The gothic novel Ghosts, sexuality and mystery

Gothic novels begun to flourish in the second part of the 18th century and delivered stories what could get the readers trembling nerves.

Gothic elements mixed with Romanticism

At the end of the 18th century writers like Ann Radcliffe and M.G. Lewis would be associated with gothic novels or gothic romance. The term Gothic referred to medieval architecture and the relationship could be noticed by the fact that the stories often were set in old castles, environments that served associations to the superstitious and supernatural. The first example of gothic fiction was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764. Under the Romanticism era writers such as ETA Hoffmann, Mary Shelley, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allen Poe would also include gothic elements in some of their works.1

The gothic is characterized by numerous elements, themes and motifs:

  • The supernatural forces. There are ghosts and other unexplained things in gothic novels. However, in some stories the supposedly supernatural things would in the end get a natural explanation.
  • Castles as a returning element in the environment. Two examples is The Fall of the House of Usher and Dracula in which both the protagonist is invited to a castle there mysterious things starts to happen.
  • Sexual perversities. Gothic novels can include sexual motifs like incest or rape alternatively hidden sexual associations.
  • The modern world meets the past. Often is the case that modern milieus meet archaic. As in the Dracula in which the settings alter from the rural Transylvania to a modern city.

Early gothic novels

The Monk: A Romance (1796) is an example of a classic Gothic novel from the 18th century. The British writer Matthew Lewis (1775-1818) was only nineteen when he wrote it. The mixture of supernaturalism, violence and sexual lust would help set a standard for many stories to be made in the genre.

The dubious morality of the main character, the monk Ambrosio, and his ambivalence between his obligation as a priest and human desire creates one of the main themes. Another gothic novel that has a monk as the main character is The Devil’s Elixirs (Elixire des Teufels) from 1815. The fact that the main character is a monk emphasized the medieval theme. The monk, his name is Medardus, that lives in a monastery drinks an elixir which stirs up his sexual desires. The elixir, by its effect being attached to a monk and delivered from a devil, emphasizes the sides of evil and good, often present in the genre.

The author to The Devil’s Elixirs is ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822), a German writer that wrote prose with elements of horror - not the kind of horror the readers of today perhaps would refer to it though - and perceived supernatural incidents.

In The Devil’s Elixirs Medardus is stalked by his doppelganger. The doppelganger was a motif that Hoffman used several times and the ingredients of a doppelganger would turn influence the short-story William Wilson by Edgar Allen Poe who was influenced by ETA Hoffmann.

The Fall of the House of Usher - the gothic sentiment

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) belongs also among the gothic romantic writers. Poe, whom for some is most known for the poem “The Raven” wrote also short-stories (his only novel is the less known The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket). Among his short-stories we find The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) which is his most congenial contribution to the gothic genre and also a work that defines it.

The Fall of the House of Usher shares the main setting, a mystical castle, with the earlier mentioned The Castle of Otranto. The castle is located in "dreary tract of country" and the view of it created "a sense of insufferable gloom" to the protagonist, and the castle almost lived itself: "the vacant eye-like windows". The protagonist asks himself:

what was is that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondering.

He came to the conclusion that simple natural objects sometimes have the power to affect us deep without being able to exactly tell why. Precisely this, the configuration of objects with special features and the mood it brings is central to the gothic genre.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame - gothic romanticism

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) become one of the most celebrated French writers in the 19th century with an enormous book production, including The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris), published in 1831.

The main setting, the Notre Dame cathedral, was one of the first gothic cathedrals to be built (1163-1345). The story takes place in the 15th century, in the Medieval Period. The choice of a cathedral as the settings for the story was however not mainly due to the suspension of gothic flavor. Victor Hugo was convinced that the architecture was in decline and the choice of a cathedral also supported the theme about the new time washing away the old and the following decay.2

The book blends gothic romanticism with realistic descriptions of the surroundings. A dark and gloomy atmosphere distinguishes the book besides the congenial gothic milieu. The foundation of the story is tragic, the most obvious is the deformed and grotesque Quasimodo as the main character. There is a mutual contempt between him and the humans. The theme of the deformed monster that becomes an outcast is also most present in the story about Frankenstein’s monster.

Frankenstein - a vision in horror

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), married with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and child to the philosopher William Godwin and feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, delivered in 1818 a horrific vision through a book with the title Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. The first edition was, however released anonymously and Shelley’s name would not be on the cover until the third edition, published in 1831.3

The idea for the story had come to Shelley in a dream, which happened when she and the companions including famous poets P.B. Shelley and Lord Byron on a trip decided to have a contest about who could create the best horror story. Today we definitely know who won that challenge. Mary Shelley describes the contest in the foreword to the novel, acknowledge that she initially had difficulties to come up with a story, but when she goes to sleep one night she saw a story come to her. She felt it wasn’t enough to just reveal the story for her companions and decided to write it down. What she first thinks of as a short tale become finally a novel.

