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Jody Cooksley’s Top 5 Gothic Novels

Jody Cooksley’s Top 5 Gothic Novels

Jody Cooksley, author of chilling Gothic thriller, The Small Museum, explains what makes a Gothic novel, shares her top five novels in the genre and discusses why such tales have endured as favourites with readers.

Widely considered to be the first true Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764. With its haunted castle, nightmarish deaths and ancient prophecies, it’s quite overblown for contemporary readers but all the elements of a great creepy story are there. The genre enjoyed a rise in popularity in the Victorian period with a plethora of similar novels, and it’s a style that remains as popular as ever.

Modern Gothic tales are usually far more sophisticated, but they all contain similar basic elements. The setting needs to be romantic and mysterious, such as a crumbling house or castle, or even an old monastery like Lewis’s The Monk (1796). That novel is also a perfect example of another key Gothic element – transgression. It contains outrageous sexual content for the period in which it was written, and others like Frankenstein(Shelley, 1818) or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Louis Stevenson, 1886) use similar transgression as a way to explore the human condition and the darkness that resides in us, a theme that’s endlessly fascinating to readers.

Gothic always contains a sense that something isn’t right, a feeling that can stay with you when you stop reading and make you check the doors before you go to bed. Yet much of the horror in Gothic works is implied, a suggestion of gruesomeness which allows the reader to fill in the blanks. People will imagine what frightens them specifically, which is scarier than having it written on the page.

Settings are often enclosed worlds, sometimes all of the action takes place inside the narrator’s head as though the reader is stuck inside the protagonist’s brain and many novels in the genre are written in first person to enhance this feeling. In The Small Museum there are two narrators, both first person, for exactly this reason. However, the context, the world the story happens in, must feel real in order for the supernatural to take place. The characters often can’t trust their own minds, there are hints of madness and psychosis in many Gothic texts which all adds to the mysteries the reader must unravel.

Ultimately readers love solving mysteries and Gothic novels often leave a trail of clues that must be solved, a bit like fairytales, which themselves are always dark and gothic. Readers like being drawn into another world where they have to suspend their disbelief because it offers a way to experience strong emotions in a controlled way and to consider what they trust in society and what they might perceive as monstrous.

The very first Gothic novel I fell in love with was Sheridan le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864). I’m a big fan of Victorian literature and he’s an excellent writer, a master of the short story. This novel started as a short story (The Murdered Cousin) and is a wonderfully haunting tale of a young girl, a locked room, a terrifying governess and a nest of family secrets.

Dracula (Stoker, 1897) is told entirely through letters, diaries and newspaper articles. It’s a very clever premise for such a tale because the darkness and horror is all suggested. The fact that there is no single narrator promotes a rising sense of something ‘other’ and inexplicable, the monster is also seductive in a way that makes for uncomfortable reading and has been well exploited by films.

The Picture of Dorian Grey (Wilde, 1897) has all the elements of Gothic and is so beautifully written and imagined that it’s a firm favourite. It’s a perfect picture of human depravity and the lengths people will go to to satisfy unnatural desires – a central theme of The Small Museum. It’s also the main theme of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume (1985), an exploration of a deeply depraved character who stays with you long after the lights go out.

Jess Kidd’s The Hoarder (2018) is my final choice. A wonderful novel, streaked with magic realist elements as is her style, so the reader is never quite sure if the uncanny is a figment of imagination or if the dead are really speaking. Though it’s contemporary, it has all the elements of classic Gothic, including a crumbling old house, a locked room, a closed space for the action to happen in and a misanthropic old man.

In The Small Museum I have used many of the classic tropes of Gothic fiction to explore a darkness in human character against the backdrop of anatomists and fossil collectors in the Victorian period and their cut-throat race to find the perfect specimens – at any cost.

The Small Museum by Jody Cooksley is published by Allison & Busby on 16 May in hardback at £16.99 and as an eBook

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