Gothic Literature: Exploring The Uncanny & Frightening
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is Gothic Literature?
  2. Exploring the Uncanny in Gothic Literature
  3. Frightening Elements of Gothic Literature
  4. Gothic Literature Authors and Their Works
  5. Why Gothic Literature Matters

Let's take a moment to journey into the realm of literature, a domain full of creative expressions, emotions, and profound insights. One particular genre that has piqued the interest of readers over centuries is Gothic literature. Drenched in a sense of mystery, horror, and the uncanny, Gothic literature continues to fascinate us with its unique blend of the familiar and the unknown. As we uncover the layers of this interesting genre, we will specifically focus on the role of the uncanny in Gothic literature.

What is Gothic Literature?

So, you may be wondering what exactly is Gothic literature? Well, it's a genre that emerged in the late 18th century and has been giving readers goosebumps ever since. Let's dive in a bit deeper.

Origins and Evolution

Rooted in English literature, Gothic literature began its journey with Horace Walpole's novel, "The Castle of Otranto" in 1764. It quickly gained popularity and expanded beyond the borders of England, influencing American and European literature. Over time, it evolved and branched out into sub-genres such as Southern Gothic, American Gothic, and more, each carrying its own unique flavors and nuances.

Defining Characteristics

Gothic literature is not just about ghosts and haunted castles—although, they do make frequent appearances. There's more to it:

  • Sense of Mystery and Fear: The common thread running through all Gothic works is the creation of a chilling atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
  • The Supernatural: Ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural elements are a staple in Gothic literature, contributing to the eerie and unsettling ambiance.
  • The Uncanny: This is where things get really interesting in Gothic literature. The uncanny is a concept that straddles the line between the familiar and the strange, creating a sense of discomfort and intrigue. It's one of the main reasons why you can't put that Gothic novel down, no matter how spooky it gets.
  • Setting: Gothic literature often leverages dark and gloomy settings—think crumbling castles, haunted houses, and desolate landscapes—to heighten the sense of dread and suspense.

As we continue to explore the uncanny in Gothic literature, you'll find that it's not just a genre—it's an experience. It's about walking the thin line between reality and fantasy, understanding and mystery, comfort and fear. And that's what makes it so irresistible.

Exploring the Uncanny in Gothic Literature

Now that we have a grasp on what Gothic literature is, let's delve deeper into the uncanny in Gothic literature, the element that truly sets this genre apart.

The Concept of the Uncanny

The uncanny can be tricky to define. It refers to something that is strangely familiar, yet simultaneously eerie. Something that should feel normal and known, but instead fills you with a sense of unease and discomfort. The term "uncanny" originates from the German word "unheimlich," which literally translates to "unhomely." And that's quite fitting, because the uncanny in Gothic literature often involves familiar settings or characters becoming frighteningly unfamiliar.

Role of the Uncanny in Gothic Literature

In Gothic literature, the uncanny plays a vital role in creating an atmosphere of suspense and horror. It's not just about outright fear; it’s about the subtle, creeping dread that comes from things being not quite right. Let's explore some of the ways the uncanny manifests in Gothic literature:

  • Doppelgängers: The concept of a doppelgänger, or a ghostly double of a living person, is a classic example of the uncanny. It’s eerie because it takes the familiar—a person’s face—and makes it strange and terrifying.
  • Living Objects: When inanimate objects seem to come alive or exhibit human-like traits, it can be deeply unsettling. This is a common tactic used in Gothic literature to evoke the uncanny.
  • Deja Vu: The feeling of having experienced a situation before, when you know you haven't, can also create a sense of the uncanny. This is often used in Gothic literature to disorient readers and make them question their perception of reality.

The uncanny in Gothic literature serves to unsettle and thrill readers, drawing them into a world where the line between the familiar and the unfamiliar is blurred. As we dive deeper into Gothic literature, the uncanny continues to be a thread that weaves through its many narratives, creating a tapestry of suspense, horror, and intrigue.

Frightening Elements of Gothic Literature

By now, we've seen how the uncanny creates a spine-chilling aura in Gothic literature. But it doesn't stop there. There are other frightening elements that work hand in hand with the uncanny to give Gothic literature its unique flavor. Let's take a closer look.

