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

Windswept moors, crumbling towers, and maybe a ghost or two: It is English Gothic. Characters grappling with mental illness or spiritual angst are often par for the course, as are manifestations of the supernatural — or what appears to be so. Untimely deaths, doomed romance, and villainous acts of moral turpitude are common, as well. Environment is just as important as the characters themselves in gothic fiction, with neglected graveyards, cobwebbed dungeons, and of course, haunted castles are all to be expected.

  1. 1
    The Castle of Otranto Book Cover Picture
    The Castle of Otranto Book Cover Picture

    The Castle of Otranto

    by Horace Walpole and Michael Gamer

    Horace Walpole’s 1764 book The Castle of Otranto is considered by many to be the ur-gothic novel: a genre-defining work that set the stage for centuries of dark fiction to come. It is the tale of the nobleman Manfred, the lord of a great estate prophesied to one day fall into the hands of its “real owner.” When a freak accident kills Manfred’s son Conrad on his wedding day, the nobleman panics that the fulfillment of the prophecy is at hand. Desperate to secure an heir for his estate, Manfred moves to claim Conrad’s betrothed for his own wife. She escapes, setting off a series of ultimately tragic events. Modern readers might find Otranto a little melodramatic for their tastes, but it is an important work for anyone who hopes to understand the history of the genre.
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    The Castle of Otranto Book Cover Picture
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    $11.00

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  2. 2
    The Mysteries of Udolpho Book Cover Picture
    The Mysteries of Udolpho Book Cover Picture

    The Mysteries of Udolpho

    by Ann Radcliffe

    Another must-read work of the genre, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is a classic gothic tale. After the death of her beloved father, heroine Emily St. Aubert is forced to leave behind her true love to move in with an aunt. Shortly thereafter, the aunt marries an Italian nobleman of doubtful lineage who then relocates both women to his thoroughly creepy castle in the countryside. The Mysteries of Udolpho, like The Castle of Otranto, is a bit of a potboiler, but you can’t deny its importance in establishing gothic literature.
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    $15.00

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  3. 3
    Frankenstein: The 1818 Text Book Cover Picture
    Frankenstein: The 1818 Text Book Cover Picture

    Frankenstein: The 1818 Text

    by Mary Shelley

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a wonderful example of the English gothic, and leaving it off this list be a matter of literary malpractice. Frankenstein exemplifies the gothic novel in so many ways: a grave-robbing mad scientist driven to blaspheme creation with forbidden experimentation, an alienated anti-hero intent upon revenge, doomed romance, murder … should I go on? Shelley’s masterpiece was heavily edited prior to publication, but her original 1818 text is now available for purchase. Whether you’re new to the novel, or an old fan, this would be an ideal addition to your collection.
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    Frankenstein: The 1818 Text Book Cover Picture
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    $10.00

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  4. 4
    Dracula Book Cover Picture
    Dracula Book Cover Picture

    Dracula

    by Bram Stoker

    Much like Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a well-known work of gothic literature, but you’d be surprised by how many people have never read it. It’s a pity: The eponymous Count is almost nothing like the suave charmer seen in the movie adaptations of the novel. The real Dracula is bloodsucking, foul-breathed sadist intent on claiming England (and possibly the world beyond) for his own. The opening chapters describing solicitor Jonathan Harker’s stay in Castle Dracula are utterly horrifying, and have lost none of their edge over the many years since the book’s publication. Stoker was actually Irish, but his work has become so heavily identified with the English tradition that it feels wrong to leave it out.
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    Hardcover
    $23.00

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  5. 5
    The Bloody Chamber Book Cover Picture
    The Bloody Chamber Book Cover Picture

    The Bloody Chamber

    by Angela Carter

    How about something a little more recent? I’ll be the first to admit that Angela Carter’s fiction is quite hard to pin-down (Fantasy? Magic realism?), but the stories in her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber feature many qualities that one would associate with gothic literature: sublimated sexuality, the supernatural, forbidding locations — if it isn’t an English gothic, then it is surely a close cousin. “The Lady of the House of Love” is one of my favorite vampire stories, bar none: the story of a virginal Englishman who chances upon the castle of a vampire princess.
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    The Bloody Chamber Book Cover Picture
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    $17.00

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