It has been speculated how much influence Percy Bysshe Shelley had on the novel and this is a question where the opinions goes apart. Some have regarded him as a co-author, but the main opinion seems to be that his influence on the final product was insignificant.4 A more important influence was probably various scientific ideas at the period, for example Luigi Galvani’s revivifying of dead tissue.5

A lot of us are familiar with the story of the scientist Victor Frankenstein in his laboratory that creates a human-like creature which turns out to be a monster. Not as many has actually read the 19th century book. One cliché that the book has established is that about the mad science man, but the male protagonist Viktor Frankenstein could not be considered mad, rather sad: the monster which existence he was the reason for would kill his brother, best friend and lover. The sadness may be an autobiographical ingredient in the book. Mary Shelley would at the time experienced a loss of the new born child.6

Frankenstein is going to the University in Ingolstadt where he learns more about natural philosophy (18th century term for natural science) and chemistry. As a result of this and his own ideas he succeeds to create a human-like creature: “After days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue, I succeed in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter”. One night the creature turns into life: ”by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs”. But the result was actually a catastrophe as the creature looked hideous and deformed - the creature has no name in the novel, it is alternatively called “wretch”, “monster” and “daemon”. Viktor is frightened by the result and “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled [his] heart.” He is therefore somewhat relief when he comes home and discover that the monster had left his apartment.

The creature is however not only an evil monster, but a creature that actually searches for some love among the people who differs from him. He is also, somewhat surprisingly (and opposite to the common conception of the monster), well-spoken and a long part in the middle of the novel is told from his perspective. This part also reflects the subtitle “The modern Prometheus” since he is describing his experienced of the world as he is just born (Prometheus are in some versions of Greek mythology described as the first man). But his appearance inevitably leads to that he is seen as an outcast and the hostility he meets fills him with anger and he become violent: “if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”.

The novel seems to include autobiographic ingredients and are in long parts concerned about poetry, which was something the writer was preoccupied with but perhaps not fully congenial to the main character in the book, Viktor Frankenstein. It could be argued for that the composition of the novel's content is not fully harmonized.

Beside the horror driven suspense, the story holds more importantly a message about what can happen when human tries to form the nature. The unexpected product of Frankenstein holds a lesson of the danger of knowledge. Although there are many ways to interpret the novel, one important theme seems to be this ambivalence of knowledge. The monster is a product of Frankenstein’s knowledge and could also perhaps be seen as a symbol of knowledge and ambitions. One of Frankenstein last words is said as a motto: ”Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition”.

Frankenstein’s monster has lived on trough new editions of Shelley’s book, but also through adoptions to movies and comics. Apart from direct adoptions the monster created by mistake in a lab has inspired a lot of horror stories.

Dracula - personification of evilness

Bram Stoker’s horror tale from 1897 gave born to Dracula, which since have been one of the most famous evil characters in popular culture.

The novel from 1897, titled Dracula is the original work including this figure. The plot in short revolves around a young man, Jonathan, that travels to Transylvania to meet a certain Count Dracula for business reasons. The count is not what he expected and Jonathan becomes a prison in the castle. Finally, he can leave and return to England, but Dracula himself has traveled to England with vicious plans. The rest of the story is about the attempts trying to stop Dracula from spreading his terror.

There are a lot of features that turn up in this book that ever since have been used over and over to describe a certain figure and bring effects to create the mood in the horror genre.

There is the “coal-black” horses that Dracula uses for his transport, the howls from the wolves effected by the moonlight, the missing reflections in mirrors of his figure, that he throws no shadow, that he seems to never eat food or drink (his appetite is only for blood), that he is never seen in daylight,  the bite marks he leaves on people’s throats (his method for suck blood), his ability to transform into a bat and that his action is coordinated with the moon whereas full moon coincide with his most doings. The way to defend against the monstrous creature is also marked by typical things like a crucifix and garlic. The method to destroy him is to drive a stake through his body.

The Dracula character and his features was not mere products of Bram Stokes’s brain, his inventions was inspired by folklore. The reason that Dracula (His name means “devil” in the Wallachian language) lives in Transylvania, a region located in Romania, and not in some British castle has probably also contributed to the mystic aura around the story.7

In the book Jonathan describing the experience by shaking Count Dracula’s hand: “strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact it seemed as cold as ice.” He continues to describe the apperances of the strange figure:

His face was strong - a very strong - aquiline, with a high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy mustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth (…) his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed.

Dracula is an “undead”, a creature that has raise from the dead, in one passage of the book Jonathan describing the scary sight of count Dracula lying in a box, “He was either dead or asleep”, motionless (including no breath), but with open eyes.

Bram Stoker’s other works besides Dracula is very less known. He did wrote horror stories before his classic novel, for example the short story “The Crystal Cup”, published in The London Society in 1872.8 Bram Stoker’s literature accomplishments besides Dracula were not especially praised and neither is Dracula in all levels an impressive novel. But it is certainly a classic. Not because it was the first written vampire story, but because many of its characteristics have became the prototype in many ways, and no other character from the gothic romance literature has been as widely spread in popular culture, especially in movies, as the Count Dracula.


1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris Baldick. 2001, p. 106-107
2. Books Tell You,
3. Jansson, Dr Siv. 1999. Introduction. In M. Shelley, Frankenstein, p. xxiv
4. Ibid, p. xvi
5. Ibid, p. ix
6. Ibid, p. viii
7. Rogers, David. 2000. Introduction. In B. Stoker, Dracula, p. vi
8. Ibid