The Gothic Novel
The Romantic prose was not only sentimental stories about suffering and unfulfilled love. As a reaction to the more or less realistic prose of the time some writers turned to a mystic and supernatural universe filled with horror, violence and morbid elements. And the readers seemed to love this kind of literature which became immensely popular during the late 18th and early 19th century.
The gothic novel was rooted in a medieval atmosphere with superstition and mystic events. Bad omens, ghosts and dark satanic forces were basic ingredients of this literature. The setting incorporated medieval elements, such as old castles, ruins of derelict churches or towers with hidden doors and dark corners. Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” (1765) was the trendsetter. The protagonist, the malicious Prince Manfred rejects his virtuous wife and wants to marry his daughter-in-law who escapes, helped by a mysterious knight, through a hidden underground tunnel leading to a monastery. It is a sentimental and violent story where the writer casts a line of evil characters enacting all kinds of medieval savagery. The number of editions shows the popularity of the book and this particular type of romantic literature.
Some of these stories (e.g. Sophia Lee’s “The Old Manor House”, 1793) will today clearly seem like self-parodies, since they are so stacked with the same exaggerated elements of secrets stairways, thunder and lightning, and evil forces that keep innocent lovers apart, and most of these books are forgotten today. But Ann Radcilffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolfo” seems to have survived, and is still read, probably because of its literary qualities, such as a clever composition and an intriguing plot. Matthew Lewis was another writer who took the gothic tradition further, maybe to its limits. In his books visual and grotesque details from torture scenes during the inquisition are mixed with perverted sexuality and occultism.
The question remains – why were so many readers thrilled by this kind of story? Why did they want to indulge themselves in these vulgar and detestable scenes? It is hard to say, but the tradition seems to be kept alive even today. Occultism and dark forces still seem to appeal to some people, and there certainly is a market for horror movies and films that explicitly show abhorrent and grotesque details. Perhaps the answer lies in a secret attraction to the forbidden and the dark sides of human nature. We all like to be thrilled, and for some it takes more to feel the thrill…
The word gothic springs form The Goths, a Germanic people who were living in what is now eastern parts of Germany around 1-300 A.D. They were reputed as wild and savage warriors and were one of the toughest enemies of the Roman Empire. They were also called Barbarians, simply because they were bearded. “Gothic” is also used in medieval art and church architecture; the pointed arcs of windows and hallways broke with the traditional Roman round ones. Today many will connect the word to the culture and fashion style of some young people wearing black clothes and long black hair