If there’s one literary genre that I associate with autumn, it’s definitely gothic for me. Gothic novels are the perfect company when curling up on the couch with a tea on a rainy day. I love the darkness, the suspense and the supernatural elements of these books. I love how they question social norms and explore themes like like the role of science and technology, gender conventions or sexuality within the context of a dark and mysterious story.
However, there’s also something that I don’t love about gothic literature and that is its treatment of female characters. If you’re a woman and you make it alive to the end of the gothic novel, congrats to you, champ! If you’re young, pretty, female and a gothic novel character, your survival chances are close to zero.
After all Edgar Allan Poe said: “The Death […] of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” That’s also one of the reasons why he didn’t make it onto my list although he wrote some great gothic stories. The other is that I simply preferred these five books. Then there are also some other famous gothic novels who didn’t make it onto my list like “Dracula” which contains so many racist, xenophobic and misogynist elements that I really don’t want to recommend it to anyone.
And of course as most canonical literature gothic is predominantly white, male and British. Still these five gothic novels are still worth a read because of their poetic language, because of the suspense, because of the themes they explore and iconic gothic motifs they include.
1. Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights
The plot: Mr. Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, falls ill after visiting his landlord Heathcliff at the neighbouring estate Wuthering Heights. While he is recovering his housekeeper Nelly Dean tells him the history and surrounding Wuthering Heights and teh family who lives there.
What I love about it: Spanning multiple generations this story features many classics gothic elements: an old estate with a dark history, family secrets, death, ghosts from the past that haunt the characters and of course the ultimate gothic landscape, the moors. It’s also a dark story about love, otherness, class and revenge.
2. E. T. A. Hoffmann – Der Sandmann (The Sandman)
The plot: The book tells the story of the student Nathanael who is haunted by a childhood trauma about a man called Coppelius who used to perform alchemical experiments with his father. During one of these experiments his father died. Years later while engaged to Clara he believes he recognizes Coppelius in the Italian trader Coppola which disturbs him. Despite his engagement to Clara Nathanael also begins to fall for his professor’s strange daughter Olimpia.
What I love about it: To be honest “The Sandman” is rather a part of the genre Schwarze Romantik (Dark Romanticism) than gothic but I chose to include it anyways because the genres share many similarities. This short novella is also nice alternative for all those who don’t feel like reading one of the longer gothic novels on my list. This quick read addresses trauma, mental health, technology and alchemy. The story plays with the motif of the doppelgänger and what is reality and what is imagination.
3. Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
The plot: After a few weeks of courtship the narrator, a young nameless woman, marries a rich widower twice her age. They move into his famous estate Manderley. However, the memory of his late wife the seemingly perfect Rebecca casts a shadow over their marriage.
What I love about it: A story full of suspense and tension that takes it’s time to uncover the secrets surrounding Manderley. With the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers it also has an iconic antagonist who makes life difficult for our naive and insecure protagonist. The novel also offers a subtle critique of patriarchal structures and juxtaposes the good vs. the unruly woman.
4. Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
The plot: The story of Frankenstein is so well known that it probably needs no introduction. Still here is my short plot summary: Saddened by the death of his mother Viktor Frankenstein buries himself in his studies and experiments. While experimenting with human body parts he gives life to a creature. When his creature is abandoned by Frankenstein and rejected by all humans, he wants revenge.
What I love about it: I honestly had some trouble reading this book because of it’s rich language but the themes and motifs are all worth it. In this novel Shelley addresses topics as technology and science, nurture vs. nature, grief and repressed sexuality. It also discusses experiences like what it means to bring life into this world and what it’s like to be an outcast from society.
5. Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Plot: When Dorian sees a painting of himself and realizes his own beauty, he wishes (influenced by Lord Henry Wotton) to keep his appearance in exchange for his soul. His wish comes true and instead of himself his picture begins to age while he stays young and beautiful. When Dorian pursues an hedonistic and amoral lifestyle his painting records his sins and shows the true nature of his soul.
What I love about it: If you don’t read this book for the story or the philosophical questions about hedonism, morale and beauty, then read it for the writing. Wilde is one of my favourite writers and as always he uses an extremely beautiful and witty language to explore the story of Dorian, his soul and fate. In case you’re interested, there is also an annotated uncensored version of the book.
Another story I can recommend is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I didn’t feature it on here because I don’t own a copy of it myself but it’s definitely worth a read.
What’s your favourite fall genre?
And can you recommend any great gothic novels to me?