Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Gothic Fantasy

The starting point of Gothic literature is usually given as The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole, but its antecedents are evident in much earlier work, especially the plays of John Webster (?1580-?1634) and William Shakespeare. Although most Gothic fiction is tragedy, its key component is the Edifice; Walpole's novel introduced all the main Plot Devices. Gothic fiction usually takes place in an ancient castle or abbey whose owner discovers his noble line is doomed, usually because some past misdemeanour has caused the family to be cursed (> Curses). All Fate seems against him as he strives to overcome massive odds (frequently of either genuine or fabricated supernatural origin), and he usually fails. The story may be told from the viewpoint of another character, one dispossessed of his inheritance, who may regain it. Walpole's Otranto abounds in supernatural manifestations, and is thus a true GF; but not all Gothic fiction is genuinely supernatural. The devices may be rationalized (> Rationalized Fantasy). Pure or High Gothic aims to terrify; the supernatural may appear in Low Gothic without the need to terrify – indeed, towards the end of the Gothic Age the novels tended to self-Parody. Later writers have used the setting for atmosphere and as a device to simplify explanations to readers well versed in the material.

The usual pedigree of the GF passes from Walpole to Clara Reeve's The Champion of Virtue (1777; vt The Old English Baron 1778), to The Recess: A Tale of Other Times (1783-85) by Sophia Lee (1750-1824), which established the Historical Gothic, through William Beckford's Vathek (1786), which merged Oriental Fantasy with the Gothic, to Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), to Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796), the peak of the Gothic Horror novel, to The Midnight Bell (1798) by the prolific Francis Lathom (1777-1832), culminating in Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin, which mingled all the elements to produce the ultimate Gothic romance. By this time the Gothic trappings were being supplanted by a deeper psychological exploration of the doomed hero (> Accursed Wanderer), a furrow already ploughed by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1818). The tragic elements of the Gothic remained but, with the removal of the Edifice, the Gothic flame dimmed. Its influence continued, however: many Victorian Haunted-Dwelling stories and melodramas are Gothic in treatment, especially the sensation novels of the late Georgian and early Victorian periods – by writers like W Harrison Ainsworth, Wilkie Collins and Lord Bulwer-Lytton – and the penny dreadfuls of the mid-19th century, typified by the works of G W M Reynolds (1814-1879), James Malcolm Rymer, Thomas Pecket Prest (1810-1859) and G P R James (1799-1860). During its ascendancy the Gothic influence was parodied by Jane Austen (1775-1817) in Northanger Abbey (1818); it was desensationalized and adopted into the mainstream by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights (1847).

The same brooding atmosphere occurred in many works of German Romanticism, especially by Johann Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) with the first part of Der Geisterseher (1786; trans as The Ghost-Seer 1795 UK) and Lawrence Flammenburg (real name Karl Friedrich Kahlert; 1765-1813) with Der Geisterbanner (1792; trans Peter Teuthold as The Necromancer 1794 UK), and in the short stories of Johann Karl Musäus, Johann Apel and Freidrich Schulze (1770-1849). Their work in turn influenced Washington Irving, Charles Brockden Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in the USA, while the Gothic movement in France, picked up partly from the work of Beckford, continued through the Marquis de Sade, Honoré de Balzac and Eugène Sue.

The Gothic influence continued with the growth of Supernatural Fiction at the turn of the 19th century, especially that fuelled by Decadence – evident in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, M P Shiel and Bram Stoker – but the day of the doom-laden GF had long passed. The Gothic mode shifted toward romantic fiction, and was revived strongly in the work of Daphne Du Maurier, who built on the work of the Brontës with Rebecca (1938) to lay the foundation for the modern Gothic romance. Occasionally supernatural elements may intrude, especially in the works of Edwina Noone (Michael Avallone), Lyda Long (Frank Belknap Long) and Marilyn Ross. Even Anne McCaffrey has written such novels, though mostly nonsupernatural. The return of the Gothic to Horror can probably be traced to Alfred Hitchcock and his adaptation of Robert Bloch's Psycho (1960). In the 1970s and 1980s there was an increase of Gothic elements in Supernatural Fiction, mostly evident in the work of writers like Mary Stewart, Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, and in the unique work of Thomas Ligotti. A fine example of modern GF was the title story of Fengriffen (coll 1971) by David Case (1937-    ); it was filmed as And Now the Screaming Starts (1972). Another writer well able to blend the supernatural and Gothic is Basil Copper (1924-2013), especially in Necropolis (1980 US), set in a vast cemetery. In the USA Joyce Carol Oates's contribution may be allied to the genre of American Gothic, which applies the GF mood to crumbling colonial mansions of the South. Patrick McGrath (1950-    ) – who has produced his own neo-Gothic fiction in Blood and Water (coll 1988) and The Grotesque (1989) – highlighted the change in his anthology The New Gothic (anth 1991) with Bradford Morrow (1951-    ). The cityscape has replaced the old castle and Urban Fantasy is the new Gothic.

Representative anthologies include: Seven Masterpieces of Gothic Horror (anth 1963) ed Robert Donald Spector (1922-    ); Three Gothic Novels (omni 1966) ed E F Bleiler; Three Gothic Novels (omni 1968) ed Peter Fairclough; Gothic Tales of Terror (anth 1972) ed Peter Haining; The Evil Image (anth 1981) ed Patricia L Skarda (1946-    ) and Nora Crow Jaffe (1944-    ); The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (anth 1992) ed Chris Baldick; Four Gothic Novels (anth 1994) ed anon. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.