Gothic Metamorphoses across the Centuries

Contexts, Legacies, Media

by Maurizio Ascari (Volume editor) Serena Baiesi (Volume editor) David Levente Palatinus (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 246 Pages


This collection of essays brings together an international team of scholars with the aim to shed new light on various interconnected aspects of the Gothic through the lens of converging critical and methodological approaches. With its wide-ranging interdisciplinary perspective, the book explores the domains of literary, pictorial, filmic, televisual and popular cultural texts in English from the eighteenth century to the present day. Within these pages, the Gothic is discussed as a dynamic form that exceeds the concept of literary genre, proving able to renovate and adapt through constant processes of hybridisation. Investigating the hypothesis that the Gothic returns in times of cultural crisis, this study maps out transgressive and experimental modes conducive to alternative experiences of the intricacies of the human (and post-human) condition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Why Yet Another Book on the Gothic?
  • 19th-Century Intersections between Genres and Aesthetics
  • Intersections and Metamorphoses of the ‘Female Gothic’
  • The Gothic Galaxy of the Byron-Shelley Circle:
  • Mary Shelley and Literary Memory: The Gothic Art of Recollection
  • Exotic Dystopias: Global Nightmares in Romantic-Period Oriental Gothic
  • Vernon Lee and the Renaissance as Gothic at the Fin-de-siècle
  • 20th-Century Revisitations: Literature in Context
  • The Gothic Side of Golden Age Detective Fiction
  • Alien Gothic and Gothic Aliens: Leigh Brackett’s “Respectful Distance”
  • Haunted Scottish Texts: The Legacy of James Hogg in James Robertson’s Intertextual Novels
  • Fear and Loathing in the Library: Anxious Textuality in Recent Gothic Fiction
  • Contemporary Metamorphoses across Media
  • Light into Darkness: the Gothic Roots of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945)
  • From Byron to Buffy: The Shifting Dynamic of Gender and its Agency in Print, Film and Television
  • Humans and Machines: Gothic Legacy and the Screen of the Anthropocene1
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

Maurizio Ascari, Serena Baiesi, David Levente Palatinus

Introduction: Why Yet Another Book on the Gothic?

We have chosen a provocative question to introduce a new critical investigation of a territory that seems to have been thoroughly mapped in recent years1. The amount of studies that have been recently devoted to the Gothic is daunting, but then equally impressive is the dissemination of the Gothic in contemporary literature and culture, which justifies William Hughes’s remark that the Gothic “has truly become an international currency, a phenomenon that knows no tangible frontiers” (2013 2). Far from belonging to the past, the Gothic is very much part of our present-day global imagination, which it pervades under a variety of guises, from horror to the psycho thriller and sci-fi, not only reviving ghosts of the past, but also evoking those of our imagined futures.

One can safely claim that the symbolizing power of the Gothic is unabated because of its ability to give voice to forms of otherness that are inextricably rooted in the human. From its origins to the contemporary age, the Gothic has preserved an ambivalent status as simultaneous transgression of boundaries and brave exploration of the great unsaid – of what societies have repeatedly confined to the collective unconscious in terms of class, gender, family and race relations. Jerrold E. Hogle puts this in a nutshell when he defines the Gothic as “a haunting and unsettling – somehow horrifying – sideshow in the development of modernity” (2014 ix-x), while Andrew Smith underlines the Gothic’s relevance to postmodernism insofar as it “questions the notion that one inhabits a coherent or otherwise abstractly rational world.” (141) With its emphasis on the hauntological survival of the past into the present, the Gothic seems to be particularly ←9 | 10→in tune with the aporias of a postmodern cultural phase that defines itself in terms of both continuity and opposition with modernity. Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith interestingly describe the Gothic precisely as “an anti-historicising language, which provides writers with the critical means of transferring an idea of the otherness of the past into the present.” (1)

