The Mother of Gothic Fiction

by B. E. Seidl

What scares you? One of the main motifs of Horror Fiction is to trigger an unsettling feeling in the readers. No matter if there is an underlying message or if the story is merely a playful experiment testing the limits of the reader’s imagination, it is the intention of Horror writers to shock their audience. Of course authors of Horror Fiction also want to entertain, but the laughter some parts of the story might provoke should only serve to release tension. I doubt many authors of  Horror stories aim at being ridiculous. Yet, it has become kind of difficult to shock an audience who is well acquainted with horror, being fed with the most appalling pictures in the papers and on the news on a daily basis. The curious thing is that I often find classic Gothic novels creepier than modern Horror stories. Maybe it is the fantastic element in the newer novels that seems too abstract and unbelievable at times. I personally think that a malicious ghost is still way more unsettling than any alien energy threatening life on earth. Maybe it´s what Freud called “das Unheimliche” (the uncanny), a suppressed trauma or fear which is relived and triggered by mysteries and monsters which makes Gothic Fiction so intriguing.

It might also be the mix of romance, drama and hints at the forbidden that contributed to this genre´s past popularity and that continue to attract a modern audience.

Somehow, the Gothic novel can be seen as some sort of counterpart to the classic adventure story. The only difference is that it often deconstructs stereotypes and rather creates anti-heroes instead of supernaturally glorious knights and helpless ladies. One of the secrets of Gothic Fiction is that it obliterates the borders between black and white and paints a world in passionate colors. It doesn’t really matter why the hero falls off his pedestal. Could be that the devil seduced him, or a spirit possessed his mind. The most important thing is that nobody is perfect anymore and everyone is capable of doing evil things.

One of the most prominent dedications to the fans and readers of Gothic Fiction was Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817). Austen imitates a Gothic storyline and parodies the Gothic novel reader’s tendency to assume mysterious secrets and sinister villains behind everything that seems inexplicable. Among other works of Gothic Fiction mentioned in the book, there is particularly one author who is pointed out:

Ann Radcliffe.

If you are a passionate reader of Horror and Gothic Fiction and haven’t heard of Ann Radcliffe, you should go and look her up immediately, for not knowing about her is like going to the theater on a regular basis and not having heard of William Shakespeare.

Ann Radcliffe (1764 -1823) was not only one of the pioneers of Gothic fiction and probably the most influential writer of this genre in general, she was also an early example of a bestseller author- particularly notable because of the fact that she was a woman. Her most popular novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) has often been described as the archetypical Gothic novel. Set in a romanticized, exotic landscape in southern France and northern Italy, the story is full of villains and desperate damsels, romance and terror.

While fantastic elements have already been part of earlier novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1763), Ann Radcliffe was the first author to take the trouble to explain these supernatural occurrences, often tracing them back to natural causes. The Gothic villain, as introduced in her novels, would become a new type of dark romantic hero, who was an early role model of the modern day bad guy. The sinister character never failed to draw fascination and secret adoration and was probably one of the main reasons as to why Radcliffe’s novels enjoyed great popularity among female readers.

The unsettling feeling Radcliffe’s Gothic novels triggered in her readers was also an exciting one. The adventures the heroes and heroines had to endure served as a welcome distraction from her upper middle class audience’s boredom of everyday life. The shock and terror which was induced by her stories was almost a sensual experience.

While contemporary male writers of Gothic fiction, like Matthew Lewis (The Monk), focused on more physical acts of horror and exposed their readers to demonic powers and bloodshed, Radcliffe created a parallel world of spiritual mysteries and imagined terrors. It was for Radcliffe’s preference for the “divine supernatural” that critics have described her writing as “female Gothic” in opposition to explicit scenes of horror as presented by male writers of her time. (cf.R. Miles, “Radcliffe, Ann”)

Ann Radcliffe is an early example for a more complex form of Gothic fiction working on the imagination, the subconscious and the emotions rather than feeding the readers with shocking sensational images. Whether you see her as an early example for literary feminism or heroinism (cf. Ellen Moers), or simply enjoy her original descriptions of landscapes, which are often shaded by the obscure, the charm of her writing is timeless and the looming terror which underlies her stories has not lost its impact.

“To the warm imagination, the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the sun can show” (The Mysteries of Udolpho)

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