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Ten Reasons Why Gothic Fiction Still Rocks

Written by: Denise Baran-Unland

Ten Reasons Why Gothic Fiction Still Rocks

Gothic fiction.

Just hearing those words makes one think of Wuthering Heights, Mr. Rochester, and John William Polidori's creation of the suave gentleman vampire.

Although the genre is associated with crumbling old houses, the supernatural, and feminine heroines in love and distress (my BryonySeries has all three), the real genius to the genre lies in its core characteristics, which will never really go out of style, methinks.

Below, ten reasons why Gothic literature endures, with examples. And yes, the BryonySeries stands up to all ten.

1) The horror occurs in the characters' minds - and isn't always explained by the author.

Graphic violence is jolting to the sense, but psychological suspense is more terrifying. Shirley Jackson was a master at this.

Jackson's short story The Lottery is well-known, but have you ever read her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle? I read (and read and reread it many times) in high school. Just...WOW!

Another great example is Henry's James Turn of the Screw. The books theme: Does the governess see ghosts or is she mad?

The young adult novel Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp is another must-read. So is Ruth M. Arthur's A Candle in her Room.

2) An entwining of eroticism and death

Gothic stories is full of variations on this theme: dead lovers returning as vampires to prey upon the living (Lucy upon Arthur in Bram Stoker's Dracula), people falling in love with vampires (The Vampire by Conrad Aiken), the living resembling the dead due to love lost (Miss Havisham in Charles' Dickens' Great Expectations), ghost lovers (Quint and Miss Jessel in Henry James' Turn of the Screw and Bess and The Highwayman Alfred Noyes' poem, The Highwayman), resurrecting a lost lover (as Walter did to Brunhilda in Wake Not the Dead), and obsessing with someone else's dead lover (as did the unnamed narrator in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca).

And of course Melissa Marchellis in Bryony, letting John Simons access to her blood so she can pretend to live as his dead wife.

3) A blurring of life and death

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is obvious, but other good examples include Lamia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats, Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe, Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale, by Lord Byron

Vampire slayer Cornell Dyer explains the connection this way in Visage, the second novel in the BryonySeries: “Life. What a transient entity. We imagine we can create it. We can take it away from someone if we choose. Yet there are individuals who become stuck in that strange land between life and death, where their ability to either live or die becomes complicated.”

4) Emphasis on the sublime

Life, death, and the merging of the two often prompt certain awe. Gothic literature is full of characters stricken with awe, wonder, and terror...and sometimes a combination of all three, such as the teen Laura feels toward her new companion Carmilla in Sheridan Le Fanu's novel of the same name.

A bit of loathing that isn't easily explained helps the foreboding mood, too.

5) Shadows and veiled appearances

In Gothic fiction, the reader is never quite certain what's behind a door or another character's facade. This type of intrigue keeps emotions on edge - and pages turning.

I mean, just because Melissa in Bryony DREAMED of her English teacher as a vampire didn't make him one, did it?

Did it?

6) Duality/Man and Beast

Think The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson

Or think of the way Melissa sees John Simons in her dream in the woods: A large animal dashed out from behind a tree and rushed past... screamed and jumped back. It wore a full suit of clothes and ran on its hands and feet. The creature’s long, golden hair—or was it a mane?—streamed behind it.

Why is this appealing? Most likely because we all have a bit of the monstrous inside us, but we're overall good at keeping the monster caged.

And yet, we instinctively know our monster could get loose. And then what?

Gothic stories are good at answering the "then what."

7) Mad Scientists

Mesdames and messieurs, I present an excerpt from as yet unpublished BryonySeries prequel, Before the Blood.

"Come, come, Dr. Gothart," Dr. Stone said. "You don't propose to abandon clinical experience and empirical observation for the theories of pathology and physiology?"

"Microscopes and their specimens don't lie."

"Neither does clinical experience and empirical observation."

A murmur ran around the room. Bryony strained to hear, every fiber taut.

"So you no longer bleed patients, Dr. Gothart?"

"Occasionally, when certain conditions warrant. But it's been decades since Dr Hughes Bennett established the overall inefficacy of bloodletting. I prefer to give more blood than I take."

A gasp ran around the room.

"Medically speaking, of course."

8) The best action takes place at night.

One of my BryonySeries vampires (Kellen Wechsler) even starts one of his stories this way in Before the Blood: "It happened at the time of night when sleep is heaviest and nightmares darkest, when shadows of dread cloak the soul as it slumbers."

Darkness obscures the light, making one doubt the next step and bringing fear to the surface. Great stuff when used in stories. Not so great in reality.

And yet...

We do like to shiver. When we're home safe tucked away in the blankets and NOT when we're lost in a haunted mansion at midnight, and the candle's just gone out.

Wait! What was that noise?

9) Uncertainty if characters will make it out of the story alive.

Unlike much popular fiction where it's considered not cricket to kill off main characters, Gothic fiction plays by its own rules. Any character is fair game. And often is.

10) Abstract yearning

Characters in gothic stories often pine for that indefinable something beyond them. Could be love. Could be immortality. Could be anything that makes them hopes there's something beyond dust and worms.

Denise M. Baran-UnlandWriter, Author, Editor

Guest post by: Denise Baran-Unland, writer of the Bryony Series- a supernatural, gothic inspired trilogy. To learn more about Denise, her writings visit her blog at

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