Reading the Gothic in the 21st Century

Reading the GothicDarkness, mystery, eeriness, the supernatural, setting, isolation, and morality – a combination of these components forms the skeleton of the Gothic genre. Whilst its origins are often attributed to Horace Walpole’sThe Castle of Otranto, the genre evolved into famous classic novels such as Dracula and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde subsequently leading to modern works like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and The Wasp Factory. With the advancement of technology in the 20thand 21stcenturies, the platform of cinema has embraced the Gothic by spinning existing tales into visual masterpieces and creating original stories inspired by the genre, increasing its accessibility. From reading classic and modern pieces to viewing cinema in the 21stcentury, the Gothic still retains its charm in serving as an escapism into a fantastical world, spooking and prompting questions of morality along the way.

The Allure


And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads

– The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Gothic captivates with suspense. Devoid of cheap jump scares, instead, the Gothic creeps and twists, luring us deeper into a new heterocosm. Suspense is intriguing and therefore a prominent strength of the genre, epitomised in Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s novella The Yellow Wallpaper, which is 10,980 words of suspense, punctured with bursts of terror. In this tale, the narrator’s condition alarmingly progresses to such an extent that the sense of foreboding becomes almost suffocating. Her deterioration is so deeply complex that it emphasises the advantages of the first-person narrative, something that cinema struggles to capture. Sadly, the elements of suspense and shock are partly lost on the modern reader in the case of Jekyll & Hyde due to its fame. It was once a ‘shilling shocker’ – a Victorian novel of crime or violence costing one shilling, which could be likened with the so-called ‘airport thrillers’ that are created today. Despite the inevitable detachment that exists between the modern reader and classic novels, the grandeur of Stevenson’s prose hooked my attention on the first page. Though it may be inaccessible to some 21stcentury readers seeking a light read the eloquent and Victorian style of language is precisely what makes it intriguing – it all contributes in building an ambiance of the otherworldly.



At this moment a light gleamed on the wall. Was it, I asked myself, a ray from the moon penetrating some aperture in the blind? No…I thought the swift-darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world

– Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë

Often, suspense is achieved through the otherworldly; by hinting at the supernatural but obscuring the full truth from the reader to maintain mystery. The escapism permitted from a vampiric world piques our curiosity. It emerges in countless works of film and literature, with some lore carried across worlds to allow for some element of consistency, and writers still create original fantastical concepts. Yet the allure of the supernatural resides in its unfamiliarity, the unknown, the enigma. Although it plays an overt role in Dracula, the supernatural is subtly utilised in Jane Eyre to great effect. Dotted throughout the novel, Brontë uses apparitions to force death to the forefront of our minds, a motif that surfaces frequently in the story. The older narrator attempts to rationalise her childhood trauma, yet she is evidently deeply disturbed, emphasising the power of our overactive imaginations whilst still leaving us riddled in ambiguity as to the truth and existence of the supernatural.

Light and dark

In the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins could be continuously struggling’

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886) Robert Louis Stevenson

Dark subject matter is ubiquitous in the Gothic. Death looms over the Gothic, prompting us to ponder over the afterlife, as is human nature. Herein lies another way in which the genre holds relevance today; despite its otherworldly elements, the Gothic is innately human. Human problems are often centric in the genre, with questions of morality weighing heavily down upon Jekyll & Hyde in the inescapable dichotomy between light and dark, good and evil. This perpetual battle is essentially an exaggeration, or physical manifestation, of human error and the moral problems we are faced with – the beast within. There is certainly something oddly appealing in reading about the crimes and mistakes of others, regardless of truth. It reminds us we are not alone in acting erroneously, further highlighting the relatability of the Gothic to a 21stcentury reader.


The death of somebody close gives you a good excuse to go a bit crazy for a while and do things that would otherwise be inexcusable. What delight to behave really badly and still get loads of sympathy!

The Wasp Factory (1984) Iain Banks

Whilst the fine lines between good and evil frequently manifest across the genre, it is villainy that takes centre-stage. Bram Stoker gives his novel’s title to the antagonist and Iain Banks bestows his narrative to the murderous Frank Cauldhame in The Wasp Factory. Rejection of the norm is enticing, and it is how the Gothic began. Horace Walpole – supposed godfather of the Gothic, or at least name-giver – falsely claimed that The Castle of Otranto was a medieval text and thereby birthed the concept of the uncovered manuscript and manipulating the mystery in history. Thus, the genre is rooted in deception and rebellion. Consequently, it can challenge social norms in instances like Jekyll & Hyde, which appears a direct attack upon the Victorian era’s fixation on progression. Hyde is troglodytic and therefore regressive, representing the degeneration of society. Social expectations are also contested, by side-lining the hero and bringing the villain under the spotlight. This device is employed by Banks in order to allow the reader a rare glimpse inside the mind of a sadistic adolescent. It feels wrong to sympathise with Frank when he horrifyingly boasts of his crimes, yet Banks still steers us towards this emotion. While Frank defies the law, the author defies our expectations.


It feels apt to mention Gothic cinema in a literature article when it is a direct product of the genre. Gothic films are not synonymous with horror, but rather thrillers, some brilliant examples being two films from 2017: Lady Macbeth and The Shape of Water. Lady Macbeth is adapted from a Russian novella, set on a beautifully bleak landscape, evoking that of Wuthering Heights, which is utterly corrupted by the protagonist’s scandalous deeds. This seductively sinister period drama explores the detrimental effects of isolation and setting imposes on the psyche, similarly to Frank’s confinement to a Scottish island in The Wasp Factory. The Shape of Water is an Academy Award-winning film, often branded as a fantasy-drama yet it certainly possesses Gothic qualities. The fairy tale theme that runs through the piece is also explored by Angela Carter with her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories in which she distorts infamous tales into mature and disturbing content. More light-hearted in this respect, The Shape of Water has a more accessible tone whilst still dealing with issues such as fixation on loneliness through the principle characters who are a closeted homosexual and a mute. At its core, the Gothic is extremely visual; elaborate descriptions of imposing settings and conjuring original, mysterious material. Cinema can wonderfully convey this, from the vicious landscape in Lady Macbeth to the vivid animation of the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water.



Whilst cinema can offer an array of possibilities in exposing and conveying the genre, there will always be an element of authenticity in experiencing the Gothic through literature. The tone is not handed to us, as is the case with audible and cinematic pieces, but rather we project our own impression upon our literary experience. In all the Gothic works mentioned here, the tool of the first-person narrative is the most effective way of reflecting mental challenges or decline. This experience is certainly more immersive through reading, as opposed to viewing, as we follow the speaker’s thought process and are reminded of the human quality of the Gothic. It expresses human flaw overtly in The Wasp Factory with Frank’s casual attitude towards murder, whereas it is heavily polarised in Jekyll & Hyde, with the two characters representing different components of the psyche. The Gothic acknowledges the dark intricacies of our minds: human flaws and our desire to defy. In the end, the genre will always be most accessible through literature as our imagination is the best platform for the Gothic to thrive – where the ambiguity of the supernatural can plague our minds and we inevitably recognise our own flaws embedded within the narrative.


Harriet CoxHarriet Cox resides in Birmingham, England where she obtained her BA in English Literature. Currently juggling full-time work with gaining experience, Harriet aspires to become a Content Writer. Her literary interests range from the Gothic and Shakespeare to modern thrillers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. After exploring a large chunk of Europe by rail and car, Harriet’s heart lies in Italy where she hopes to migrate to one day.