Early Gothic romances
The Castle of Otranto
(1764) is regarded as the first Gothic novel. The aesthetics of the book have shaped modern-day gothic books, films, art, music and the goth subculture.
The novel usually regarded as the first Gothic novel is The Castle of Otranto by English author Horace Walpole, which was first published in 1764. Walpole's declared aim was to combine elements of the medieval romance, which he deemed too fanciful, and the modern novel, which he considered to be too confined to strict realism. The basic plot created many other staple Gothic generic traits, including threatening mysteries and ancestral curses, as well as countless trappings such as hidden passages and oft-fainting heroines.
Walpole published the first edition disguised as a medieval romance from Italy discovered and republished by a fictitious translator. When Walpole admitted to his authorship in the second edition, its originally favourable reception by literary reviewers changed into rejection. The reviewers' rejection reflected a larger cultural bias: the romance was usually held in contempt by the educated as a tawdry and debased kind of writing; the genre had gained some respectability only through the works of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. A romance with superstitious elements, and moreover void of didactical intention, was considered a setback and not acceptable. Walpole's forgery, together with the blend of history and fiction, contravened the principles of the Enlightenment and associated the Gothic novel with fake documentation.
Clara Reeve, best known for her work The Old English Baron (1778), set out to take Walpole's plot and adapt it to the demands of the time by balancing fantastic elements with 18th-century realism. In her preface, Reeve wrote: "This Story is the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto, written upon the same plan, with a design to unite the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient Romance and modern Novel." The question now arose whether supernatural events that were not as evidently absurd as Walpole's would not lead the simpler minds to believe them possible.
Reeve's contribution in the development of the Gothic fiction, therefore, can be demonstrated on at least two fronts. In the first, there is the reinforcement of the Gothic narrative framework, one that focuses on expanding the imaginative domain so as to include the supernatural without losing the realism that marks the novel that Walpole pioneered. Secondly, Reeve also sought to contribute to finding the appropriate formula to ensure that the fiction is believable and coherent. The result is that she spurned specific aspects to Walpole's style such as his tendency to incorporate too much humor or comic elements in such a way that it diminishes the Gothic tale's ability to induce fear. In 1777, Reeve enumerated Walpole's excesses in this respect:
a sword so large as to require an hundred men to lift it; a helmet that by its own weight forces a passage through a court-yard into an arched vault, big enough for a man to go through; a picture that walks out of its frame; a skeleton ghost in a hermit's cowl...
Although the succession of Gothic writers did not exactly heed Reeve's focus on emotional realism, she was able to posit a framework that keeps Gothic fiction within the realm of the probable. This aspect remains a challenge for authors in this genre after the publication of The Old English Baron. Outside of its providential context, the supernatural would often suffer the risk of veering towards the absurd.
Ann Radcliffe developed the technique of the explained supernatural in which every seemingly supernatural intrusion is eventually traced back to natural causes. Radcliffe has been called both “the Great Enchantress” and “Mother Radcliffe” due to her influence on both Gothic literature and the female Gothic. Radcliffe’s use of visual elements and their effects constitutes an innovative strategy for reading the world through “linguistic visual patterns” and developing an “ethical gaze”, allowing for readers to visualize the events through words, understand the situations, and feel the terror which the characters themselves are experiencing.
Her success attracted many imitators. Among other elements, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding figure of the Gothic villain (A Sicilian Romance in 1790), a literary device that would come to be defined as the Byronic hero. Radcliffe's novels, above all The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), were best-sellers. However, along with most novels at the time, they were looked down upon by many well-educated people as sensationalist nonsense.
Radcliffe also inspired the emerging idea of "Gothic feminism", which she expressed through the idea of female power through pretended and staged weakness. The establishment of this idea began the movement of the female gothic to be "challenging… the concept of gender itself".
Radcliffe also provided an aesthetic for the genre in an influential article "On the Supernatural in Poetry", examining the distinction and correlation between horror and terror in Gothic fiction, utilizing the uncertainties of terror in her works to produce a model of the uncanny. Combining experiences of terror and wonder with visual description was a technique that pleased readers and set Radcliffe apart from other Gothic writers.