When I was younger, I really hated classics and had resolved never to read them, so convinced was I of my dislike for them. Now, after having read several classics, I can’t say that I’m head over heels in love with of any of them, but I do appreciate their literary merit, so I’ve been doing my best to expand my repertoire of classic novels (I owe it all to Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which prompted my read of War and Peace). In the past two years, besides War and Peace, I’ve read Wuthering Heights, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca (the only one I genuinely enjoyed, with no reservations).
Over this past year, as I’ve been writing my Fulbright application, I’ve rediscovered my teenage love for all things Gothic. I was a very emo teen, obsessed with horror and the macabre. I’m very intrigued by the Gothic literary aesthetic and all the anxieties it conveys about gender, class, race, imperialism, and much more (plus there’s so much draaaamaaaaaa). To that end, I’ve resolved to read several of the more well-known Gothic novels that have contributed to the construction of the genre. I have also rediscovered my love of the Victorian era, so I’ll also be looking to read classic books set during that time period, even if they may not be Gothic per se.
Another reason I really want to read these books is that there are a ton of modern-day novels that are based on these classics. I know that I don’t have to read the original books to enjoy the modern stories, but I would like to have that background. In another post, probably in mid-September, I’ll talk about my autumn TBR, which will consist of more modern Gothic stories!
Anyway, of course I want to share all these books with y’all, but I also want to have a super organized reference list of what I want to read; sometimes Goodreads just doesn’t cut it!
The Short & Pressing Reads
Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley: Reading this right now! Often touted as the first sci-fi novel, it is also heavily associated with Gothic lit.
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) by H.G. Wells: This is the only book on this list that’s a bit of an outlier. It’s not really Gothic fiction, rather more sci-fi and horror, but it was written in the late Victorian era, plus there’s two (!) books I want to read soon based on it, and it’s super short. Will probably read this next!
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson: This is one of the most well-known works of literature in the Western world, considering how often it’s referenced! I’ve known about it since I was a child. It is supposed to encompass the urban Gothic feel of Victorian London pretty well! Will probably read this soon!
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde: A book I want to read soon is based on this! But also, this seems to be a truly beloved classic and is hailed as one of the better, more readable Gothic novels. I really want to read this before October!
Carmilla (1872) by J. Sheridan LeFanu: Funny story. I was supposed to read this in a college class but I…didn’t. I need to remedy that. It’s a precursor to Dracula with lesbian undertones. Yes please!!!
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897): Do I even need to explain? This is like…a must for anyone who wants to know anything about Gothic lit. I’ve avoided it because I’m not a huge fan of epistolary novels (a running theme in Gothic lit, joy), but it’s high-time I read it!
The Vampyre (1819) by John Polidori: Remember the ghost story competition that prompted Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein? This was one of the other short stories that competition produced. This came before pretty much any famous vampire lit in England.
The Blood of the Vampire (1897) by Florence Marryat: This novel is less well-known than its counterparts; perhaps it was overshadowed by the publication of Dracula in the very same year. It tells the tale of Harriet, daughter of a voodoo priestess and a mad scientist, who seems to sicken everyone she comes into contact with. Could she have the blood of the vampire running through her veins?
The Major Leagues
The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole: Often thought of as the very first Gothic novel, it tells the tale of Manfred, who sets out to marry his dead son’s virginal bride to be. It’s supposed to be super weird and super creepy and it’s the novel equivalent of the FIRST!!1! comment.
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe: Otranto and Udolpho go hand in hand; if Walpole “invented” the Gothic, Radcliffe both perfected it and popularized it. This gigantic book tells the tale of young orphan Emily, who is trapped in a strange castle with an unwanted suitor and various other terrors.
Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin: Another massive book, it tells the tale of Melmoth, who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for added life. Now he wanders the earth, desperate to find someone who will take over the covenant he made. Written by an Irish clergyman, Melmoth the Wanderer is a series of stories within stories that gradually reveal Melmoth’s life that supposedly ups the macabre and horror in the Gothic genre.
The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis: This trails Otranto and Udolpho as one of the major classics of Gothic lit. It’s filled with macabre and disturbing things like murder and incest, all about a monk who succumbs to temptation.
The Italian (1797) by Ann Radcliffe: The mother of a young Italian nobleman is dead-set against the woman he wants to marry, and so she enlists a demonic, scheming monk to put a stop to the engagement, and he is willing to resort to all manner of horrific deeds to accomplish the task. Sounds sensational! Takes place in Italy.
Zofloya or the Moor (1806) by Charlotte Dacre: A tale of the downfall of a woman whose vices apparently exceed that of The Monk! One of those vices is her attraction to her Moorish servant. Lust! Revenge! Murder! Racism! Adultery! Satan! Rage! All the classic hallmarks of the Gothic tale. Takes place in Venice.
The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) by Eliza Parsons: So this actually predates both Udolpho and The Monk, but is not nearly as well-known as either of them. It’s about a young girl trapped in her menacing uncle’s castle, which hides a terrible secret about his wife. Takes place in Germany.
Vathek (1786) by William Beckford: Probably chock-full of Orientalist nonsense, this book is about a Caliph who makes a terrible deal to sacrifice everything for power, culminating in a nasty fate. It’s weird, it’s obscure, it’s grotesque, it inspired Byron and Lovecraft. Takes place in…the Middle East?? Somewhere?
Frightening & Frightened Women
Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Possibly more Victorian than Gothic, this highly sensational novel features an alluring female villain who has a secret that threatens the very fabric of Victorian society!!! Melodramatic and probably underwhelming to modern readers? Most likely. Do I still want to read it? Definitely.
The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James: A very famous story about a governess who is haunted by some phantom specter who seems determined to steal the children, who don’t seem to be frightened of whatever it is. Very classic! I know literally nothing else about this book.
Uncle Silas (1864) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu: Part Gothic tale, part psychological thriller, this book is about young orphaned Maud, whose devious uncle plots to kill her and steal her fortune. Supposedly very disturbing and atmospheric and well-known in Gothic circles.
The Woman in White (1869) by Wilkie Collins: Another well-known classic, one I always confuse with Turn of the Screw for some reason! I have literally no clue what this book is about except it involves a ghost woman dressed in white. Also it’s long, but I will persevere.
This post took SO LONG to construct, omg. Do come talk to me about these books! What are your favorite Gothic tales? Which Gothic books do you most want to read? Are there any modern adaptations of these classics that you love and adore? Isn’t the 19th century fun??