Gothic novels are a lot like obscenity, in the sense that they’re hard to define but you know them when you see them. Officially (well, Wikipedia-lly), gothic fiction is defined as “a loose literary aesthetic of fear and haunting”, with the name alluding to the architectural trend of the Middle Ages. Usually, in gothic novels, an eerie or depressing setting reflects the internal world of the characters. Really, it’s a mood. It’s a vibe. Gothic novels have been around since the 18th century, so there’s a huge canon of classics to enjoy, but a lot of contemporary gothic novels have done really interesting things with the tropes of the sub-genre, too. So, here’s a list of classic and contemporary gothic novels, to get the best of both worlds.
Classic Gothic Novels
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Vampires make frequent appearances in gothic novels, and for good reason! They’re spooky as all heck, and there’s a lot of ways they can be used to convey meaning. The most famous is undoubtedly Dracula, Stoker’s castle-dwelling Transylvanian Count who enlists the help of an English lawyer to immigrate. The story is particularly interesting in the context of its Victorian era origins; it can be read as an allegory for race, sexuality, and all manner of repression. Plus, it’s got a sexy parapsychologist-doctor-philosopher-vampire-slayer-cowboy – not every gothic novel has one of those! Read my full review of Dracula here.
The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James
James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if? In The Turn Of The Screw, a governess is hired to look after two orphaned children. She soon realises that she’s seeing ghosts, and the kids can see them, too. This is one of the shorter classic gothic novels, but it’s still a dense read, best enjoyed slowly on a stormy night, with a glass of wine. Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is usually (mis)remembered as a straight love story, probably because Charlotte Brontë’s sisters wrote much spookier gothic novels and it kind of fades in comparison. But on closer examination, you can’t deny that it belongs on this list. One of the hallmarks of a gothic novel is “there’s something creepy in the attic”, and this is the novel that popularised that trope. The noises from the attic are, if you’ll recall, made by Rochester’s “mad” wife Bertha, held against her will for years while he courts younger women. It’s a story of intense power and intrigue, as well as love and devotion. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Imagine this: you’re sleeping over at your landlord neighbour’s house, and after a bizarre dinner, you try to get some shut eye… only to be awoken by a ghost knocking on your window. It’s a spectacularly spooky beginning to Wuthering Heights, one of the most iconic gothic novels of all time. Set on the bleak Yorkshire moors, this story (recounted by a housekeeper to a curious newcomer) revolves around a love affair gone wrong, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks and a lady who married the wrong man. With deaths, cousins marrying cousins, hauntings, rages, and bitterness galore, it’s better than any reality TV show for dram-ahhhh. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Gothic novels aren’t just spooky – they can also be fabulous! The Picture Of Dorian Gray is a story about a beautiful young man, a lost soul in many respects. He encounters an artist who falls head over heels in love with him, and convinces him to pose for a portrait. Plot twist: that portrait will age, while its subject will remain forever youthful. It’s a deal-with-the-devil story, with something-creepy-in-the-attic to boot, and it’s become both a classic gothic novel and a pillar of the queer canon. Plus, it’s a rather quick read, and endlessly quotable. Read my full review of The Picture Of Dorian Gray here.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier described Rebecca, in a letter to her publishers, as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. From the very first line, it evokes the eerie and the wistful (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” – dreams being another staple of gothic novels). A young woman marries a handsome, wealthy widower, whose mansion seems to be haunted by the specter of his late wife. This is one of the most perennially popular gothic novels, winning over generation after generation of readers – it has never once been out of print! Read my full review of Rebecca here.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
A sub-sub-genre (is that a word?) of gothic novels is “doppelgänger lit”, stories with a shadow or twin of the protagonist. The prototype is, of course, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, the premise so pervasive that it has become idiomatic throughout the English-speaking world. Even if you think you “know” the story, it’s worth reading. The allegory of a man going mad-scientist and developing a potion that gives his underhanded urges human form is rich and ripe for interpretation. It can be read as a psychoanalytic fable, a queer metaphor, a metaphysical interrogation… take your pick! Read my full review of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde here.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Dark fantasy novels and gothic novels have a lot in common, and you get the best of both in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s 1962 novel follows two best friends, whose lives are up-ended by the arrival of a travelling carnival in their Midwestern town (I know, could there be anything more chilling?). There are scary storms, strange siren songs, mysterious mazes, creepy carousels – basically, it’s page-on-page nightmare fuel, and Bradbury wraps it all up into one deliciously horrifying tale. Pick this one up if you’re looking for a fun-scary Halloween read.
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Back before the Australian outback was the scene for detective mysteries and domestic thrillers, it was the setting for one of the best gothic novels of the mid-20th century: Picnic At Hanging Rock. A group of students from an all-girls boarding school set out to Hanging Rock for a Valentine’s Day picnic, all dressed in white and giggling and eager for sandwiches and lemonade. It’s all in good fun, until some of the girls decide to climb the monolith for which the path is named, and appear to vanish into thin air. They’re never seen again. Only one girl manages to escape, fleeing back to the picnic in hysterics. What happened to the girls? That question has practically passed into legend.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery is technically a short story, but it contains multitudes – and it’s often published in a collection of Jackson’s work – so I say it counts as one of the best classic gothic novels. The premise reads like a dystopian YA novel: a small town holds a traditional annual ‘lottery’, where one resident is selected at random to be stoned by their friends and neighbours. It’s a haunting tale, particularly eerie for the excitement and anticipation among the townspeople, who will either be murdered or murderers by the time the story is done. My thoughts and prayers are with any and all teenagers who were traumatised by this story in high school!
