Gothic literature is my favorite genre and a popular one to teach students. It was overlooked by the critic for many years but now there is a complete school of the gothic. Find out my 11 gothic book recommendations for your classroom library or unit studies:
Dracula by Bram Stoker
This is my favorite book in the entire world (I wrote my BA thesis on it). If you don’t read anything else from this list, you must read Dracula. We know of Dracula because of the many adaptations and pop culture references but trust me, those are NOTHING compared to the novel. At times I’ve heard students say it is a bit heavy to read but once they push through and see the subtleties and allusions of the not-so-exciting-parts, they learn to love it.
Dracula is mostly a character in absentia; he makes a stellar appearance in the introductory chapters and then disappears during the development of the novel. We only see him again towards the end.
The novel begins with Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania; he is going to sell a house in England to Count Dracula. He must go to the West and meet the count in his Castle. It is in this journey that we learn that Dracula is a vampire, the notion of otherness between East and West, and how Transylvania is conceived from the English point of view as a place where there are superstitions, as barbaric, and with uncivilized people.
Many of the things that characterize Dracula as “evil” are, curiously, also present in the Englishmen. At times you wonder who is really the evil one. Dracula of course is an evil character but I love him so much as to say that he is a misunderstood hero. He is fascinating because there is a part of him that is very beast-like: he is cruel, cold, a predator, and a creature of the night (as he would say). At the same time he is an aristocrat that has seen the world, who has lived so many years and is so intelligent. It’s incredible to engage with this conflicting character because, even though we know he is evil, we are rooting for him.
My favorite part of the book is definitely the exploration of Transylvania because it’s full of folklore and a return to the “premodern” world according to the English. The creation of the superstition is amazing.
There combination of madness, death, and horror, make the novel engaging and modern, in spite of its having been written in the 19th century. I like that there is an old-fashionness of it but that still we can discuss the themes it presents, since they are key to describe humanity, and thus, become timeless.
Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
This is also a Victorian novel and it was written before Dracula. It follows the story of Maud Ruthyn and how, after she loses her family, she is forced to leave her home to go live with her uncle Silas. In this other place she is threatened not only by the figure of her uncle, who is very dominant and surrounded by secrets, but also by a governess that is one of the scariest governesses I have seen. She has a tangible element of evilness that is present even in her physical appearance. You know from the very beginning that she is bad news. The figure of this governess oscilates between that of the witch and death itself. Trust me, she is very scary. Maud is also threatened by her cousin, who wants to marry her. He is very violent and… weird.
This is a very long and slow novel, so I recommend you read it on a rainy day or when you have time to enjoy it, because it really takes its time to develop. With this novel, the point is not really what happens in terms of action but what happens in the mind of the character, and how she feels trapped in this house.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
This is the story of a young man, who wishes that the picture that is made of him was the one that ages instead of himself. In a very fatidic fashion, he achieves immortality, but the painting reflects not only the corruption of his own body as he grows old but also the corruption of his soul. The painting acts as a mirror, as an uncanny mirror, of what he really looks like.
The novel explores the idea of beauty, of immortality, and also the notion of art and how beautiful objects can influence us, how we perceive and judge things on whether they are beautiful or not.
There comes a point where Dorian explores so many things about humanity, especially the wrong corrupted ones, which makes his experience tainted by death and a lack of morality that just keeps getting worse.
It’s a beautifully written novel that is a manifesto of art in itself.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The story follows the life of two families but mainly of two characters: Heathcliff and Catherine. It is a novel about cruelty and a weird love relationship, obsession, and control. Many times the characters are cruel towards each other, their children, and the families are so chaotic that none of them can escape from the cycle of violence.
Heathcliff is obsessed with Catherine and she is obsessed with him but when she goes away, he changes forever. She is kind of the light in his life and once she moves, he becomes the cruellest man. Catherine is very manipulative. This is a peculiar couple, as the way they show their love is disturbing.
It’s fascinating to see how the novel develops a setting of two houses joined by a park, which becomes a threshold between both families. The characters change in the wilderness and show a different side of themselves than what they do at their domestic spheres. There is an exploration of identity, inner wilderness, love, thresholds, bestiality, and boundaries.
I must admit I have a weird relationship with the character of Heathcliff because I am conscious that he is cruel, violent and terrible but I can’t stop liking him and having a crush on him (I know how problematic this is). I feel that, for example, Negan in The Walking Dead is a similar character: cunning, intelligent, and handsome. Even though what he does is terrible, you cannot help admiring him.
