Gothic literature is now more commonly known as ‘horror’ and features dark, supernatural elements intended to shock and disturb the reader. Typical elements include old castles, thunderstorms and ghosts. American Gothic is similar to the European version but it explores darker elements of the country’s history and culture like Puritanism and slavery along with themes like mental illness, guilt and psychological trauma. Families inherit curses or live with the guilt of past generations. Characters are often unable to distinguish between reality and imagination and the reader is left unsure as to whether there are supernatural elements at work or simply mental instability.

American Gothic fiction was made popular by authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is often considered the greatest American horror writer and is famous for stories like The Black Cat and the Tell Tale Heart. In their novels and short stories, irrational fears often become real, and self-imposed nightmares take over. Hawthorne was influenced by his own family’s dark history and, like other writers of the genre, wrote about the conflict of the human soul in which the present seemed unable to escape the shadow of the past.

 

Illustration by Paolo d’Altan, taken from Stories of Ghosts and Mystery, Reading and Training, Step 2 (B1.1)