Must Read Classic Gothic Novels

Updated: Apr 25

I've always had a passion for reading. Buying classic novels of genres like horror, romance, thriller, mystery, etc. have always had a higher priority on my to-do list. When I started going through these genres, in the idea of creating my novel, I came across this new (for me) type of genre- called Gothic.

To be short, Gothic fiction is a genre that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance. Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto.

The name Gothic, which originally referred to the Goths, and then came to mean "German", refers to the Gothic architecture of the medieval era of European history, in which many of these stories take place. This extreme form of Romanticism was very popular throughout Europe, especially among English and German language writers.

The literary genre originated in England in the second half of the 18th century where, following Walpole, it was further developed by Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, William Thomas Beckford and Matthew Lewis.

Then my interest in this genre slowly, but surely, started growing. So, let's get started!

1. To kill a mocking bird by Harper Lee (1960):

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression. The protagonist is Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, an intelligent though unconventional girl who ages from six to nine years old during the novel. She is raised with her brother, Jeremy Atticus (“Jem”), by their widowed father, Atticus Finch. He is a prominent lawyer who encourages his children to be empathetic and just. He notably tells them that it is “a sin to kill a mockingbird,” alluding to the fact that the birds are innocent and harmless.

When Tom Robinson, one of the town’s black residents, is falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman, Atticus agrees to defend him despite threats from the community. At one point he faces a mob intent on lynching his client but refuses to abandon him. Scout unwittingly diffuses the situation. Although Atticus presents a defence that gives a more plausible interpretation of the evidence—that Mayella was attacked by her father, Bob Ewell—Tom is convicted, and he is later killed while trying to escape custody. A character compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds.”

The children, meanwhile, play out their miniaturized drama of prejudice and superstition as they become interested in Arthur (“Boo”) Radley, a reclusive neighbour who is a local legend. They have their ideas about him and cannot resist the allure of trespassing on the Radley property. Their speculations thrive on the dehumanization perpetrated by their elders. Atticus, however, reprimands them and tries to encourage a more sensitive attitude. Boo makes his presence felt indirectly through a series of benevolent acts, finally intervening when Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout. Boo kills Ewell, but Heck Tate, the sheriff, believes it is better to say that Ewell’s death occurred when he fell on his knife, sparing the shy Boo from unwanted attention. Scout agrees, noting that to do otherwise would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.”

2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847):

Wuthering Heights is narrated through the diary of Mr Lockwood as he writes down both his own experiences and the recollections of others. Desiring solitude, Lockwood has recently begun renting Thrushcross Grange, a remote house in the Yorkshire Moors of Northern England. One day, he decides to visit Wuthering Heights, the nearby home of his new landlord, Heathcliff. At Wuthering Heights, Lockwood encounters several strange and unpleasant characters: Cathy, Heathcliff’s beautiful but rude daughter-in-law; Hareton Earnshaw, an uncivilized yet prideful young man; Joseph, a surly old servant; and Heathcliff, the misanthropic owner of both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Mystified by the obvious animosity between the occupants of Wuthering Heights, Lockwood returns for a second visit but is forced to spend the night when a snowstorm hit. In the middle of the night, Lockwood is awakened by a ghostly child who calls herself Catherine Linton and begs to be let in through the window. Utterly terrified, Lockwood wakes Heathcliff, who then proceeds to throw open the window and call out to the ghost, begging it to return. Desperate to leave this haunted house and its eerie residents, Lockwood sets off for Thrushcross Grange as soon as possible.

After returning home, Lockwood asks the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange, Nelly Dean, whether she knows anything about the strange occupants of Wuthering Heights. Nelly explains that she grew up as a servant at the Heights and is well acquainted with the history of the house. Taking over the narration, Nelly begins her story nearly thirty years earlier, when Wuthering Heights was owned by the Earnshaw family: Mr and Mrs Earnshaw and their two young children, Catherine and Hindley. One day, Mr Earnshaw returns from a trip with a swarthy young orphan boy, who the family later names Heathcliff. Catherine warms to Heathcliff and the two become fast friends, while Hindley, jealous of Mr Earnshaw’s obvious preference for his adopted son, resents and abuses Heathcliff. As the conflict between Heathcliff and Hindley grows, Mr Earnshaw finally decides to resolve the situation by sending Hindley away to college. When Mr Earnshaw dies, Hindley returns from school with his new wife, Frances, and takes control of Wuthering Heights.