Genres are commonly regarded as fulfilling a problem-solving function, insofar as they “actively generate and shape knowledge of the world” (2), in John Frow’s words. Yet, one is tempted to ponder whether the Gothic rather fulfills a question-posing function. As we can see, when approaching this imaginative territory, we are definitely not on stable ground. The term Gothic itself is defined by Hogle as “a floating signifier” that points to “a lasting and interconnected, if somewhat unstable, set of conflicted assumptions and aesthetic devices that has survived as recognizable from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century” (2014 xi). The Gothic escapes a univocal definition and one of the many problems it poses is precisely its status, in between a genre and a mode. As Christina Morin and Niall Gillespie remind us, already in the 18th century Gothic authors both “drew inspiration from a wide variety of genres, texts and traditions” (3) and “routinely worked across literary genres, producing poetry, drama, and short stories in addition to the novels for which they are now principally known.” (4)

Rooted in, and characterized by, a multiplicity of literary forms, the Gothic has subsequently evolved – in the eyes of many a scholar – from genre to mode, as remarked by Alastair Fowler already in 1971:

“genre tends to mode. The genre, limited by its rigid structural carapace, eventually exhausts its evolutionary possibilities. But the equivalent mode, versatile, and susceptible to novel commixtures, may generate a compensating multitude of new generic forms. […] The gothic novel or romance […] yielded a gothic mode that outlasted it and was applied to forms as diverse as […] the psychological novel […], the short story […] and the detective story […], not to mention various science fiction genres […]” (214)

In his 2005 study of genre, Frow still subscribes to this view, claiming that: “The modes start their life as genres but over time take on a more general force” (65), and focusing on the ways in which the exhausted genre of the Gothic romance survives in modal form “into the vampire novel, the detective novel, and a number of other narrative genres, and more ←10 | 11→directly from melodrama into a range of Hollywood genres including the ‘old house’ movie, film noir, and the contemporary horror movie.” (66) Following in the footsteps of Fowler and Frow, Hannah Priest has recently reconceptualised the Gothic as a “transgeneric mode” (199–217), recasting the term Gothic as an adjective that qualifies other genres, and exploring the ways in which its “tonal and aesthetic features” (Zigarovich 16) modify other literary (and also non-literary) forms. As a result of this widespread generic interbreeding and modal dissemination, the Gothic is today a fundamental component of a mass-cultural system of genres and media that is increasingly acknowledged by the academe as a worthy object of study because of its huge impact in terms of audience and of its heuristic power in relation to the contemporary world and the collective imagination.

We opened this introduction wondering why yet another volume on the Gothic was needed. The answer is that we cannot stop asking questions about the role the Gothic plays within our societies and about the unceasing metamorphoses of this form, whose shape-shifting ability parallels that of certain alien creatures our (Gothic) imagination is well acquainted with. Giving form to the excessive and the abject, comprising the sublimity of persecutory power and the utter solitude of the outcast, exploring the uncanny dialectics between familiarity and estrangement, terror and horror, the Gothic is at the same time a galaxy and a black hole that sucks us into the absolute darkness of our resurgent nightmares and fears. Both archetypically charged and culturally inflated, Gothic narratives pose questions that forcefully ask for a critical engagement such as the one this volume aims to offer.

Multiplicity of forms, meanings and authors: Romantic and Victorian Gothic2

“The old Gothic romance and the Eastern tale, with their genii, giants, enchantments, and transformations, however a refined critic may censure them as absurd and extravagant, will ever retain a most powerful influence ←11 | 12→on the mind, and interest the reader independently of all peculiarity of taste” (Clery and Miles 128). This assumption could have been written today, but it comes from a 1773 essay entitled “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror” by the poet, novelist and critic Anna Laetitia Aikin (later Barbauld). I am opening the first section of the introduction with this extract because it summarises very lucidly the key issues of the definition of early Gothic fiction discussed in the first section of this volume. In particular, Barbauld raises questions of authorship, the definition of the genre, its readership, and the reception of the Gothic. She refers to Gothic literature as deriving from the old romance and being influenced by tales from the East; then she enlists supernatural as a recurrent element of this fiction, and finally she comments about the reception of the Gothic. On the one hand, we find the ‘refined’ critics, who judge the Gothic using displeasing labels such as repetitive and absurd, and on the other hand, this genre is acknowledged to be very powerful and attractive for a large reading public. The reception of the Gothic is actually an interesting element of discussion in Barbauld’s sentence: it implies censorship and the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature. The 1790s witnessed in fact an explosion of the Gothic novel writing (Miles 41) and such popular fiction subsequently underwent an alternating classification between ‘serious’ and ‘cheap’, confirming the difficulty of an indisputable critical approach still valid today. Finally, but no less important, Barbauld acknowledges that such literature is “very powerful”, implying the potential subversiveness of the supernatural in literature, from a political and social point of view, including its innovative standpoint on gender relations.