Dark and Gloomy Settings

Picture this: A crumbling, isolated castle, shrouded in mist. A labyrinthine mansion with countless locked rooms. An eerie graveyard under the pale moonlight. Sounds spooky, doesn't it? That's because Gothic literature loves to set the stage with dark, desolate, and often decaying settings. These places aren't just backgrounds—they're characters in their own right, contributing to the overall mood of dread and suspense.

Supernatural Elements

From ominous omens to vengeful spirits, Gothic literature often dips its toes into the realm of the supernatural. The uncanny feeling of something not being quite right gets amplified when the natural laws of the world are twisted and broken. But remember, in Gothic literature, the supernatural is often ambiguous. Is that ghost real, or is it a figment of the protagonist's fevered imagination? The uncertainty keeps you on your toes.

The Power of Fear and Horror

Last but not least, Gothic literature thrives on fear. This isn't the jump-scare kind of fear you get from modern horror movies. It's a slow, creeping terror that grows with each page you turn. And the horror isn't always explicit. Sometimes, it's the threat of horror—the anticipation of something awful about to happen—that truly chills your spine.

These elements—along with the uncanny—work together to create a symphony of fear and suspense in Gothic literature. The next time you pick up a Gothic novel, pay attention to these elements. You'll find that they add layers of complexity and depth to the narrative, making your reading experience all the more thrilling.

Gothic Literature Authors and Their Works

Who are the masterminds behind these tales of the uncanny and the terrifying? Let's take a stroll down the shadowy corridors of Gothic literature and meet some of its most notable authors and their works.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

You've probably heard of Frankenstein—the tale of a scientist who creates a monster from the bodies of the dead. But did you know it's a classic example of Gothic literature? Mary Shelley was only 18 when she began writing Frankenstein. Her story is packed full of the uncanny in Gothic literature: From the eerie creation of the monster to the unsettling realization that the line between life and death is blurrier than we might like to think.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher

Edgar Allan Poe, an American author, is another big name in Gothic literature. One of his most famous works, "The Fall of the House of Usher," is a perfect illustration of the uncanny in Gothic literature. The Usher family mansion, with its gloomy atmosphere and decaying façade, becomes a character of its own, adding to the tale's sense of dread and unease. Poe's talent for creating suspense and terror is second to none, making him a cornerstone of the genre.

Bram Stoker: Dracula

Who can forget the infamous Count Dracula? Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is a masterpiece of Gothic literature. The uncanny is plentiful here—from the creepy castle Dracula calls home to the disturbing idea of the undead. This novel has had a significant impact on popular culture, shaping our ideas about vampires and the horror genre in general.

The next time you dive into a Gothic novel, remember to keep an eye out for the uncanny. You'll find it lurking in the corners of these authors' works, adding an extra touch of fear and fascination to their stories.

Why Gothic Literature Matters

So, you might be wondering, why does Gothic literature matter? Why should we care about these tales of haunted houses, gloomy castles, and eerie figures? Well, let's break it down.

Reflection of Society's Fears

First off, Gothic literature often mirrors the fears and anxieties of the society in which it was written. Take "Frankenstein," for example. Shelley's tale of a man playing God and creating life reflects the uncertainties of a time when science and technology were rapidly advancing. By exploring the uncanny in Gothic literature, authors give us a unique window into the human psyche and the fears that grip us.

Exploration of the Human Condition

Secondly, Gothic literature delves into the darker aspects of the human condition. In "Dracula," Stoker explores themes of lust, power, and the fear of the unknown. These themes still resonate with us today, making Gothic literature relevant and relatable, even after centuries.

A Legacy of Influence

Finally, Gothic literature has left a legacy that continues to shape the arts. From the horror genre in film and literature to the aesthetics of music bands and fashion, the influence of Gothic literature is omnipresent. It's not just about the uncanny in Gothic literature—it's about how these stories have shaped our culture and our understanding of fear and the unknown.

So, the next time you pick up a Gothic novel, remember that you're not just reading a spooky story. You're exploring a mirror of societal fears, a deep dive into the human condition, and a piece of history that continues to influence the world around us.

If you're fascinated by the world of Gothic literature and want to explore the process of creating uncanny and frightening characters, don't miss the workshop 'Inventing Gods & Monsters' by Cat Johnston. This workshop will guide you through the art of crafting terrifying and unforgettable characters that will haunt your readers' imaginations.