Apart from the gothic aspects that are present like the ghosts, the secrets, the hauntings of the past, there is also a questioning of morality and your morality as a readers, and how many wrong things you are willing to accept just because you like a character. It’s a great novel to analyze at school because of the opportunities for discussion that it offers and due to its value as a gothic masterpiece.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The novel tells the story of Dr. Frankenstein and how he goes on a quest to defeat death and revert it. After he loses an important member of his family, he becomes obsessed with the idea of being more powerful than God. He doesn’t want to create life but to revert the process of death and dying. In this exploration, he ends up making a monster from parts of human beings.
Once the monster wakes up, he panics because he cannot come to terms with the horrible creation he has made. In the novel, the monster is searching for his creator, and the creator is running away from him. It’s an interesting parallelism between God and human beings; it also tells something about motherhood, the process of becoming a mother or mother-like figure, the abandonment of a “child”, and the psychological implications of such abandonment.
One of the main things that I like about the novel is the setting because it creates very sublime landscapes, that cover the Alps, a thundra, a cottage in France, and a stormy cabin in Scotland. The landscape affects the characters’ psyche and foreshadows the threat that is following Dr. Frankenstein.
“Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
This is a short story that appears in the collection In A Glass Darkly. “Carmilla” tells the fascinating life (or death) of a female vampire. This text was published before Dracula and it had a deep influence in Stoker’s novel. In “Carmilla” we see the relationship that is formed between the protagonist and the vampire, and how Laura struggles to keep a friendship that is tainted with erotic elements between the two women, and of course, with the vampiric threat.
One of the most uncanny things is that the vampire is welcomed to the home early on in the story (and we all know that once that happens, you’re in trouble). As the vampire invades the place, there is no escaping it. I love the intimate setting of the story because it oscilates between being cozy and claustrophobic. It focuses on the house, especially the bedroom (which also emphasizes the sexual aspect).
A Universal Treaty of Monsters by Lucia Laragione
This is one of the first monster books that I read as a child (essentially the book that started everything for me). It’s a collection of short stories that are based on legends from the world. The author rewrites the legends with a modern twist. There are stories about Empusa, Melusine, werewolves, zombies, etc. The tales are short and easy to read but extremely engaging. It’s one of the best ways to introduce young readers or unfamiliarized readers to the gothic.
Fangland by John Marks
This is a retelling of Dracula but instead of having a male protagonist, we have a female one, who goes to a hotel (not a castle) that is ruled by this old, weird and uncanny “count”. He is not Dracula but Dracula-like. He is repulsive, controlling, and lures people into the hotel before killing them. The setting also alludes to Dracula, especially in the way the hotel is built and in the Budapest monastery, a clear reference to the novel. The writing is easy to read, so even if the book is thick, you can finish it quickly.
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
This is the story of four children that are trapped in an attic after their father dies, the worst part being that their own family locks them there. The children are very young when this happens; the twins are small children, and the older ones are pre-teens. The fact that they don’t see other people from many years and that they cannot trust anyone else, creates a very strong bond betwen them, especially between the pre-adolescent ones. This leads into a problematic relationship between them, since there are clear hints that they love each other as a couple and not as siblings but at the same time, it’s understandable because they have been isolated from the world and can only rely on each other to survive. I was a bit young to read this book at age 14 but I think that seniors or even juniors can have a more mature read. This is a contemporary classic that is the first part of a six-book series. I can assure you that you’ll be hooked to continue.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
This is such a scary novel. It tells the story of a man who goes into a very close-minded and superstitious town but that is because many children have died in the past years and their deaths are always related to horrible accidents. The deaths are connected to the apparition of the woman in black; she might be causing the deaths. She is a woman from the victorian era, who suffered much during her life, and now she is taking revenge on the descendants of the people that hurt her (and everyone else, really. She is that evil).
There is a movie adaptation with Daniel Radcliffe and I think it’s even better than the book. Both are scary but brilliant.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Coraline is a little girl who moves with her family to the Pink Apartments, where she meets peculiar people. She finds a magical door that, once she crosses it, takes her into an uncanny copy of her own house. The other world seems to be perfect at the beginning, since the people are friendlier (a bit too much), her mother is more welcoming and caring, etc. It seems to be a utopia of the life she wishes she had in the real world (with the exception that everyone has buttons for eyes). The problem is that the “other mother” is not what she seems to be. She lures vulnerable children into her trap (I won’t say what it is). My students absolutely loved the analysis we made of the novel and the brilliant film adaptation and they kept commenting how scared they were (but how worth it it was).
Hope you enjoyed this article. If you’d like a part 2 of gothic novels, let me know. Also, comment if you have taught any of these novels or if you are planning to 😉
Lots of love,