What is Gothic Fiction?

Unnamed Character Really Wants to Know

I have a new story cooking in my head which I think might be gothic, but I’m not sure. I don’t exactly know what gothic is. I’ve heard it described as horror and as romance. Now, while I can give you many accountings of horrible dates (I’m sure we call can), that’s not really the direction I want to take this story.

I asked Cynthia Kuhn, author of the acclaimed Lila McLean Academic Mystery series and literature professor in real life, what goth was. She told me there are three basic elements: a creepy old house, a family legacy, and a ghost. And then she gave me a reading assignment. It took two tries but I finally finished Rebecca, Prof. Kuhn. I don’t know why I didn’t like it the first time around. Loved it the second time.

Rebecca has all the elements: a creepy old house owned by some kind of aristocrat (read: legacy) and while there isn’t a ghost per se, the presence of the deceased titular character still presides over the living.  The recently popular Mexican Gothic has the creepy old house, a family legacy, and a creepy old guy – still alive but he’s practically a ghost. The Turn of the Screw certainly has all the elements.

According to the Wikipedia article, the elements of gothic fiction are numerous, including:

               1.            Virginal maiden: a young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive maybe with a mysterious past and is later revealed to be the daughter of aristocratic or noble family.

               2.            Older, foolish woman. At this point, I think a man wrote this list.

               3.            Hero. Two were named in the Wiki article, both male. According to the Marquette University website, he is often a Byronic Hero, “arrogant, intelligent, educated outcasts, who somehow balance their cynicism and self-destructive tendencies with a mysterious magnetism and attraction, especially for heroines.” There’s a Gothic Archive on the University’s website: Gothic Archive | Marquette University Research | e-Publications@Marquette

               4.            Tyrant/villain/predatory male.

               5.            Setting: the creepy old house etc.

What say you, readers and authors? Are you gothic fiction fans? If so, what is it that you like about it? Have any reading recommendations?


Keenan Powell


Keenan Powell is the Agatha, Lefty, and Silver Falchion nominated author of the Maeve Malloy Mystery series, Deadly Solution, Hemlock Needle, Hell and High Water.

While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.

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  1. I think we need to redefine gothic. The sexual stereotypes (virginal girl/male hero) aren’t relevant today. Or shouldn’t be. I think we can write in gothic genre without them. If you distill gothic to it’s core elements 1) fear of the unknown and 2) character exploration of darkness (creepy old house/unconscious motivations/things we can’t control) we can insert those elements into any character’s journey.

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