As wack as 2021 has been in a lot of ways, it’s been an amazing year for reading. I branched out into new-to-me genres that ended up heavily influencing (read: improving) my writing.
I didn’t fully appreciate how many incredible books I read this year until I sat down to write this post (my first for this site, yay!), so I’m going to split it up. Between now and the end of the year, I’ll post a list of my favorite reads from one of five different categories, starting with
This year, I figured out that the novel I’ve been working on for almost three years is actually a Gothic novel—Gothic horror, to be specific (more on all this in a future post). So, naturally, I dove headfirst into researching the Gothic as a genre, as a mode, as an aesthetic. I’m planning an entire post on my research, but for this list, here are my favorite classic Gothic novels* that I read this year:
*This post contains mild spoilers
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Disclaimer: I learned this year that I really am a modern reader. I love classic stories, but I find it difficult to read the vast majority of them due to their slower pace and heavy, lengthy descriptions.
So, I enjoyed Rebecca but admittedly skimmed some extra description to get to the meat. This Gothic romance, published in 1938, is a loose Jane Eyre retelling. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth pushing through. Our eponymous character isn’t a ghost in the literal, specter sense that we might assume would be present in a Gothic novel, but the power of this story is that she doesn’t have to be. Her presence is palpable on the page and indeed in our symbolically unnamed narrator’s life. Rebecca is a masterclass in haunting, in atmosphere. I’ll definitely be coming back to it as I move deeper into revisions.
The Haunting of Hill House/We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
One thing I appreciate about the Gothic is that it aims to unnerve the reader without resorting to gore or graphic violence (which I can’t do at all). Shirley Jackson uses neither and still managed to be the only Gothic author I read this year who truly scared me. Her use of the borderline mundane to terrify has been hugely influential as I move through revisions.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the perfect amount of unsettling; it was creepy but I could still sleep at night. The Haunting of Hill House, on the other hand, had to be read outside, in the bright Colorado sun, many hours before bedtime.
But Jackson still made this list because of what her work represents. Probably my favorite thing about the Gothic (and the Female Gothic, in particular) is its depth, its purpose. The Gothic novel is not just a haunted house story; it’s always political, always reflective of the society and culture of its time, always about power dynamics.
Interestingly, Hill House might not even be haunted. Like in Rebecca, we never see any ghost or supernatural being on the page. I love a situation where you don’t know if it’s haunted or if it’s all their head (The Turn of the Screw is another example of this ambiguity). Not all Gothics are ambiguous, but it’s not uncommon.
Anyway (lots more Gothic-specific posts coming in the new year, promise), Jackson’s work tackles mental health, expectations of women, concepts of belonging, identity, and home—most everything I love thinking and talking about, in a nutshell. She pushes these issues to the extreme, but they never feel cheap. They feel real, they feel important. They’re screaming for your attention from a house intent on destroying you—and damn if I don’t want my work to feel like that one day!
Have you read any of these classic Gothic novels?