Gothic literature, a movement that focused on ruin, decay, death, terror, and chaos, and privileged irrationality and passion over rationality and reason, grew in response to the historical, sociological, psychological, and political contexts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although Horace Walpole is credited with producing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, his work was built on a foundation of several elements. First, Walpole tapped a growing fascination with all things medieval; and medieval romance provided a generic framework for his novel. In addition, Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, offered a philosophical foundation. Finally, the Graveyard School of poetry, so called because of the attention poets gave to ruins, graveyards, death, and human mortality, flourished in the mid-eighteenth century and provided a thematic and literary context for the Gothic.
Walpole’s novel was wildly popular, and his novel introduced most of the stock conventions of the genre: an intricate plot; stock characters; subterranean labyrinths; ruined castles; and supernatural occurrences. The Castle of Otranto was soon followed by William Beckford’s Vathek (1786); Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797); Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796); Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1797); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818); and Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).
While it may be comparatively easy to date the beginning of the Gothic movement, it is much harder to identify its close, if indeed the movement did come to a close at all. There are those such as David Punter in The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day and Fred Botting in Gothic who follow the transitions and transformations of the Gothic through the twentieth century. Certainly, any close examination of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the nineteenth century demonstrates both the transformation and the influence of the Gothic. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the ongoing fascination with horror, terror, the supernatural, vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night evidences the power the Gothic continues to exert.
In its attention to the dark side of human nature and the chaos of irrationality, the Gothic provides for contemporary readers some insight into the social and intellectual climate of the time in which the literature was produced. A time of revolution and reason, madness and sanity, the 1750s through the 1850s provided the stuff that both dreams and nightmares were made of.