Gothic romances and early horror or supernatural novels in English
I believe the title of this list is sufficiently descriptive of its contents. However, by way of introduction, I will briefly comment on each of its components:
- Gothic romances: This refers to the literary genre that flourished in its archetypal form at the end of the 18th and the first decades of the 19th century, but has since seen numerous revivals and reinterpretations. What should be emphasized is that the term’s original meaning was quite different from the later notion of “gothic horror”. The classic gothic works are distinguished by a dark atmosphere, emotional intensity, and a specific set of stock characters, motifs, and settings. However, they are not always outwardly fantastic; supernatural elements may be completely absent, very subtle, or ambiguous. While some gothic romances do revolve around ghostly apparitions or demonic influences, the genre as a whole should not be imagined as the literary equivalent of Universal or Hammer “creature features”.
- Early: The arbitrary cut-off point for this list is 1939, but the majority of the works included were written in the 19th century or at the very beginning of the 20th.
- Horror or supernatural: When compiling the list, I kept a broad understanding of these terms in mind. My primary focus was on the works that featured some form of supernatural forces, dark fantasy elements, or uncanny phenomena. However, some particularly gloomy or moody novels of manners, mysteries, and thrillers also made the cut. I adopted a simple inclusion criterion: if a given title was listed in The Internet Speculative Fiction Database, it was good enough for my list.
- Novels: This list is expressly dedicated to works of “long fiction” (including serialized literature such as the infamous “penny dreadfuls”). It is widely acknowledged that some of the central works of literary horror are short stories and novellas; however, I devoted a separate list to them. If you notice that some important classic is missing from this list, it is most likely because I have classified it as a long novella. The definition of a novel is notoriously shaky, and I certainly did not engage in any word-counting exercises; in most cases, I simply followed the classifications used in the ISDFDB.
- In English: I devoted my two “foreign fantasy” lists (before 1880 and 1880–1939) to comparable works written outside the Anglosphere. Having fought the overwhelming Anglocentric bias in this way, I now feel free to engage in it myself.
My sources for this list were roughly two-thirds academic books and one-third internet discussions and blog posts. While the latter part generally involved honest recommendations, the academic sources were often more concerned with the status of the discussed novels, as measured by their literary influence or popularity when they were first published. I bring this up because the inclusion of a book on this list should not be mistaken for its endorsement. Speaking more plainly, I don’t think that all of the books listed here are necessarily worth reading or even readable. This is especially true for the lesser-known works. Although many of them are hidden gems or at least interesting curiosities, it’s worth remembering that there is such a thing as a justly forgotten book.