Right from its inception, the Gothic encodes debates about history: it was Horace Walpole who first discussed the blending of old and new romances in his Preface to what is considered the Gothic Manifesto: The Castle of Otranto (1764). Here the author looks back to Shakespeare as the main source of inspiration for his literary experiment, which is defined, in the second edition, “A Gothic Story” (1765). Following this new path of literary investigation, many other writers, especially women writers, published Gothic stories, tales, and romances, testing the genre, its conversions and its limits. Gothic writers not only experimented with new literary forms, but they discussed their Gothic poetics in prefaces, introductions, essays and letters.

←12 |

Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785) is the most cited work when we trace back the origin of Gothic literature in English literature, because she systematically defines its two traditions: romance and novel. Surprisingly and provokingly, Reeve proves the supremacy of the romance over the novel – tracing it back to its prestigious origin, namely the epic poem. As a matter of fact, during the end of 18th century the term Gothic was endowed with contradictory meanings: from the barbarous, the Medieval, to an idealised and much regretted past. Not by chance, it was Reverend Richard Hurd in his Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) who by revaluating Spenser, Tasso, Chaucer as major modern writers and founders of the Gothic manners and fictions, was setting a distinct literary tradition.

The supernatural acquired the status of legitimate reading through the meanings of the sublime, further explored by Edmund Burke in his Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke discusses the origin and progression of pain and pleasure associated with terror, and related to the natural world, alongside the role of sympathy in sharing human sufferings. Terror becomes the ruling principle of the sublime that Ann Radcliffe epitomises in its connection to her gothic romances, where she blends Burke’s sublime with Gilpin’s picturesque, reaching the highest peak of terror suspense.

Moreover, already at the end 18th century Gothic literature was read for its political and social claims. Denouncing despotic power over the liberty of the individual, Ann Radcliffe’s romances conveyed a powerful subversive message. Female authors and female characters monopolized the literary panorama of the early Gothic; by focusing on the persecution of innocent women by dictatorial male tyrants such works launched the well-known tradition of the ‘Female gothic’. Such heroines always triumphed in their struggles against arbitrary powers, affirming female authority in their own fields of activity. The use of suspense as a major narrative technique together with the natural landscape as the main background for Gothic romances, were particularly useful for Radcliffe’s “progressive agenda” since they served “to underline the defeat of superstition by the forces of enlightenment” (Watt 124).

While the Gothic has been repeatedly interpreted as the mirror of a revolutionary society exalting principles of freedom and rebellion (in France as well as in England), James Watt has also underlined ←13 | 14→the existence of a “loyalist Gothic”, which was prominent during the 1790s. Such counter-revolutionary branch of the Gothic depicted patriotic heroes who were loyal to principles of legitimacy as well as merit, exalting aristocratic titles (following Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790). Here nobility is a kindred state of society acknowledged by servants and lower classes (see The Old English Baron by C. Reeve, 1778). Contrary to what happens in Otranto, in such romances the supernatural is evoked in benign terms “as means of exorcizing past corruption or criminality, and restoring the status quo” (Watt 122). As affirmed by Hogle, “Gothic works hesitate between the revolutionary and conservative” (2002 13), as epitomised by Radcliffe’s heroines who are endowed with independence of spirit and choice, and, at the same time they follow the patriarchal structure of society. They are both revolutionary and conservative, but this, I suggest, is a subversive element of Radcliffe’s viewpoint and Gothic literature in a broader sense.

As happens in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Gothic raises questions of “otherness” and oppression, the colonized and the colonizer, crossing traditional boundaries of gender, class, sexuality, and race. Revolution and reaction are central elements within such a genre, which maximised the reader’s attention through the visual and its unconscious appeal (see Stoker’s Dracula for instance). Not by chance, Gothic prose of the early years was immediately adapted to the stage, and this kind of theatre soon developed into an independent form of Gothic (and in modern times TV, cinema and all sorts of media amply use and reinvent new forms of the Gothic).

