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Gothic Lit: 2020's Perfect October Read

Let’s talk about fear.

Not the existential dread that you’ve been carrying in the pit of your stomach for the last eight months, but the good kind of fear that is cleverly created by authors and purposefully sought by certain readers. It might seem slightly strange that in the midst of so many looming disasters, I would find comfort in spooky stories, but I have. I’ve recently rediscovered my love of Gothic fiction. 

What exactly is Gothic fiction, you ask? 

Gothic literature emerged from the Romantic movement, which emphasized the importance of individual thought and feeling, imagination, the unconscious, and a childlike view of the world. Gothic fiction embodies the extremes of Romanticism. The genre was established with the publication of The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Other classics of the genre reflect anxieties of the time period or author, such as science that goes terribly wrong in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the loss of sanity in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper.  Gothic fiction includes romances, mysteries, and horror stories, but all these subgenres share an eerie tone and a disturbing, uneasy atmosphere.  

So many of my favorite books are classified as Gothic, including The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Gothic isn’t relegated to the past, though. More recently I’ve read two delightful novels that reimagine the genre for today. 

The greatly anticipated Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia takes place in 1950s Mexico. After receiving a disturbing letter from her newly married cousin, Noemi Taboada goes to High Place, an isolated and enigmatic mansion, and finds herself entangled in something sinister. I loved the review in The Guardian which described it as “Lovecraft meets the Brontes in Latin American, and seriously weird.” Mexican Gothic is a one-sitting read and would be the perfect way to exchange some real-life anxieties for some bizarre, supernatural ones. You will never look at fungi in the same way again.  

The winner of the 2020 Edgar Award this year also pays homage to the Gothic tradition. The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths takes place in West Sussex around events at Talgarth High, a secondary school and former home of writer R.M. Holland. English teacher Clare Cassidy specializes in the Gothic stories of Holland, particularly one called “The Stranger.” When her colleague is found murdered, the investigation uncovers that someone, likely the killer, has been leaving messages in Clare’s diary. This is a highly entertaining and clever mystery that kept me guessing until the very end. 

If the supernatural terror of Gothic fiction sounds preferable to the events of 2020, here are a few classics and some contemporary examples to try: Great Gothic Fiction. And if you want to hear some great spooky stories (including The Yellow Wallpaper), check out the Martin Regional Library’s Facebook page. We’re featuring stories for teens every Wednesday and adults every Friday in October.  

When you read a book, you enter a different world. But the act of reading does more than broaden our world-view; it creates empathy, and nurtures civility.
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