Almost immediately, Hindley reduces Heathcliff to the position of a servant. Though Heathcliff’s life is now full of difficult and degrading work, his friendship with Catherine keeps him going. Hindey is utterly devoted to Frances and, as a result, gives little thought to Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s upbringing. Largely unmonitored, they spend their childhoods wandering through the moors and misbehaving together. On one of their adventures, they sneak over to nearby Thrushcross Grange, where the refined Linton family resides. After the children are attacked by the Lintons’ dogs while spying through the windows, the Lintons take Catherine in but turn Heathcliff—who they call a “frightful thing”—away. Catherine stays with the Lintons for several weeks as her dog bite heals. When Catherine finally returns to Wuthering Heights, she dresses and acts more like a lady. To humiliate Heathcliff, Hindley orders him to greet Catherine like all the other servants...

3. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole:

The Castle of Otranto tells the story of Manfred, lord of the castle, and his family. The book begins on the wedding day of his sickly son Conrad and princess Isabella. Shortly before the wedding, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet that falls on him from above. This inexplicable event is particularly ominous in light of an ancient prophecy, "that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it". Manfred, terrified that Conrad's death signals the beginning of the end for his line, resolves to avert destruction by marrying Isabella himself while divorcing his current wife, Hippolita, who he feels has failed to bear him a proper heir due to the sickly condition of Conrad before his untimely death.

However, as Manfred attempts to marry Isabella, she escapes to a church with the aid of a peasant named Theodore. Manfred orders Theodore's death while talking to the friar Jerome, who ensured Isabella's safety at the church. When Theodore removes his shirt to be killed, Jerome recognizes a marking below his shoulder and identifies Theodore as his own son. Jerome begs for his son's life, but Manfred says Jerome must either give up the princess or his son's life. They are interrupted by a trumpet and the entrance of knights from another kingdom, who want to deliver Isabella. This leads the knights and Manfred to race to find Isabella.

Theodore, having been locked in a tower by Manfred, is freed by Manfred's daughter, Matilda. He races to the underground church and finds Isabella. He hides her in a cave and blocks it to protect her from Manfred and ends up fighting one of the mysterious knights. Theodore badly injures the knight, who turns out to be Isabella's father, Frederic. With that, they all go up to the castle to work things out. Frederic falls in love with Matilda and he and Manfred begin to make a deal about marrying each other's daughters. Manfred, suspecting that Isabella is meeting Theodore in a tryst in the church, takes a knife into the church, where Matilda is meeting Theodore. Thinking his own daughter is Isabella, he stabs her. Theodore is then revealed to be the true prince of Otranto as Matilda dies, leaving Manfred to repent. He abdicates the principality and retires to religion along with Hippolita. Theodore becomes a prince and is married to Isabella, for she is the only one who can truly understand his sorrow.

4. The Monk by Matthew Lewis:

The Monk has two main plotlines. The first concerns the corruption and downfall of the monk Ambrosio, and his interactions with the demon in disguise Matilda and the virtuous maiden Antonia. The subplot follows the romance of Raymond and the nun Agnes. The novel also includes several extended anecdotes of characters with Gothic backstories who tell their tales at various points.

Newly arrived in Madrid, Antonia goes to hear a sermon by Ambrosio, who had been left at the abbey as an infant and is now a famously celebrated monk. She meets Lorenzo, who falls in love with her. Lorenzo visits his sister Agnes, a nun at the nearby abbey. He sees someone delivering a letter for Agnes from Raymond. Later, Ambrosio is visited by nuns, including Agnes, for confession. When Agnes confesses that she is pregnant with Raymond's child, Ambrosio turns her over to the Prioress of her abbey for punishment.

Ambrosio's closest friend among the monks reveals that he is a woman named Matilda, who disguised herself to be near Ambrosio. While picking a rose for her, Ambrosio is bitten by a serpent and falls deathly ill. Matilda nurses him. When he recovers, Matilda reveals that she sucked the poison from Ambrosio's wound and is now dying herself. At the point of her death, Matilda begs him to make love to her, and he succumbs to the temptation.

Lorenzo confronts Raymond about his relationship with his sister Agnes. Raymond tells their long history. Raymond was travelling in Germany when a carriage accident stranded him at a cottage owned by a bandit who kills and robs travellers. Thanks to a warning from the bandit's wife, Raymond avoided being killed and escaped with a Baroness who was also staying at the cottage. Visiting the Baroness afterwards, Raymond fell in love with her niece Agnes. However, the Baroness was in love with Raymond; when he refused her advances, she made arrangements to send Agnes to a convent. Raymond and Agnes made plans to elope. Agnes planned to dress as the Bleeding Nun, a ghost who haunts the castle and exits its gates at midnight. Raymond accidentally eloped with the real ghost of the real Bleeding Nun. Exorcizing the ghost of the Bleeding Nun required assistance from the Wandering Jew. When he was free, he found Agnes in the convent. There he seduced Agnes. When she discovered that she was pregnant, she begged him to help her escape.

