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So You Want to Read American Gothic: Here’s Where to Start

American Gothic literature, a homegrown genre set in uniquely American settings — the frontier, sometimes even suburbia — explores the darker elements of the nation’s culture and history. Historical sins like slavery, genocide and the destruction of the wilderness are often part and parcel of American Gothic fiction. The past is always alive and with us. Horror is an element, but the supernatural isn’t always present, and when it is, it might be implied rather than identified as such. Questions often arise whether mysterious phenomena noted by characters are actually paranormal in nature or the products of insanity. Mental illness, and whether it runs in families, is another common theme in American Gothic stories. The question of whether one can escape destiny is one that often surfaces in these stories. Similar to that is the debate of whether humanity is born in a state of evil, or becomes such through actions. This one is often framed in a religious subtext, as spiritual crises of various sorts are very much present in the canon. Find a few select works below.
  1. 1
    American Gothic Tales Book Cover Picture
    American Gothic Tales Book Cover Picture

    American Gothic Tales

    by Various

    Sometimes, the shotgun approach can be best when exploring a new genre. Award winning author Joyce Carol Oates certainly knows her way around American Gothic literature, having written some of its finest modern incarnations. Her anthology is an era-spanning collection that includes some of the form’s best examples from writers familiar and obscure. From Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe, to Anne Rice and Kathe Koja, American Gothic Tales is certain to offer something you’ll like.
    American Gothic Tales Book Cover Picture
    American Gothic Tales Book Cover Picture

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  2. 2
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle Book Cover Picture
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle Book Cover Picture

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle

    by Shirley Jackson

    Shirley Jackson’s indisputable classic The Haunting of Hill House usually takes up a lot of bandwidth when we talk about her best novels, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her final work, hews more closely to the precepts of the American Gothic genre. It is the story of what is left of the Blackwood family, an old line of eccentrics lurking in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of a small town. Among them is Merricat Blackwood: a completely insane young woman who more than likely poisoned several relatives at a family dinner. Merricat, with her love of death cap mushrooms and zeal for witchcraft, is charming in her own Wednesday Addams way — just don’t turn your back on her.
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle Book Cover Picture
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle Book Cover Picture

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  3. 3
    The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings Book Cover Picture
    The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings Book Cover Picture

    The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings

    by Edgar Allan Poe

    Although he tinkered with several different genres during his short and troubled life, Edgar Allan Poe is synonymous with gothic horror. The Fall of the House of Usher is the archetypal American Gothic: the story of two siblings whose fates are inextricably tied to the crumbling family mansion they inhabit. Some of Poe’s favorite motifs appear here: premature burial, and insanity, chief among them. If you’ve never tackled Poe before, this is a good place to start.
    The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings Book Cover Picture
    The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings Book Cover Picture

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  4. 4
    Wieland Book Cover Picture
    Wieland Book Cover Picture

    Wieland

    by Charles Brockden Brown

    Charles Brockden Brown may not be a household name, but his novel Wieland, or, the Transformation is considered the first American Gothic. It is the story of a family whose patriarch came to America to found a new religion, and then, one day, spontaneously combusted. His surviving children seem to have responded to the bewitching beauty of the American frontier in different and opposite ways. One of them, his son, has inherited his father’s religiosity, looking to supernatural explanations for what might very well be incipient mental illness.
    Wieland Book Cover Picture
    Wieland Book Cover Picture

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  5. 5
    As I Lay Dying Book Cover Picture
    As I Lay Dying Book Cover Picture

    As I Lay Dying

    by William Faulkner

    As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s harrowing account of the Bundren family’s odyssey across the Mississippi countryside to bury Addie, their wife and mother. Narrated in turn  by each of the family members—including Addie herself—as well as others the novel ranges in mood, from dark comedy to the deepest pathos. Considered one of the most influential novels in American fiction in structure, style, and drama, As I Lay Dying is a true 20th-century classic.
    As I Lay Dying Book Cover Picture
    As I Lay Dying Book Cover Picture

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  6. 6
    Sula Book Cover Picture
    Sula Book Cover Picture

    Sula

    by Toni Morrison

    Sula Book Cover Picture
    Sula Book Cover Picture

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  7. 7
    Other Voices, Other Rooms Book Cover Picture
    Other Voices, Other Rooms Book Cover Picture

    Other Voices, Other Rooms

    by Truman Capote

    Other Voices, Other Rooms Book Cover Picture
    Other Voices, Other Rooms Book Cover Picture

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  8. 8
    Child of God Book Cover Picture
    Child of God Book Cover Picture

    Child of God

    by Cormac McCarthy

    Child of God Book Cover Picture
    Child of God Book Cover Picture

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