Why is Gothic fiction still prevalent and important today?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The importance of gothic literature is open to debate.  Not open to debate is its enduring popularity.  Ever since Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto in 1764 with its’ innovate blend of horror and romance, the appeal of this newly-emerging genre of literature has been undeniable.  Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest followed in 1791, which in turn was succeeded by Mathew Lewis’s particularly disturbing novel The Monk (1796), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus (1818) and, of course, Bram Stoke’s Dracula, published in 1897.  All of these novels, especially the last two, have enjoyed enduring success, and some are read widely today both for entertainment and as a requirement in literature courses.  Both Shelley’s and Stoker’s novels have never been out of print, and both have inspired countless film adaptations, especially Dracula.  While many of the film adaptations, especially in earlier eras, gave short shrift to the romance element of gothic fiction, more modern versions have been careful about dutifully incorporating the romantic elements that played such major roles in Frankenstein and Dracula.  For better or worse, however, the filmed adaptation of Shelley’s novel that adhered most closely to the original source’s emphasis on romance was Mel Brooks’ satirical take on Shelley’s story titled Young Frankenstein, whereas Francis Coppola’s filmed adaptation of Stoker’s novel gave full measure to the element or romance without sacrificing the horror in the least.

Gothic literature continues to be a very successful genre of literature today.  Some of the earlier examples of gothic novels from the modern era are those by Daphne du Maurier, whose Rebecca remains a classic of the genre, as does Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and the more contemporary Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates, which tells the story of multigenerational family’s existence over the years at its upstate New York mansion and the successive generations’ efforts at confronting their demons, whether literally or figuratively.  An early chapter in Oates’ novel, “The Bellefleur Curse,” finds family members debating the existence and nature of this curse, with some denying its existence and other vociferously arguing that it exists.  “Bellefleur men die interesting deaths,” one character notes.  “They rarely die in bed.” 

Contemporary examples of gothic fiction abound, including Robert Malfi’s Floating Staircase, William Miekle’s The Auld Mither, and Bruce Boston’s poetry collection Dark Roads.  All our considered examples of gothic fiction, although the horror part of the equation is often favored over the romantic element that, combined, define the genre.

Gothic fiction continues to survive because much of the reading public continues to savor stories that both titillate and frighten, or that present genuinely caring, loving people thrown into situations that will test the strength of their bonds amidst supernatural developments that threaten everything they hold dear.   Perhaps the enduring appeal of gothic literature lies to a certain extent in the human propensity to look towards rather than away from horrific images.  “Rubber-necking” at car accidents – the bane of many a traffic enforcement officer – is a manifestation of mankind’s innate desire to gaze upon the terrible misfortunes that befall others.  From a safe distance, even the most terrifying of images can be enticing. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gothic fiction is still popular in contemporary times simply because its elements appeal intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually to the readers. The mystery, the looming darkness of danger and evil, the fear, and the suspense-- and even madness, captivate readers' attention and stir both the heart and the imagination. Reading Gothic narratives is not just amusing or pleasurable; it involves the engagement of the reader's own mind and the lure of the temptations of the soul. For, what man in the secret chambers of his heart has not had the fleeting urge to commit, at least, an act of small violence such as in the Gothic; what woman has not felt the temptation of the dark, brooding lover, the ilk of Heathcliff? And how many people do not enjoy the thrill of being frightened?

In a sense, too, there is the vindication that readers feel after perusing a work of Gothic fiction. "I am not so bad as those characters." Or the sympathy of human natuare, "Haven't we all be in such a state?"

[For coverage of the elements of Gothic literature, see the link below]

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The Romance of the Forest

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