The word "Gothic" brings to mind everything from architecture to vampire novels to
depressed teenagers. But the original "Goths" were barbaric Germanic tribes from 376 to 410 C.E. who caused the destruction of Roman culture. People started referring to anything savage or medieval as "Gothic" until the term became synonymous with anything extravagantly horrifying or irrational. The beginning of the Gothic literary movement was in part a reaction to the rationalist thinking of the Enlightenment.
Gothic Romantic Novels
Gothic fiction began with the Gothic novel. Horace Walpole and William Beckford introduced a new genre of literature with "The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story" (1765) and "Vathek" (1786) respectively, a style which later writers, such as Matthew Lewis and Anne Radcliffe, would imitate and perfect. Gothic novels take place in medieval settings and isolated locales, such as Italian castles or monasteries. Chaste, fainting heroines, corrupt, scheming monks and chivalric, knightly heroes drive the plots. Because many of these Gothic novelists published during the era of Romanticism, a literary movement also characterized by excess, sensibility and imagination, Gothic writers during this period are also considered Romantic.
Romanticism's legacy of not only Anne Radcliffe but Mary Shelley and the Bronte sisters saw the domestication of the Gothic novel. Jane Austen's class romance "Northanger Abbey" both parodies and sympathizes with the enormously popular Radcliffe trend. More male writers picked up Gothic conventions in the Victorian era, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" novels, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," H. G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau" and the quintessential vampire novel, Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Victorian Gothic novels reveal much about Victorian anxieties regarding industrialization, Darwinism and religion.
Gothic literature spread to the United States in the 19th century through American writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, with his famous poems "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" and short stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado." A literary development within American Gothic is Southern Gothic, of which Poe was a part, and which included texts such as William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily," which narrates the story of a reclusive necrophiliac. The Southern Gothic tradition typically combines horror and the bizarre with race or class struggles in a rural setting. The work of Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" also exemplify these conventions.
Today, many genres derive from the Gothic tradition. Stephen King and Anne Rice are both household names in Gothic fiction who use the unknown to build suspense. Their books incorporate classic horror characters such as vampires, hearkening back to Stoker's "Dracula," and serial killers, playing on the same fascination Victorians had toward the notorious "Jack the Ripper" in 19th-century England. Both vampire and horror novels have spawned their own genres, targeting all ages, including teens, through such books as Stephanie Meyers' "The Twilight Saga," and children, through R. L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series.