Contemporary Gothic Novels
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved really straddles the line between classic and contemporary gothic novels. It was first published in 1987 (thirty-five years ago), which is in the fuzzy grey area between “recent” and “ages ago”, but it’s so universally – well – beloved that it’s achieved iconic status in the minds of most readers. It’s not what you’d expect of a traditional gothic novel, though, with the ‘haunting’ at its heart having a clear and striking cause. It’s a metaphor for the haunting of America’s true history, that of slavery. This is a deeply affecting novel, about the darkest side of a mother’s love and the resilience of the human spirit. Read my full review of Beloved here.
Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice
Dracula is to classic gothic novels as Interview With The Vampire is to contemporary gothic novels. Anne Rice’s debut back in 1976 has become one of the most influential vampire stories in living memory, going on to sell millions of copies since its release. Perhaps it’s particularly powerful because Rice mined her own personal pain after the death of her daughter to craft her characters, especially child-vampire Claudia. It was popularised further by the 1994 film adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, though nothing truly compares to the spook factor of Rice’s words on the page.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry
A mysterious, robed figure roams the world searching for souls she can lure into her existence of solitude. It sounds like the stuff of legends, a folk story to scare children – but, as Helen discovers in Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, there’s more to the story than you’d think. This is a haunting story that will have you looking over your shoulder every time you do something even slightly dodgy. It’s got superstition, a mysterious letter in a library book, cobblestone streets, and a missing woman – a recipe for chills up the spine if there ever was one.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
How on earth did a memoir end up on this list? It’s not a mistake, I assure you – Carmen Maria Machado is just that creative, and just that good. In In The Dream House, she tells the true story of an abusive relationship she had with a woman she refers to only as “the woman in the dream house”. She explicitly uses all of the major gothic and horror narrative tropes to explore different facets of their relationship, and how the abuse impacted her sense of self. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account, one that has truly set the standard for memoirs – and, come to that, gothic novels. Read my full review of In The Dream House here.
Bone China by Laura Purcell
Laura Purcell is on her way to writing a whole library of gothic novels on her own. Bone China is one of her most popular, a 2019 historical fiction novel with elements of dark fantasy, domestic thriller, and intriguing mystery. The timeline begins with a doctor proposing a radical new cure for the consumption that has ravaged his family, in the form of fresh sea air at his new home in Cornwall. Forty years later, a nurse moves to Cornwall to care for the doctor’s ailing daughter, and discovers that the cure may have come with a curse of its own. Spooky, right?
Bonus: check out another of Laura Purcell’s gothic novels, The Shape Of Darkness, about a silhouette artist whose clients are murdered one by one – my full review can be found here.
Flowers In The Attic by V.C. Andrews
Okay, I’ll admit: Flowers In The Attic isn’t a great work of literature. I didn’t enjoy it, for a number of reasons. But a list of contemporary gothic novels just feels incomplete without it! The Dollanganger family is torn apart by a tragedy that kills their patriarch. Their only hope is to secure a sizeable inheritance from their maternal grandfather, an elderly man who disapproves heartily of his daughter’s children and lifestyle. The children are hidden away in an attic, where they’re subjected to harsh rules and complete isolation, while their mother tries to win back her father’s favour. And then things get twisted… Read my full review of Flowers In The Attic here.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea is the 20th century’s answer to Charlotte Brontë’s 19th century Jane Eyre, a dramatic adaptation that tells the story from the perspective of the mad wife trapped in the attic. Rhys names her Antoinette, a Creole heiress sold into marriage with the prideful English landowner Mr Rochester. Such circumstances would be enough to drive any woman out of her mind, wouldn’t you say? This is a story of patriarchal power, isolation, and vengeance, that extrapolates upon Brontë’s masterpiece to tell a truer story, while retaining its gothic roots. It was Rhys’s last novel, and her most popular by a long shot.
Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz
If you’ve got your finger to the pulse of new releases in the gothic novels category, you’ve surely heard about Anatomy: A Love Story. This “instant best-seller” brings together first-wave feminism, buried secrets, and subterfuge. Hazel Sinnett dreams of a life as a surgeon, but women are excluded from formal medical training. She makes a deal with Dr Beecham that she can establish a medical practice if she passes her exams – and for that, she’ll need cadavers to practice on. That’s where Jack Currer comes in; he’s been digging up graves all over Edinburgh, in an attempt to solve a mystery that has stolen his friends and consumed his thoughts. This one could well go on to become a classic gothic novel in a hundred years time!
The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware
Ruth Ware takes Henry James’s classic governess plot and places it in a thoroughly contemporary setting: an isolated “smart home” mansion, with all the bells and whistles. Rowan thought she was accepting her dream job, handsomely paid for simple work in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. Little did she know it would quickly turn out to be a nightmare, one ending with a child dead and her awaiting trial for murder. Even with its modern setting, The Turn Of The Key has all the markers of classic gothic novels: menacing children, a mysterious caretaker, a bitter housekeeper, and unexplained bumps in the night. Read my full review of The Turn Of The Key here.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a ‘tour de force’ according to Oprah, and ‘a timeless work of fiction destined to become a classic’. Set in rural Mississippi, the story begins with Jojo on the cusp of adolescence, eager to prove that he’s ready to become a man. What follows is an epic tale of strife and struggle across three generations, of race and racism, reticence and resilience. The gothic elements take some time to emerge, but when they do – hoo boy! Their most obvious manifestation is the ghost of a prison inmate, carrying hard truths about the history of the South and the legacy of men who came before.
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