Gothic fiction is a literary genre that blends aspects of horror and romance. Most scholars claim that the first instance of Gothic fiction as a genre was the 1764 novel The Castle of Otronto: A Gothic Story by Howard Walpole. To Walpole, the word "Gothic" meant "medieval" and "barbarous," but the word has come to mean a type of literature with a blend of specific elements.
In Gothic fiction, backgrounds often include haunted houses, decaying castles, abandoned churches, dark cramped passageways, dangerous forests, or graveyards full of ghosts. The plots frequently include lingering evils from the past, such as curses, prophecies, family secrets, and desires for revenge. Sometimes, supernatural beings such as vampires, demons, witches, and monsters play a part and contribute to the overall atmosphere of fear. Besides the ambiance of horror, Gothic fiction also features elements of romance and sexuality, although these desires are often repressed.
The villains in Gothic fiction are frequently handsome, intelligent, and charming men whose looks conceal dark sides to their characters. Heroes are courageous, witty, and self-sacrificial. Leading women characters tend to be kind, sensitive, and virtuous.
After Walpole's groundbreaker, one of the next major Gothic novels was The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, first published in 1794. The story takes place in a gloomy Italian castle and has supernatural elements. Other famous Gothic novels include Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dracula by Bram Stoker.
One of the first American writers known for his Gothic fiction was Edgar Allan Poe. He frequently employed Gothic elements in tales such as "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Tell-Tale Heart."