Top Five Gothic Novels

From medieval castles to haunted houses, human tyrants and blood- sucking vampires to the damsel in distress, religion to superstition, isolation to madness- Gothic fiction has gripped and terrified its readers since the eighteenth century. As an avid reader of Gothic fiction- perhaps one day I’ll write a blog on the difference between Gothic and horror- here are my top five picks.

5. The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole

Considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto birthed what was to become key tropes of Gothic fiction: A damsel in distress who can’t go a day without fainting, violent deaths, supernatural occurrences, and of course,  a family curse. Although published in 1764, I did not find this book difficult to read and its charm lies in its age – although written with serious intentions, twenty- first century readers find light humour in its absurdity – and yet it is so well written that it will send shivers down your spine.

The Castle of Otranto (US)
The Castle of Otranto (UK)

4. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

You all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde. If you haven’t read the novella (shame on you!) then you’ve probably seen a T.V or film adaptation. Published in 1886, Stevenson plays with the relationship between emerging scientific discourse and Victorian Gothic. Examining the concept of the sinister alter ego or doppelganger, Stevenson exposes the dual nature of not just one man, but of mass society.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (US)
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (UK)

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Published in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was initially rejected by the outwardly morally rigid Victorians. The novella depicts the moral degradation of the underbelly of Victorian culture, and the vulgarity of aristocracy. Centring around an intensely handsome (but creepy) young aristocrat, The picture of Dorian Gray depicts the Faustian narrative of bargaining with the devil, and inhibits several Gothic motifs such as the supernatural, the doppelganger, and the battle with inner evil. This novella stirs the passions and excites the senses of people who are captivated by the fantastic.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (US)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (UK)

2. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and Helen Oyeyami’s White is for Witching(2009)

Ok, so I’ve been a little cheeky here. But, in my defence, I was so stricken by the similarities between the two books – despite them being written fifty years apart – that I thought I might just be able to get away with it. Considered one of the best literary ghost stories of the twentieth century, The Haunting of Hill House plays with the relationships between the mysterious events in the old mansion and the psyche’s of its inhabitants. Following a similar narrative (but not quite enough to call it outright copying), White is for Witching is a wonderfully updated haunted house story that adopts a postmodern style. The sentence and narrative structure may be confusing to some, particularly when the narrative voice switches midway through a sentence, but this is one of the things that I actually loved about the book – it’s utilization of the traditional haunted house story and the unconventional manner in which it has been reinvented. I highly recommend reading The Haunting of Hill House first, and then White is for Witching, because the similarities between both the plot and the characters are incredibly interesting, particularly in relation to female protagonists and their spectrality. Alternatively, you can just enjoy the spookiness.

The Haunting of House Hill (US)
The Haunting of House Hill (UK)

White is for Witching (US)
White is for Witching (UK)

1. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

My number one spot took very little consideration. As soon as I was asked to write a small piece on my top five books of my chosen genre, I knew that House of Leaves would win hands down. Published in 2000, House of Leaves is a prime example of ergodic literature and is a labyrinth of a book. Quite literally. Mirroring the structure of the house, which opens up into a multicursal labyrinth, the typography is a challenge to read. We are forced to turn the book at various degrees to read, some parts need a mirror, and it contains various footnotes and endnotes. A comprehensive metatext, House of Leaves uses a variety of mediums and unreliable narrations. This is not a light nor easy read, but it will consume your heart and soul. You can read my review of House of Leaves here.

House of Leaves (US)
House of Leaves (UK)

Some of my other favourite pieces of Gothic fiction are: Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (various reproductions), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1st ed. 1818, 2nd ed. 1823), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847, it took a while for me to warm to it!), Vernon Lee’s Hauntings (1890), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), Lauren Kate’s Fallen (2009, kind of “trashy” but the setting is wonderful).

Sammy Evans, Poetic Pieces.