The classic Gothic tale will have as its setting a forbidding mansion like Poe’s House of Usher. Into that dwelling will come a damsel who will soon be in dreadful peril. This innocent will encounter a menacing Lord of the Manor and, later in the story, various spine–tingling elements like a hidden passageway, an underground vault, a mysterious or missing manuscript, a nearby haunted graveyard, and possibly a ghost with clanking chains. A premature burial may have taken place either in the underground vault or in the graveyard. There will be bats and cawing ravens and possibly a slavering hound.

The Gothic form arose in the late Eighteenth Century—at the end of the Age of Reason and probably in revolt against it. Horace Walpole gave it lurid expression in The Castle of Otranto, and he built himself a splendid Gothic mansion which he called “Strawberry Hill.”

After Walpole, the deluge. Like the other literary forms that Poe made his own, the Gothic has never really lost its popularity, and like so much of Poe’s work, it concerns itself mainly with Death. German influence was strong. Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven,” was pure Gothic. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (also a science–fiction novel), Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the stories of Sheridan LeFanu and short and long tales by Henry James were all in the Gothic genre. Bram Stoker’s immortal Dracula gave birth to its own sub–genre of Vampire literature which is alive and well, so to speak, to this day. Conan Doyle contributed “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” What might be called the modern Gothic was first given unforgettable life in Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

In the early 1960’s, publishing executives discovered that a paperback novel with a cover featuring a beautiful young woman in a diaphanous nightdress fleeing a menacing mansion or castle, one window alight, was a sure seller. Consequently the modern Gothic was dealt a near fatal blow by the Gresham’s Law of publishing (the bad drives out the good), and so it died for a while until Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot brought it back to a thriving (and profitable) eternal life.

No discussion of the Gothic, no matter how brief, should omit its two sui generis practitioners, Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. Addams drew and captioned hundreds of cartoons, mostly for The New Yorker. His macabre sense of humor never lost popularity. The classic “Charles Addams house”—a French Mansard Victorian complete with lacy ironwork lightning deflectors on the topmost turret—is instantly recognizable. It is the “Psycho” house in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Robert Bloch’s story, and its like can still be found in cities across the American landscape. People used to tear them down; now they treasure them.

Like Addams, Edward Gorey produced work that looks like no one else’s. First in covers for Anchor paperbacks in the 1950’s, and then in his own inimitable stories and drawings, Gorey appeals to the macabre sense of humor in all of us. In both his prose and his drawings, Gorey is amusing and sometimes laugh–out–loud funny, and lurking behind his maidens–in–peril and his odd “guests,” we sense an intelligence that is just slightly off–center and yet that strikes a chord somewhere in the depth of our own minds. His titles for PBS’s “Mystery” series have introduced him to a wide audience.

Further Reading

Amphigorey. Edward Gorey

Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life. Linda H. Davis

Our Vampires, Ourselves. Nina Auerbach

The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Jerrold E. Hogle, ed.

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. Jack Sullivan, ed., with an Introduction by Jacques Barzun

The World of Edward Gorey. Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin