The Literary Gothic: Why I Love Scary Stories

So it's official: I just got my teaching assignment for the summer, and it's a class in The Literary Gothic. This is a class I created for the Humanities program, ironically because I'm teaching it in a prison, and they don't have access to that many books. I always have to be creative when working with their inventory, and Lit Gothic was one of the easier sells. It's also a fun class to teach in a prison, for a variety of reasons, some of which you'll get to hear in the next few months.

But it got me thinking: why do we love scary stories? What is it about the Gothic that gets us? Out of every kind of literature, I always end up gravitating towards a literary sort of horror, along the lines of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, or Bram Stoker's Dracula. And Poe. Wow, talk about a literary crush. I could dig him up and marry him.

What I most love about the Gothic is the way it deals with the psychological. I love the way it takes our anxieties and toys with them, the way it teases and pokes and prods. I also love its dark possibilities, the sense of mystery that lurks in those dimly lit hallways and those thick, dark woods. And it's the one realm of literary fiction where a writer can get away with bringing in the supernatural and not immediately get slammed. Through the Gothic and its war between dark and light, a writer can more comfortably explore issues of spirituality and religion.

And if you're looking for a quick, fun read, it's worth taking a trip in time back to 1764 and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, which is widely thought to be the first Gothic (although I argue against that claim in my class, shhhh). It's a nutty book, as most prototypes are, and filled with what we would now call Gothic cliches. But you just gotta love a book that starts off with a groom being crushed on his wedding day by a giant helmet. And then there's his father, the evil prince, who corners his son's betrothed with the ominous "Since I cannot give you my son, I offer you myself . . . "


"I could dig him up and marry him."

Mylène said…
Funny, Kathryn, that our posts went up at almost the same time. I do love the Gothic ad well as the historical novel--probably for the same reasons. Another form I think will continue to thrive.
Yeah, you got that, Colleen. ;)
I'm now inspired to write a gothic where you actually follow through...

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