With Halloween right around the corner, let’s take a trip down Gothic lane. Now I know all you horror fans are jumping in your seats and ready for me to talk about Stephen King and Peter Straub, but hold your horses. Let’s not forget about the folks who started it all; the creepy masterminds who were dark before it was cool to be goth. I’m talking about the Dark Romantics, Early and Southern Gothics. Not ringing a bell? Let me throw out a couple of names: Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, William Faulkner, and of course, Edgar Allen Poe. This Halloween, definitely read some of the old faithfuls like “Pet Sematary” and “Carrie,” but make sure to really give yourself the chills by reading some of the OGs and remembering how and why they were so influential to horror today.
Dark Romanticism and Gothic Literature
To understand how dark literature evolved, Romanticism must first be examined. Coming about at the beginning of the 19th century, Romanticism is characterized by its emphasis on the individual with emotions and beliefs being more important than fact. Nature and past ways of life were held in high esteem and formed as a reaction against the Enlightenment, which valued reason and science as well as the Industrial Revolution. While Romantics believed the best in people, Dark Romanticism took a more pessimistic approach and emphasized individual sin, self-destruction, punishment, and the psychological effects of these issues. From this, Gothic Literature takes an even more extreme route as the movement develops. While it depicts many of the same themes, it also includes more extreme uses of personal torment, terror, morbidity, and the supernatural (especially in the Victorian Era). With the authors and poets from this movement being the first to write about these issues in open and explicit ways, to the people of the 19th century, these stories would have been sheer horror, truly laying the foundations for the horror stories of today. Here are some of the heavy hitters, some of their works and a few modern interpretations.
Mary Shelley – “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”
Writing in the height of British Romanticism, many think of Shelley as a founder of the horror and science-fiction genres. Although the Americans were just beginning to get their feet wet with their own forms of innovative literature, Shelley (along with other British writers and poets) was making waves with revolutionary ideas about writing and the Romantic movement. As one of the first Dark Romantics, “Frankenstein” captivated readers and was completely unlike anything ever written at the time. Even though Shelley was essentially born into scholarly royalty (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, later the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley), “Frankenstein” wasn’t published under her own name until the second edition, which shows the difficulties for women writers during the period. Today, the story has seen numerous depictions, with the monster being a staple character of not only horror but of Halloween as a whole.
Washington Irving – “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
As one of the first true American writers writing during the American Renaissance (the first period in arts/literature where Americans are writing with a distinctly different style, less influenced by Europe), Irving contributed to early Dark Romanticism and Gothic with his story of the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane.
You can find the 1999 cinematic take on Irving’s story in the library collection.
Nathaniel Hawthorne – “The Scarlet Letter,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark”
As a descendant of the judge who presided over the Salem Witch Trials, Hawthorne is heavily influenced by the atrocities of his ancestors which helps catapult him to be one of the standout names of Dark Romanticism and Gothic literature. Not only was Hawthorne motivated by Puritan ideals and spirituality but was often inspired by his friendships with his contemporaries such as Herman Melville. You won’t be able to miss any of the gothic elements, such as psychological torment and eerie spiritualism when you read his stories.
Edgar Allan Poe – “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat”
I’ll try and keep this brief: Poe was a pioneer for Gothic literature, American short-story telling, American science-fiction, mystery, detective stories, and American poetry. He developed his own writing styles and literary theories which influenced other writers of the time and continue to do so today. Not only do his writings embody Gothic literature and Dark Romanticism, but they are deeply complex which allow them to explore nearly every idea and facet of what the movements mean and stand for. As the true master of Gothic elements, each of his stories will leave you with goosebumps!
John Cusack starred in a 2011 interpretation of Poe’s famous poem.
Need some more twisted fiction? Here are some other noteworthy Gothic writers of the 19th century:
Charlotte Brontë – “Jane Eyre”
Emily Brontë – “Wuthering Heights”
Herman Melville – “Moby Dick”
Robert Louis Stevenson – “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman – “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Bram Stoker – “Dracula”
Southern Gothic Literature
While Romanticism and Gothic literature dominated the 19th century, Southern Gothic, also referred to as the School of Southern Grotesque, became much more prominent in the 20th century. Influenced by the Gothics of the 19th century, later writers used similar themes such as flawed disturbing characters and grotesque imagery. However, Southern Gothics had a distinct desire to highlight the flaws of society, specifically the American South, which often included dark, satirical humor. Check out some of the star writers who came out of this genre and helped inspire the dark writers of today.
Flannery O’Connor – “Good Country People,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” ‘Wise Blood”
With her witty dark humor, O’Connor will send a tingle up your spine as you read about her quirky and deranged characters. Having grown up Catholic in the South, she incorporates aspects of this lifestyle into many of her writings, making her the epitome of Southern Gothic.
Shirley Jackson – “The Lottery,” “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” “The Haunting of Hill House”
Jackson is a writer that spans Southern Gothic into modern-day horror. With writings such as “The Lottery” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” she delves into more Southern Gothic with dark architecture, disturbing characters, and twisted realities. Yet her most renowned work, “The Haunting of Hill House,” dives deep into horror with the supernatural dominating the story and terrifying audiences. This Halloween read some of Jackson’s works or check out Netflix’s chilling depiction of “The Haunting of Hill House.”
William Faulkner – “The Sound and the Fury,” “A Rose for Emily,” “As I Lay Dying” “Absalom, Absalom”
Having been born in the South, Faulkner seizes every opportunity to relay Southern life, especially in relation to the Civil War. He was truly a prolific writer, having wrote “As I Lay Dying” in just six weeks, something almost unheard of in the literary world. This novel, along with “The Sound and the Fury,” had little to no edits from Faulkner, as he aimed to be as forthcoming and true as possible. Part of this is what helps him capture the Gothic elements of the South and make him not only one of the (if not the) forefront writers of Southern Gothic but of American Literature as a whole.
Cormac McCarthy – “Child of God,” “Blood Meridian,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Road”
Although born in the North, McCarthy has been intrigued with Southern ideals of the Cowboy and American folklore, both of which have greatly influenced and been included in his literary works. He was also inspired by authors who dealt with life and death in their literature and writers from the original Gothic movement such as Henry James. McCarthy’s works often deal with apocalyptic ideas, bleak outlooks on life, and the moral and immoral. His writing career has spanned 50 years, starting in the height of Southern Gothic and carrying the genre well into today.
The 2007 film “No Country for Old Men” is available on Hoopla.
If the spooky grotesqueness and history of the South intrigue you, make sure to check out some of the other notable names from this period of American Literature:
Carson McCullers – “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”
Tennessee Williams – “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Truman Capote – “Other Voices, Other Rooms”
Harper Lee – “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Toni Morrison – “Beloved”
Gillian Flynn – “Sharp Objects”