The word gothic is thrown around a lot this time of year when you’re browsing for your next read. We all know what it means, right? It evokes images of mysterious strangers, haunted ruins and women scarpering around in improbably white dresses. It got me curious though. What exactly is a gothic novel? Today I explore what exactly a gothic novel is and then recommend some gothic romance books that have caught my eye!

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What is a gothic novel?

I like to think I am an expert at defining book genres, especially romance ones. I’ve been reading for a long time and have some very clear ideas about what defines a genre. But, although I have read my fair share of gothic romance books, when it came to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), I struggled a little bit. So today, we are going to explore the topic together, then I have a bunch of gothic romance books I know you’ll want to dive into!

Click here to skip straight to the gothic romance recommendations!

The atmosphere of a gothic novel

When I think about a gothic novel, what immediately comes to mind is the atmosphere of the book. It’s dark, disorientating and oppressive. If it were a film it would be black and white or in deep dark tones, with little to no colour. It’s not quite horror with blood splattered walls and hooks dangling from the ceiling, but there’s tension and a certain amount of expectation that some unknown terrible thing is going to happen.

But when you look more deeply into it, what elements of a book is creating this very “gothic” atmosphere?

The weather

A romance set on a beach with white sands, clear seas and the sun beaming down creates a feeling of optimism and fun. Yet, when we venture into a gothic novel, the weather is often used to help create that claustrophobic and dangerous atmosphere. A dark and stormy night. Violent and crashing seas. Mist and fog shrouding the landscape. Thunder, lightning and the driving rain. It’s tumultuous, violent and unwelcoming, often mirroring the thoughts and feelings of the characters themselves. Symbolism abounds in a gothic novel.

the place

The setting of a gothic novel is key. Wuthering Heights wouldn’t have been the same if it weren’t set on the Yorkshire Moors. And where would we be without Manderley in Rebecca? Gothic literature is rife with haunted, decaying buildings and foreboding and inhospitable landscapes. Often the setting feels like a character in of itself.

The space in which the novel takes place is important in any novel, but it is particularly apparent in gothic literature. It confines and defines the character. It usually has special significance, perhaps a great tragedy took place there, or it holds a secret. Or is the meeting place for a secret society. Much like the weather, the setting of a gothic novel will usually have some symbolic significance.

classic gothic novels with a genre defining atmosphere

The characters in a gothic novel

Lets get down to the characters. The gothic novel is swarmed with mysterious and handsome figures, damsels in distress. Heroes who aren’t heroes. Villains who aren’t villains. And every one of them have secrets and sorrows.

The anti hero

Knocking around the romance genre for as long as I have, I often see the anti-hero, that guy who lives in the morally grey area, talked about like it’s just been discovered. Well, let me introduce you to Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre circa 1847. One of the great things about gothic novels is that the characters are flawed and burdened by the past. They have faults and haven’t always done the right thing.

The villian

You can’t have a gothic novel without having the villain. Often handsome and in a position of power, especially over the heroine, they are pivotal. But, their charming urbane surface hides a dark soul. Or maybe not. Villains can be wonderfully complex characters in a gothic novel. Think The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, where the titular character is handsome and charming, innocence turned monster.

The heroine

The classic gothic novel can leave a lot to be desired for the female protagonist. She’s often the victim; powerless, oppressed and virginal. She spends her time waiting to be saved from the miserable situation she finds herself in. Modern gothic tales have made great strides in this area and in our recommendations below you won’t find our heroines quite as helpless.

classic gothic novels with the anti-hero, anti-villain and damsel’s in distress

The supernatural

There is often a supernatural and mystical element to a gothic novel. You can find ghosts, hauntings, demons, vampires, werewolves and any number of things that go bump in the night. It ties into gothic literatures love of symbolism, not to mention adding to that unique atmosphere. When you step into a gothic novel, you’re moving away from reality as you know it. Instead you are entering a darker realm where your past has a deep and terrible impact on your present.

You can also expect omens, portents, curses and plenty of foreshadowing. It adds to the sense of unreality and gives an extra edge to the fear and suspense that a good gothic novel can provoke.

classic gothic novels with supernatural elements