When Raymond finishes his story, Lorenzo agrees to help him elope with Agnes. He acquires a papal bull, releasing Agnes from her vows as a nun so that she may marry Raymond. However, when he shows it to the Prioress, she tells Lorenzo that Agnes died several days before. Lorenzo does not believe it, but after two months, there is no other word concerning Agnes. In the meantime, Lorenzo has secured his family's blessing for his marriage with Antonia.

After having sex with Ambrosio, Matilda performs a ritual in the cemetery which cures her of the poison. She and Ambrosio continue to be secret lovers, but Ambrosio grows tired of her. Ambrosio meets Antonia and is immediately attracted to her. He begins visiting Antonia's mother Elvira regularly, hoping to seduce Antonia. During a visit, Ambrosio embraces Antonia, but she resists him. Elvira enters and tells him to stop visiting. Matilda tells Ambrosio she can help him gain Antonia's charms, the same way she was healed of the poison: witchcraft. Ambrosio is horrified. However, when she shows him a magic mirror that shows him Antonia bathing, he agrees. Matilda and Ambrosio return to the cemetery, where Matilda calls up Lucifer, who appears young and handsome. He gives Matilda a magic myrtle bough, which will allow Ambrosio to open any door, as well as satisfy his lust on Antonia without her knowing who is her ravisher. Ambrosio accepts, without, he believes, selling himself to the devil.

To try to find Agnes, Raymond's servant disguises himself as a beggar and goes to the convent. As he leaves, Mother St. Ursula gives him a basket of gifts, concealing a note that tells Raymond to have the cardinal arrest both Mother St. Ursula and the Prioress for Agnes's murder.

Ambrosio uses the magic bough to enter Antonia's bedroom. He is on the point of raping her when Elvira arrives and confronts him. In a panic, Ambrosio murders Elvira and returns to the abbey, unsatisfied in his lust and horrified that he has now become a murderer. Antonia, grief-stricken at the death of her mother, sees her mother's ghost. Terrified, Antonia faints and is found by her landlady, who asks Ambrosio to come help. Matilda helps Ambrosio acquire a concoction that will put Antonia in a deathlike coma. While attending to Antonia, Ambrosio administers the poison, and Antonia appears to die.

Lorenzo arrives back in Madrid with a representative of the Inquisition. During a procession honouring Saint Clare, the Prioress is arrested. Mother St. Ursula publicly describes Agnes's death at the hand of the sisters. When the procession crowd hears that the Prioress is a murderer, they turn into a rioting mob. They kill the Prioress, begin attacking other nuns, and set the convent on fire. In the confusion, Lorenzo finds a group of nuns and a young woman named Virginia hiding in the crypt. Lorenzo discovers a passage leading down into a dungeon, where he finds Agnes, alive and holding the dead body of the baby she had given birth to while abandoned in the dungeon. With Virginia's help, Lorenzo rescues Agnes and the other nuns from the crypt. Meanwhile, Antonia awakens from her drugged sleep in the crypt, and Ambrosio rapes her. Afterwards, he is as disgusted with Antonia as he was with Matilda, who comes to warn him about the riot. Ambrosio kills Antonia in her attempt to escape.

Virginia visits Lorenzo as he is recovering from his grief and the two become closer. Agnes tells the story of her miserable experience in the dungeon at length. Agnes and Raymond are married, and the couple leaves Madrid for Raymond's castle, accompanied by Lorenzo and Virginia, who are also eventually married.

Ambrosio and Matilda are brought before the Inquisition. Matilda confesses her guilt and is burned to death. Ambrosio insists on his innocence and is tortured. He is visited by a vision of Matilda, who tells him to yield his soul to Satan. Ambrosio again proclaims his innocence, but when faced with torture, he admits to his sins of rape, murder and sorcery and is condemned to burn. In despair, Ambrosio asks Lucifer to save his life, who tells him it will be at the cost of his soul. Ambrosio is reluctant to give up the hope of God's forgiveness, but

Lucifer tells him that there is none. After much resistance, Ambrosio signs the contract. Lucifer transports him from his cell to the wilderness. Lucifer informs him that Elvira was his mother, making Antonia his sister, adding to his crimes the sin of incest. Lucifer reveals that it has long been his plan to gain Ambrosio's soul, and Matilda was a demon helping him. Lucifer then points out the loophole in the deal Ambrosio struck: Ambrosio only asked to get out of his cell. Lucifer has completed his side of the deal and is now free to kill Ambrosio and claim his soul. He carries Ambrosio into the sky and drops him onto the rocks below. Ambrosio suffers for six days before dying alone and damned for eternity.

5. A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe:

The plot concerns the fallen nobility of the house of Mazzini, on the northern shore of