1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
This is the novel that started it all. Horace Walpole’s short, snappy novel was published 250 years ago and by subtitling it "a Gothic story" he inadvertently coined a style of writing that is still going strong today. The Castle of Otranto is the very definition of a page-turner: unrelenting action and a check-list of the best Gothic tropes – a crumbling castle, an increasingly deranged tyrant, tense pursuits, frightening spectres, mistaken identities, murder … the list goes on and on. Iconic and rip-roaring, Walpole’s masterpiece deserves all the attention it can get.
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
Mary Shelley’s novel of scientific transgression and the dangers of not taking responsibility for your actions is a dazzling mixture of the sublime, the melancholy and the terrifying. The book also provided cinema with two of its most iconic characters; Frankenstein himself, with his insane thirst for knowledge, and his creation, immortalised in Boris Karloff’s splendid performances in films such as Universal’s "Frankenstein" (1931), and its even more impressive sequel "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935).
3. Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
We tend to think of Charles Dickens as an author primarily concerned with highlighting the plight of the poor and the dispossessed in society but his work is full of Gothic imagery. Bleak House contains scenes set in rat-infested city churchyards, decaying urban slums, country houses which resemble giant mausoleums and junk shops full of macabre bric-a-brac. One of the characters, Krook, even dies of spontaneous human combustion. Attacking the ills of society had never been so Gothic.
4. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula has transcended its origins in literature and entered the realm of myth. The book is set firmly in the late-Victorian era, and highlights many of the concerns that assailed Britain at the time, but the figure of Count Dracula has evolved and mutated through the years. Whether glamorous, vile, beautiful or perverse Count Dracula has provided every generation with its very own dark and enduring nightmare.
5. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (1938)
Daphne Du Maurier’s novel took the Gothic framework created by Charlotte Bronte for Jane Eyre and reworked it for the 20th Century. It’s a ghost story without an actual ghost – Manderley, the classic Gothic house is haunted by the psychological impression of Rebecca, Maxim de Winter’s first wife. The book is narrated by the second Mrs de Winter, significantly unnamed whereas Rebecca’s name is inscribed all over the house – on headed notepaper, inside a book, even on a nightdress. It’s the story of the second Mrs de Winter’s struggle to assert herself over the influence of Rebecca’s charismatic but sinister identity which seems to have the power to control events from beyond the grave.
Compiled by Tim Pye, Tanya Kirk and Greg Buzwell, the curators of "The Gothic Imagination", open now at the British Library.