The First Wave of Gothic Novels: 1765-1820



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The First Wave of Gothic Novels: 1765-1820

The English Gothic novel began with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1765). Contemporary readers found the novel electrifyingly original and thrillingly suspenseful, with its remote setting, its use of the supernatural, and its medieval trappings, all of which have been so frequently imitated that they have become stereotypes. But for most modern readers, however, The Castle of Otranto is dull reading; except for the villain Manfred, the characters are insipid; the action moves at such a fast clip that the novel lacks emphasis and suspense, despite the supernatural manifestations and a young maiden's terrified flight through dark vaults. The novel was so enormously popular that it was quickly imitated by other novelists, thereby initiating a genre. The genre takes its name from The Castle of Otranto's medieval–or Gothic–setting, as well as the subtitle; early Gothic novelists tended to set their novels in remote times like the Middle Ages and in remote places like Italy (Matthew Lewis's The Monk, 1796) or the Middle East (William Beckford's Vathek, 1786).

The first great practitioner of the Gothic novel, as well the most popular and best paid novelist of the eighteenth century England, was Ann Radcliffe. She added suspense, painted evocative landscapes and moods or atmsophere, portrayed increasingly complex, fascinatingly-horrifying, evil villains, and focused on the heroine and her struggle with him. Her best works–A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797), with the irredeemably malevolent monk, Schedoni–still have the ability to thrill and enthrall readers.

Inspired by Radcliffe and influenced by German sensationalist horror tales, Matthew Lewis wrote The Monk (1796). The novel follows the lust-driven monk Ambrosio from one abominal act to another–rape, incest, matricide, burial alive– to his gory death and well-deserved damnation. Naturally it was enormously successful and controversial. The story goes that Radcliffe, a sedate, conventional matron, was appalled at his novel and his acknowledging her influence on him, so she responded with The Italian, whose villain is also a monk, to show how a novel of terror and suspense should be written.

In On the Supernatural in Poetry, a dialogue that was unfinished at her death, Radcliffe distinguished between the effect her novels achieved, terror, and the effect Lewis's achieved, horror:

Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakspeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?

Their different approaches to the novel of terror, as it was called in the eighteenth century, have given been distinguished by some critics as terror Gothic, represented by Radcliffe, and horror Gothic, represented by Lewis. Sometimes this same distinction is tied to gender, with female equated with terror Gothic and with male being equated with horror Gothic.

In 1818, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus introduced the theme of the dangers of science and created the obsessed scientist, who was to develop into the mad scientist, and the archetypal Monster.  Frankenstein has been called the first science fiction novel; she of course thought she was writing a novel of terror.



<>The publication of Charles' Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820 is the last of what some critics have called the Classic Gothic novel and for others marks the end of the true Gothic novel. His forte is showing character under extreme conditions, both psychologically, spiritually, and physically; Melmoth has sold his soul to the devil to live another one hundred fifty years, with an out, if he can only find someone else to take his place. The novel is powerful and certainly one of the great tales of mystery and terror, despite its loose structure.




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