From Harry Potter to Twilight: Gothic literature in the 21st Century

twilight 202x300 From Harry Potter to Twilight: Gothic literature in the 21st CenturyThis century has seen an ongoing trend for ‘Gothic’ books and films aimed at teenagers, from the Harry Potter and Twilight films to the recently-announced play Let the Right One In at the Royal Court Theatre. Recent research from Nielsen Books can even suggests that films such as these are contributing to a rise in children and young adults reading. These hugely popular books tend to have dark subject matter, with underlying themes of anxiety and fear, as well as strong plots full of suspense, cliffhangers and romance. It’s not surprising, then that so many people, adults as well as children and teenagers, want to read these books. What is more surprising, perhaps, is the way in which these recent works build on earlier works of literature.

Gothic, in its literary form, is considered to have begun with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. Walpole created his own Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill (which has recently been restored), drawing on European architecture of earlier periods and beginning what was known as ‘Gothic revival’ architecture. There, he had a dream about a giant disembodied hand, which inspired his novel.

The focus on the castle, both as a place of terrors and also a place to be defended, is a trope which recurs throughout Gothic fiction, and can be seen particularly clearly in the Harry Potter novels, where Hogwarts functions as the Gothic castle. Hogwarts is a refuge for Harry and a safe place to grow up. It is rooted in history, and significant for the wizarding community. Yet it is also the seat of terrors, from infiltrators, and from the past: Voldemort was a student there, and it is in Hogwarts that Voldemort’s defeat ultimately lies. The paradox is just as in earlier novels: the castle must be defended at all costs, but must also be destroyed. No Gothic novel has provided a complete solution to this paradox, because it lies at the heart of the anxieties of Gothic, that ‘home’ is both a safe place, and also the most dangerous, because it’s where one is most vulnerable.

Later novels added ideas to the Gothic. Ann Radcliffe’s novels, in the late Eighteenth Century, have brooding heroes, wicked villains, and heroines who find themselves in perilous situations. These are not enough to constitute Gothic, though: the idea of the supernatural which Walpole introduced is often dismissed in Radcliffe’s books (ghosts turn out to be people, for example), but other writers played enthusiastically with other-worldly creature. Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), for example, considered genuinely shocking at the time (and still quite an eye-opener), has genuine ghosts, alongside rape, murder, incest, and other grisly goings-on.

Vampires began to appear in Gothic fiction: although they had been around in folklore for a while, the first proper vampire story was John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), written on the same trip as Frankenstein (1818). Polidori sets the tone for vampire narratives through to the present day: his anti-hero, Lord Ruthven, is Byronic and seemingly irresistible, though intent on evil.

Dracula (1897) is of course the archetypal vampire novel, and there were numerous now-forgotten novels of similar creatures of the night. Though the Twilight series owes much of its vampire lore to Dracula, its hero seems more akin to a ‘good’ version of Ruthven than to Dracula. Edward Cullen, after all, is notable for making teenage girls swoon, and this attractiveness is a useful tool for a vampire. Cullen, however, is rewritten as more appealing than earlier vampires, because he is good, and yet dangerous. A man with a past is a stock-in-trade of romances, and as he manfully struggles with his gory urges, Edward is less a Gothic hero than a romantic teen fantasy.

Gothic literature, from the start, was considered ‘dangerous’ reading for the young, something which Jane Austen parodied in Northanger Abbey (1818). The drama, the romance, the fear: these could all turn the heads of adolescents and make them dwell on ‘unhealthy’ things. Today, we accept that we like things that are dark, especially with a happy ending, perhaps because it helps readers to exorcise their own fears at the same time as escaping into another, magical world. Far from being considered dangerous, today we encourage reading in all its forms, and if the films of these books are encouraging young people to read, they will be starting a lifetime’s adventure.

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