5 Gothic Novels That Feature Moody Houses and Haunted Heroines

5 Gothic Novels That Feature Moody Houses and Haunted Heroines

Monday, 28 October, 2019

This week, we’re celebrating the sometimes spooky, often isolated, always irresistible atmosphere of stories set in imposing manor houses.

When Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White — widely regarded as the first mystery story — he created a genre of manor house mysteries that has endured for almost two centuries. From Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey to Agatha Christie and Tana French, many authors have found inspiration in the creaky hallways and haunted histories of manor houses, transforming them into an atmospheric backdrop for secrets, ghosts, betrayal, and desperate love.

The term ‘Gothic’ was first used in France around the 12th century to describe a Medieval style of intricate architecture; imagine spiky spires, pointed arches, and flying buttresses. The first Gothic novel didn’t appear until about 500 years later, in 1764, when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto with the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story.’

By the mid-1800s, when Collins was writing his spine-tingling tales, Gothic novels had a firm grip on readers’ dark imaginations. The characteristics may seem like clichés to us now, but at the time, the elements were fresh and shocking. Often set in an isolated mansion or castle — possibly decaying, definitely with secret passages — and populated by dramatic characters, including a damsel in distress and an appropriately sinister villain, these stories reveled in romance, in curses, in prophecies, in the prescient qualities of nightmares. There was no atmosphere too foggy, no storm too raging, no paranoia too over-the-top.

Here are five novels we love that honor the Gothic tradition.


Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
> Jane Austen, Barbara M. Benedict

Diehard Austen fans will warn that this coming-of-age story is an atypical novel for the author of beloved favorites like Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and that’s what makes it ideal for this list. Austen was herself a reader of Gothic novels, including Ann Radcliff’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, a sprawling tale about a young woman locked away in an Italian castle by a ne’er-do-well brigand.

With Northanger Abbey, Austen lovingly satirizes the tropes of the Gothic frenzy of the time, while also giving us an indelible character in Catherine Morland: devoted reader, sweet-tempered naïf, and possessor of a dangerously vivid imagination. Her story begins in Bath, where she muddles through the de rigeur social scene and bumbles into a potentially romantic situation with Henry, scion of the dignified Tilney family.

When Henry invites Catherine to visit his family’s estate of Northanger Abbey, her imagination runs amok, and she halfway hopes that all of her shadowy Gothic dreams are about to come true. The abbey — complete with library, drawing room, and a dining room staffed by footmen — is just what she’d hoped. But as Catherine soon learns, while it may be true that ‘the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid,’ it’s necessary to keep one’s fantasy life in check. {more}

I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world. — Jane Austen

The Governesses - Anne Serre

The Governesses
> Anne Serre

This slim volume is a delightfully weird confection from beginning to end. You’ll devour it in one sitting, then wonder what just happened to you and to the characters that live in the country house behind the golden gate. Imagine three governesses — young and beautiful, lustful yet innocent. Inès, Laura, and Eléonore spend the majority of their time lounging about a sun-drenched garden. Like sated animals, they stretch and luxuriate in their bodies. Their wards — a group of boys of various ages — amuse themselves by playing at hoops, while the Austeur family, owners of the house, are absent, even when they’re at home.

The governesses, whose beauty and desire are a siren call to any men with eyes in their heads, attract both the old man across the street — who watches them through a telescope — and a series of nameless suitors who flirt and caress them through the bars of the garden gate. The three girls are variously muses, angels, and conniving vixens. Eventually, their true purpose at the house is slowly revealed, but the overall mystery of their existence lingers. First published in French in 1992, this erotic fairy tale by Anne Serre was on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2019. {more}

When all three are wearing yellow, anything can happen. It’s the wild color, the color that frees them, the color in which they feel naked and exposed, spellbound. You only see them in yellow at the gates, at night, or on days when they run amok in a blind fury. Yellow turns them into heartless, spiteful wretches. On days like that, they’re armed with stilettos, nurture an asp between their breasts, and cut through the tall grass like the Queen of Hearts slicing off the heads of her gardeners. — Anne Serre

The Fall of the House of Usher - Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven
> Edgar Allan Poe

Many of Poe’s stories could be on this list, including The Tell-Tale Heart and The Mask of the Red Death. You’ll find them all in The Raven: Tales and Poems, edited by filmmaker and horror aficionado Guillermo del Toro. The Fall of the House of Usher is one of our favorites because the house itself is the hero — or, more accurately — the villain of the story.

The very name the ‘House of Usher’ is both a reference to the passage of the family line from sire to son and the name of the foreboding house itself. From the first page of Poe’s masterful Gothic tale, it’s clear that the house is a character to be reckoned with: ‘I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.’

The plot is simple: An unnamed, first-person narrator visits his lifelong friend Roderick Usher and finds him a diminished, haunted man. The narrator also encounters Roddy’s twin sister — the ethereal lady Madeline — drifting about in the background. Our narrator incessantly describes his sense of oppression, and we feel it, too, as the house and family line reach their inexorable demise. {more}

Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all. — Edgar Allan Poe

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
> Wilkie Collins

This story begins in the very best Gothic tradition: at midnight, on a desolate road lit by moonlit. Humble art teacher Walter Hartwright walks along the track, lost in the thoughts of his travels the next morning to Limmeridge House in Cumberland.

Suddenly, a young woman dressed entirely in white — terrified, beautiful, pleading — materializes from the shadows and lightly touches him on the shoulder. ‘Is that the road to London?’ she asks, and with those six words, Walter is caught up in a twisted world of madness, secrets, and murder.

The plot is intricately revealed through the testimony of various ‘witnesses,’ every chapter moving the story forward with a new narrator, each with their own hidden motivation. There are beleaguered women, dastardly men, sly servants, a hero with a pure heart, and Limmeridge House, the manor that isolates the characters from the rest of the world and conceals dangerous secrets in its walls. {more}

‘I am thinking,’ he remarked quietly, ‘whether I shall add to the disorder in this room, by scattering your brains about the fireplace.’ — Wilkie Collins

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

Imagine a cold and dreary Christmas Eve. An unnamed narrator describes the scene: Guests are gathered in an old house to celebrate the holiday by telling ghost stories.

One of the guests tells the tale of a governess hired to care for an orphaned brother and sister. Miles and Flora are routinely described as distractingly beautiful, oddly silent children. The poor little lambs have been sent to live at Bly House, the estate owned by an uncle who has zero interest in raising them.

The two imps lead the governess on a merrily deranged lark that leads to the question: Was the governess haunted by real ghosts, or did her sanity slowly slip away in the isolation of the mansion?

Little Miles is one of the most unsettling characters to ever grace a page; his preternatural maturity in a tiny, wide-eyed package is chilling. The governess — with her timidity and a nervousness bordering on quiet hysteria — is equally unnerving and a most unreliable narrator.

In print, this book can be a tough commitment, but the excellent audiobook — with voice acting by Emma Thompson — is a stage play for the ears. {more}

The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance — all strewn with crumpled playbills. — Henry James

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