Besides, the adaptation of the Gothic to the stage made theatrical adaptations even more prosperous than the books, to the point that satire and parodies proliferated by the 1820s. Gothic literature was now a cultural phenomenon, being used and referred to by all writers of the Romantic period. Even Jane Austen employed the Gothic in her mock-gothic novel Northanger Abbey (1818) evoking a long existing tradition of women writers and female readers of such a genre. At the same time, writers experimented with new possibilities of the form, and the old romance was replaced by the new Gothic novel blending suspense with orientalism, science, radicalism, superstitious, and many other elements, increasing the concern of the connection between past and present, and exploring the psychological dimensions of the extreme human experiences (Watt 128). So, if the original Gothic was focused ←14 | 15→on the inherence of the past in a new cultural framework, the Gothic of the 19th century became more devoted to the fast and overwhelming changes of the contemporary society. The expansion of British society, modern science, new concerns about gender roles in an altered world scenario decoded and transplanted the Medieval setting into a modern metropolitan jungle.

Victorian writers appealed to the Gothic as a “pseudo-historical period in native or familiar terms” (Watt 133) using the past (Anglo-Saxon, Italian, or Germanic) in order to interpret and explain (even justify) the British social, political and economic pre-eminence in Europe and in the world. Such domination was accompanied by unresolved anxieties and fears that found grounds and shapes in the Victorian Gothic. This highly unstable genre “scattered its ingredients into various modes” contaminating the more realistic features of the Victorian novel (Hogle 2002 1) together with other literary forms such as drama, operas, poetry and short novels.

The first essay of this section is dedicated to the definition of the ‘female Gothic’, and it focuses on the early tradition of the Gothic as discussed by women writers and main contributors to the development of the Gothic romance into a modern novel. Women were producers, readers, but also critics of such literature and in particular Clara Reeve, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and Ann Radcliffe, all three wrote critical essays dedicated to the development of the genre from its origins to their times. They actually deployed in dialogical ways the meanings of the Gothic with the aim to identify its aesthetic principles from a female point of view.

The following essay aims to examine the ‘Gothic Galaxy’ of German ghost stories, which were read in French translation by the Byron-Shelley circle at the Villa Diodati in 1816. In particular, it is the genre of Schauerliteratur that attests to the contamination of English Gothic fiction by European sources, conventions and traditions. Such influence was indeed translated by Mary Shelley into her Gothic fiction Frankenstein, but also, and most importantly, by Lord Byron and John Polidori in their works (the lyrical drama Manfred and the story The Vampyre, respectively).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is analysed later on, and how its literary allusions and their implications are employed by the author in ←15 | 16→her other works. Arguing that Mary Shelley foregrounded the shards and incomplete visions of these literary references, the essay makes a case for Mary Shelley’s preoccupation with the ethics of reading throughout her entire work. Focussing in particular upon Frankenstein (1818), Valperga (1823) and The Last Man (1826), the study investigates what the Gothic taught Mary Shelley about literary allusion, and how she shaped her own literary memory through the Gothic.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Gothic fictions Genre and mode Cross pollination Cultural studies Film and television studies
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 246 pp., 3 fig. col., 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Maurizio Ascari (Volume editor) Serena Baiesi (Volume editor) David Levente Palatinus (Volume editor)

Maurizio Ascari teaches English Literature at the University of Bologna (Italy). His publications include books and essays on crime fiction, transcultural literature and interart exchanges. He has also edited and translated works by Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, William Faulkner, Jack London and William Wilkie Collins. Serena Baiesi is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Bologna where she teaches British Romanticism. She is a member of the Inter-university Centre for the Study of Romanticism (CISR). Her research interests and publications are related to Romantic poetry, gothic novels and romance, Romantic theatre and drama, Jane Austen and popular culture, and slavery literature. She also published on Victorian consumer literature, and the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. David Levente Palatinus is Senior Assistant Professor in Digital Media and Cultural Studies and founder of the Anthropocene Media Lab at the University of Ruzomberok. He has written on violence in serial culture, medicine and autopsy, and human-nonhuman relations in the Anthropocene.


Title: Gothic Metamorphoses across the Centuries