It’s Halloween! Everyone has carved their pumpkins and prepared their gory makeup (or slutty outfits – I’m not judging) but if you’re a bibliophile like me you probably like to get into the spirit by reading something that will make your goose bump (cue audience laughter).
Well, having spent a decent amount of time studying gothic literature, I’ve comprised a list of my top five favourite gothic books that everyone should read at least once in their lifetime (and no, Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t make the cut).
1: Vathek by William Beckford (1816)
Vathek is a small but dense novel, and should not be considered a light read despite its short length. Focusing on the Muslim religion, it seemed to me at first like an Arabesque version of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, and I found myself anxiously awaiting the protagonist’s demise, which never seemed to come until the last 2-3 pages. Those last few pages however, make it all worth the while. “They went wandering on from chamber to chamber… all traversed by persons in search of repose and consolation, but who sought them in vain, for every one carried within him a heart tormented in flames.“- The summation is beautifully written, and reminiscent of the story of Adam an Eve, for, ultimately, Beckford describes a search for forbidden knowledge, and the consequences of not being content with one’s lot. *3 STARS OUT OF 5*
2: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
The use of ghosts, apparitions, curses and doppelgängers are employed in a way that may be rendered silly in this day and age, but is actually what makes this short novel widely considered as the prototype for the Gothic Horror genre. The metaphysical employment will in no way incite fear to you as a reader, but back in the 18th century it would have absolutely terrified any audience. The story, surrounding a royal family and ancient prophecy, appeared to me upon further inspection as a sort of Tragedy, like the type Sophocles might have written, had he been an 18th century Sicilian. Walpole’s characters Jaquez and Diego are so pathetically afraid that they appear in your mind as a parody of Shaggy and Scooby. “The valour that had so long been smothered in his breast, broke forth at once“- the story is at times so cheesy you might start craving nachos, and yet, Walpole has created a small relic of the gothic genre. *4 STARS OUT OF 5*
3: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)
One of my absolute favourites, Carter’s story is so short yet so enticing that you will undoubtedly finish it through one sitting. The imagery and motif throughout the prose creates an anxious anticipation in the reader that almost feels like you’ve been holding your breath from the moment you open the book to the moment you close it, and the sigh of relief that you exhale in the end will leave a dizzying satisfaction. Unlike the previous two books, the protagonist in this one is a 17-year-old girl who discovers that “there is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.” Contains several allusions to the French Revolution (as do 99% of gothic novels) and the use of the guillotine. Despite being filled with a dark motif and a horrible foreboding, I would consider this a light, and pleasant read. *4 STARS OUT OF 5*
4: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)
How ironic that I would put Mary Shelley in the same list as Horace Walpole, considering what he said about her mother. Mary Wollstonecraft was described by him as “a hyena in a petticoat” in response to her article on “The Vindication of the rights of Women” which is today considered the prototype for feminist philosophy. And yet here is her daughter with a world known classic that mixes science with the ambition of man, to bring to life a creature that is much more human than his creator is willing to admit. Frankenstein’s creature is innately good, of that I am certain, but like a child he needs to be taught how to be stronger than his primal instincts. Shunned by everyone, especially his creator, he seeks revenge for the life and the love that he never had. Victor’s neglect of his creation was appalling, leaving us to question if we as a human species will ever be ready for such a scientific breakthrough, but most importantly, makes us realise why Frankenstein is so often mistakenly referred to as the monster, rather than acknowledged as the scientist. Perhaps he was, in fact, the true villain of the story. The sublime scenery painted by Shelley leaves us nothing but awed at the wonders of the Swiss mountains and its lakes, but perhaps it’s intended as a reminder that God, alone, is the omnipotent creator, and us humans should content ourselves with the limited abilities we were given. *4 STARS OUT OF 5*
5: The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)
My personal, all time favourite gothic novel, still unbeaten by any other. It is hard for me to believe still, that Matthew Lewis (not to be mistaken with Neville Longbottom!) was only 19 when he wrote this novel, so full of religious repression and moral deviation that the overall experience is similar to getting off a crazy rollercoaster ride. Ambrosio, the protagonist, is in no way innocent, this we can ascertain from the start. And yet, he lacks so much of that experience which makes us all humanly equal, that you can’t help but hope for him to sin. This novel is laden with deeds that would buy you a straight ticket to hell, including murder, rape and incest, and yet, why is it so vicariously satisfying to read? How is it that a man who at first had never set foot outside of the monastery, coveted for his piety, ends us signing his soul away to the devil?
“Ambrosio was yet to learn, that to a heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever most dangerous when lurking behind the mask of virtue.” *5 STARS OUT OF 5*
Have you read these? If so, what was your opinion on them? And what are some of your favourite gothic horrors?