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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Gothic Literature Guide: What is the Gothic?

A research guide for Gothic literature.

The Gothic

The Gothic Novel is thought to have emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, inspired by the architectural style of the same name. Usually the setting consists of a castle or manor in an isolated location, away from any city or civilization. This genre is dark, eerie, and mysterious, often containing elements of terror, horror, and the macabre and the bizarre. Common themes and motifs of the Gothic include power, confinement, and isolation. The genre has led to the rise of pulp magazines in the early twentieth century, the modern horror genre, and most famously, the Southern Gothic--fiction that contains elements of the gothic, taking place in the American South. 

The first Gothic Novel--according to most scholars--is Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, written in 1764. This began the genre that includes authors like Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, and countless others. 



(Theodore Von Holst, "Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature" from "Frankenstein", 1831.)   

The Beginnings of the Gothic

Below are images of several well-known Gothic Novels.

The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole (1764)


The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794)

The Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)

Photos courtesy of the British Library