of vampire romances), and there IS hope in the end. Not so with horror novels!

      Anyway.....I will continue with this topic next week.

      Thanks for another great, thought-provoking comment!! : )


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