Desolate, dank, gloomy, sinister mansions and castles with twisting corridors. Sounds you aren’t sure if you heard; strong, brooding men who may or may not be villains; ghosts that may or may not be real. Forlorn voices crying across the moors. Atmosphere of mystery and horror.
The first Goths were none of the above, but Germanic tribes that conquered ancient Rome. Fast-forward to the Renaissance, with its admiration for ancient Greece and Rome and its disdain for later fashions; that’s when medieval cathedrals came to be called “Gothic,” or barbarian. The earliest use of “gothic” for fiction was in the subtitle of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764). Presenting his supernatural tale as medieval and barbaric, Walpole started a fashion and gave gothic literature its name.
Why the enduring appeal? From Walpole’s day to the present, ghostly tales offer a hyper-emotional counterweight to reason and science. The mystery of the gothic is not a puzzle to be solved but a terror to be survived. It may be paranormal or psychological, or it may leave the reader guessing (think Jane Eyre or The Turn of the Screw). Gothic authors play with the reader’s mind. Even when everything is explained in the end (think du Maurier’s Rebecca), the horror has sunk in deep enough to haunt readers long after they finish the book.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.