The eight best gothic books of all time

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Picture of some old books and a gothic candle

Gothic lit and its moody sister, “dark academia”, are ruling TikTok. From The Secret History to Frankenstein, here are eight shadowy goth-lit must-reads from past and present, selected by the novelist Freya Berry.

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Where would we be without gothic literature? With its seductive blend of the strange and macabre, gothic literature is one of those few genres that is also a mood: castles, coffins and claustrophobia, yes, but also darkness, secrets and vengeance.

That flexibility helps the gothic slip in through the cracks, popping up in everything from the dark academia trend to TV’s Stranger Things. I found it sneaking into my second novel, The Birdcage Library, without even trying (though admittedly it is set in a castle).

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It’s more than 200 years since Mary Shelley went on holiday with Lord Byron and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and, bored indoors, they challenged each other to write a ghost story. The outcome was pretty productive for the gothic genre by anyone’s standards: Shelley wrote Frankenstein, while Byron’s tale of an aristocratic vampyre laid the foundations for the bloodsucking tradition. 

Since then, like Dracula himself, the gothic has refused to die – quite the opposite. #gothicliterature and #gothic lit have racked up more than 30 million views on TikTok; its moody sister, dark academia, has ruled the app for some time now.

That could be because the gothic is a “characteristically modern” genre, writes Professor John Bowen in an article for the British Library: it’s obsessed with technology (all those mad scientists), which helps it stay relevant, but that very newness is held in tension with the archaic, the ancient, and the strange. It teems with delicious darkness – or to put it in the words of the aptly-named critic Terry Castle, an “exorbitant hankering after horror, gloom and supernatural grotesquerie”.

With that in mind, here are eight gothic must-reads from past and present. The subjects and settings are enormously varied, but they all share this genre’s shadowy nature.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt draws on the 5th-Century Greek tragedy, The Bacchae (Credit: Getty Images)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt draws on the 5th-Century Greek tragedy, The Bacchae (Credit: Getty Images)

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

Perhaps the original #darkacademia novel, Tartt’s 1992 tale of a death at a liberal arts college has become a cult smash. The novel is just as obsessed with Greek myth as the students it portrays, and as the plot unfurls, the reader is lured into a labyrinth of murder, betrayal, incest and strange rites. Its heart is of deepest black, making it a modern gothic classic, while Tartt’s own publicity-shy persona only adds to its mystique.

2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Shelley was just 18 when she took up Byron’s challenge to create a ghost story. The result was Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, the narrative of a scientist and his “anonymous androdaemon”, as one reviewer called his monster. Doctor Victor Frankenstein selects his creation’s features for beauty, but upon gaining life, the result is hideous: a reaction in which some critics see Shelley’s ambivalence for her own creation. Shelley chose to remain anonymous on the novel’s publication, her name not appearing until the second edition three years later. Arguably the most influential gothic novel ever written, bar Dracula, it’s a frightening and enthralling exploration of creation and what it means to be (and not to be) human. 

3. Vicious by VE Schwab (2013)

VE Schwab’s take-no-prisoners fantasy doesn’t exactly hide its debt to Frankenstein: its scientist antihero is even called Victor, the same as in Shelley’s novel. Except in this ingenious narrative, Victor plays doctor and monster. In Schwab’s world, you can earn superpowers. The twist? You have to die to get them. This clever and bloody revenge tale is a gothic must-read with its exploration of monsters, their makers, and that most terrifying creature of all: man.  

Claire Danes starred in the TV adaptation of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (Credit: Alamy)

Claire Danes starred in the TV adaptation of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (Credit: Alamy)

4. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2016)

Perry’s 2016 hit has a seductive set-up: a troubled yet noble heroine, a dissection-loving doctor, and a mysterious serpentine creature stalking the Essex coast. There’s romance of a kind too, with Cora’s growing relationship with a priest providing the opportunity for a classically gothic exploration of the blurring lines between science and belief. Last year’s TV adaptation starred Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes, but the lyrical writing of the book is not to be missed.

5. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)

Stephen King said of this Spanish work that “If you thought the true gothic novel died with the 19th Century, this will change your mind”. Zafón’s 2001 worldwide bestseller is indeed almost gothic-by-numbers – secrets, castles, ethereal beauties, lost libraries and forbidden love – though that doesn’t do this enchanting tale justice. If you want a masterclass in the creation of murky atmosphere, read this, ideally under candlelight as the nights draw in.

6. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu (1872)

This novella about a female vampire was published more than a quarter of a century before Dracula, helping inspire Bram Stoker’s masterpiece as well as, er, James Corden’s Lesbian Vampire Killers. A taut horror / romance grows between Carmilla and the teenage Laura, and it’s enjoyable to see just how many elements later found their way into Dracula,and thence into vampire lore, notably the castle setting, the noble origins, and the figure of the hunter.

Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece Rebecca is a harrowing, dread-filled tale of a young wife’s new life (Credit: Alamy)

Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece Rebecca is a harrowing, dread-filled tale of a young wife’s new life (Credit: Alamy)

7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

I re-read Du Maurier’s masterpiece while writing my first novel The Dictator’s Wife, and haven’t been able to escape it since. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley”: the famous first line neatly encapsulates this story, a fantastical yet dread-filled account of a young wife’s new life, and the shadow that haunts it. Famously, the protagonist is never named – it’s the woman who came before her, Rebecca, who dominates this tale. A coiling account of love at its very blackest.

8. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)

Published more than two decades ago, Waters’ sensual classic has proved hugely influential. It’s a delicious slice of darkling LGBTQ Victoriana, mixing London’s underbelly with trapped heroines, madness, betrayal and pornography – all tied up with a mind-blowing twist. The title is an old word for a petty thief, but comes to acquire a different sense entirely. It has inspired TV and stage adaptations, and even a Korean movie, The Handmaiden. It’s beautifully written too.

Freya Berry’s second novel, The Birdcage Library, is published by Headline.

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