Sara Collins is the author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a buzzy new historical thriller that transports readers to 19th-century London where a servant is on trial for murder. Frannie Langton, the accused, cannot remember the night of the crime at all. This critically acclaimed gothic debut will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Here, Collins shares some of her favorite gothic novels.
Gothic novels deliver sin without consequences. We’re drawn to them because we’re fascinated by the interplay of dark and light, by our need to have our deepest fears laid out on the page so we can try to understand them. And nowadays it’s not all crumbling mansions, breathless maidens, or supernatural happenings. Though the heightened emotions remain the same, the tales have evolved in the centuries since publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. The best modern gothics show us that the thing we should fear most is our own capacity to harm each other. Yet, even while they’re doing this, they give us the most delicious of reading pleasures: vivid, subversive, satisfying. Here are five of my favorites (old and new).
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein was dreamed up by Mary Shelley in response to Lord Byron’s stormy night challenge (“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”) which makes it a creation story with its own, equally gothic, creation story. Victor Frankenstein sets out to play God, fashioning a living man from an assortment of parts, but he famously ends up repulsed by his own creation. This classic is, above all, a powerful evocation of the loneliness and longing of the outsider, as well as what it means to be human, and to be alive: “There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.”
Every page of this book feels urgent and energizing. It’s the story of a caper and a swindle, and of lust, obsession, and love between two women, set in beautifully evoked Victorian London. This book is a gothic smorgasbord: heiresses locked away, insane asylums, doppelgängers, rapacious gentlemen. And it contains the most thrilling twist of all time, a midpoint reversal that will make you gasp. It’s not only a worthy successor to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, but a modernizing improvement.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
How to describe the dysfunctional connection between Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw? Theirs is a love so shadowy, obsessive, and strange that it spoils them for anyone else, and for each other. It is perhaps the best of all the gothic romances, yet instead of romance, Wuthering Heights conjures up twin damaged (and damaging) souls: “He’s always in my mind, not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” In this novel, grief is not a reaction to the loss of love, it’s the main event.
In Perry’s updating of Charles Robert Maturin’s gothic classic, Melmoth the Wanderer, Melmoth is a woman cursed to roam the globe witnessing the very worst of what we do to each other (“a woman in dark clothes seen just at the very corner of your eye, slipping from view.”) The frights build at a sinister, shuddering pace, spanning continents and centuries. This novel peels humanity down to its terrible heart, showing us: “a world which is surpassingly wicked, and full of distress.”
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Jackson brings four strangers together in a haunted mansion under the guise of investigating supernatural occurrences. This book reads like a fever dream, until it feels as if you’re in that house too, questioning what’s real and what’s mere hallucination. Prepare to be pulled into it by one of gothic literature’s best opening lines: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within.”
Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and grew up in Grand Cayman and studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years before doing a Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing. Twitter: @mrsjaneymac