Most scholars refer to Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" as the first Gothic novel. Walpole's novel was published in the late 18th century; soon after, there was a surge in fiction with similar elements: Supernatural occurrences, wild emotions, broken families and eerie settings. Other novels that descend from the Gothic literary tradition include Bram Stoker's "Dracula," Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca" and Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby."
Gothic novels are characterized by a strong element of the supernatural. Characters and readers are required to suspend rational thought and reasoning in favor of superstition, legend and lore. Ghosts, the presence of the deceased and even fantastical creatures like vampires play a prominent role in Gothic fiction. Unexplained sounds, sights and occurrences create an eerie, mysterious tone and build tension throughout the Gothic novel.
Emotions and Passions
Gothic fiction is characterized by its privileging of emotions over rationality. Characters are prone to spells of hysteria, lust and extreme anxiety. The novels often contain abundant sensory description, revealing the passions of the characters and inducing a sensory reaction in the reader. The emotions of the Gothic novel are often connected to the element of the supernatural; characters often experience terror and hysteria due to an unexplainable sense that something is wrong.
Families are often depicted as broken, incestuous or murderous in Gothic fiction. In early Gothic novels, women were often subject to the lustful wrongdoings of family patriarchs, brothers and fathers. Male characters are tyrannical, keeping their wives and children locked away in a family home. Women are often depicted as damsels in distress at the mercy of these tyrannical men. Murders often take place within families, as well. The family unit is a confining structure from which characters must escape.
Mansions and Family Estates
Early Gothic fiction of the 18th century emphasized Gothic architecture in the castles, mansions and abbeys where the novels' plots usually unfolded. In the 19th and 20th centuries, family estates became the more common setting for the Gothic novel. The old castle, mansion, abbey or estate is significant to the plot; often, a death or murder has taken place at that location. This dark past of the setting results in the element of the supernatural through ghosts and eerie presences.