Classic Gothic fiction – where to start?

Ann Radcliffe, books, classic, classics, Mary Shelley, novels, romance, Romantic period, where to start? book

I’ve been a huge fan of the literature of the Romantic period since I was 16 years old and I first read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was unlike any other poem that I’d ever read and I wanted to read more. I attended Lancaster University as an Undergraduate and was able to immerse myself deeper into that period. The more I read the more I loved it. It’s been a long and fulfilling love affair with a period of literature that has such a rich literary and historical significance. Something that I further explored when I studied Romantic Literature and Culture for my Postgraduate degree. Of course, when I told most people the name of my course they assumed I was studying the works of Gilly Cooper or something. Seriously, if I had £1 for the number of times I’ve had to explain it to people then I still wouldn’t be able to pay off my student debts but I’d have a fair few pound coins.

Even though it was a super stressful time, my final ever year of study was amazing. I loved reading a host of novels that I’d never normally have picked up and I enjoyed many an hour just sitting in Leeds University’s Brotherton Library researching. I always got too deep into researching that my head was always too full of stuff. This was never more apparent than in my Postgraduate dissertation: an essay about the political significance of gothic fiction in the 1790s. Now, I admit, I hadn’t read much gothic fiction before attending University but my years of study enabled me to really get to the roots of this style of novel. Thanks to books like Northanger Abbey, a lot of readers will have heard about some of the early writers of gothic fiction but, I tend to find, few people feel confident enough to get stuck in. So, once again, I’m here to help. I present you with a possible sequence of books to introduce you to the crazy world of classic gothic fiction.

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

I’ve never been able to answer the question ‘what is your favourite novel?’ but, if mine or my loved ones’ lives depended on it, this book would definitely be in the running for the top spot. It was reading this book in my second year of University that really started my romance with gothic fiction. This book is insane. It is, in my opinion, the best place to start because it will give you an idea of gothic literary history whilst still being readable. It’s a funny, entertaining and violent novel on the surface but it is also a clever political response to a turbulent time. It references the situation in Spain and there are clear images from the French Revolution. This is a much more sophisticated book than people at the time gave it credit for. I’d recommend it to everyone.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I was unsure about whether to include this on my list at all because it’s probably been read by everyone at some point. In my four years at University, I had to read this book every single year. It’s a fabulous story and a timeless classic. If you are one of the few people who haven’t yet read it then I’d say it’s a great place to start. The story of how Frankenstein was written doesn’t need any more introduction but it’s still amazing to think that the young Mary Shelley came up with this after getting wasted with Byron and Shelley. This may not be a traditional gothic romance but it uses the gothic tradition perfectly. There are countless ways to read this novel so it never fails to deliver.

Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe

I know when it comes to Ann Radcliffe there is a desire to jump straight in with The Mysteries of Udolpho. It’s her most famous book and is the one referenced most in other works of fiction. I know loads of people who read Northanger Abbey and immediately wanted to read Udolpho because of the way it is described. I’d warn everyone not to do this because, if I’m honest, Udolpho can be quite dull at times. I love the book, don’t get me wrong, but it’s so fucking long. Radcliffe spends way too long describing every fucking tree. If you really want to get into her style then it’s best to start with one of her easier texts. I’ve mentioned Romance of the Forest here because it is one of my favourites but I would also suggest The Italian or The Sicilian Romance. They have everything you could want from a classic gothic novel but in a more readable package. It will feel antiquated but, if you’re determined to get onto Udolpho, it’s really a must.

The Vampyre by John Polidori

On the same fateful night that saw the creation of Frankenstein the first-ever vampire story was also created. John Polidori was Byron’s personal physician and was present at Lake Geneva in 1816. During the famous writing competition, Polidori took up a fragment that Byron had written to create his tale. The Vampyre isn’t the longest tale but it is worth a read. If only for the fact that this is the definition of the vampire that we now know. Before Polidori, the vampire was simply a demon but after The Vampyre, they transformed into seductive gentlemen that preyed on young, innocent women.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The Castle of Otranto is about as far back as you can go for gothic fiction. Yes, you’ll find earlier works that utilise the same sort of features but it is Horace Walpole who really defined what we have come to know as gothic fiction. He first presented the tale as fact but came clean about its fictional beginnings in its second edition. I know I’ve put this third but Walpole probably shouldn’t be at the start of your reading list. It’s worth doing if you’re really getting into the gothic tradition but it, inevitably, feels outdated and slow. There are greater books out there but, as a historical tool, this novel has an important place.

Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend starting with this novel but I think it’s an important enough tale to include. Again, it doesn’t necessarily stand the test of time but, for gothic fanatics, it’s worth ploughing through. I mean it’s considered by some to be the greatest of all gothic works and kicked off the Irish gothic tradition. The novel is composed of a series of stories-within-stories that slowly reveal Melmoth’s history.


Obviously, there are plenty of other examples out there and many different views about which is the best. For example, you might hear a lot of people talking about the importance of William Beckford’s Vathek and quite rightly. It introduced Orientalism to gothic fiction and was widely praised at the time of publication. However, it is something of a mess and, certainly for a modern reader, wouldn’t necessarily extol the virtues of the gothic tradition. If anyone out there has their own suggestions that I’m always up for a good book discussion. And I will happily take anyone’s personal recommendations.

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