Gothic Fiction and the ‘Regressive Evolution’ Anxiety

Characterised by gloomy castles at midnight, dastardly villains, and shrieking heroines; the Gothic genre is recognisable and collectively loved by readers. In fact, the Gothic novel is considered to have been the first pop-culture phenomenon of the Western world. 1 Though this genre has been reimagined throughout the centuries, Victorian England and America were both particularly enamoured with the Gothic landscape.

‘The House of Usher’ by Abigail Larson. A very Gothic landscape.

Just as today’s readership is infatuated with the dystopian genre and its tendency to exploit current political anxieties; the Gothic genre served a similar function for those in the Victorian era. Referring to the period of time under Queen Victoria’s reign, this era spanned many decades and lasted from 1837 to 1901. As this article will explore, Gothic literature within the Victorian era did not simply produce fear through ghouls or vampires. Instead, Gothic authors exploited common societal anxieties to produce terror within readers. One such anxiety was that of regressive evolution.

This can be identified within three prominent Victorian texts: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Each text interacts with the fear of backwards evolution — with varying degrees of subtlety — in order to create truly terrifying narratives.

Understanding the Fear

After Darwin published his Theory of Evolution in 1859, Victorians became increasingly pre-occupied with its implications. Among these worries was the idea that, if humans could evolve, humans must also be capable of devolving. Put simply, if humans could become more complex, what was stopping them from similarly becoming less complex, too? 2 This left Victorians uncertain about their very existence; the state of humankind was allegedly believed to be precarious at best, and on the verge of decay at worst. Not only this, Victorians were horrified by the simple prospect of humanity having evolved from ‘beast.’ 3

Charles Darwin
‘Charles Darwin’ by Teemu Juhani.

Before Darwin, though, these ideas were already in circulation. One such example is the philosopher Buffon’s 1766 article, ‘On the Degeneration of Animals.’ In the simplest form, he believed animals degenerated over time in response to migration and their assimilation into new environments. Though they were not immediately included in this theorising, humans were eventually considered to undergo the same degeneration. 4

During the nineteenth century, fears of atavism were also prolific. Atavism is a term used to describe the “recurrence or reappearance of certain ‘primitive’ traits…which presumably match those of an ancestral form.” 5 More than this, these alleged evolutionary ‘throwbacks’ were linked to crime. The Italian Criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, theorised that one was born deviant; rather than becoming deviant later in life. To him, he saw criminality as inherited and not learned. Supposedly, then, criminals were inclined to break the law due to their being an evolutionary ‘throwback’ and somehow primitive. 6 Thus, Victorians were extra fearful of regressive evolution as they were being told it was the very reason that crime was occurring.

The result of this fear, instilled in the population by some of the brightest minds at the time, was widespread xenophobia and racial prejudice. The theory of atavism, especially, suggested that criminals looked a certain way. This made it easy for Victorians to ‘Other’ groups of people; to them, it was scientifically proven. Through centuries of further scientific discovery, such theories have been disproven and rightfully deemed problematic. For this reason, a contemporary readership is unlikely to truly understand the anxieties these following texts portrayed.

These evolutionary ideas and theories have been over-simplified here for ease of reading. These brief summaries do not begin to encapsulate the inherent complexities of the topic at hand. However, they provide useful context to understand the following three works of Gothic fiction. Each text uses similar over-simplified ideas to pander to the fears of a mass audience.

‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’

Murders in the Rue Morgue
An 1870 illustration of the short story by Daniel Verge.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ was first published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. 7 It has been labelled the first modern detective story. Though this short story was published before Darwin’s theories — ruling it out as a reactionary tale — it still demonstrates that a fear of primitive beings existed.

The story follows the narrator and his friend, Dupin, as they attempt to solve a murder that has left a community utterly devastated and in shock. The injuries sustained by the two victims range from severe scratches and bruising around the neck, to gruesome decapitation. One of the women is found jammed feet-first up a chimney. After long deliberations and examination; it is deduced that that the culprit is not, in fact, a heinous man. Instead, it is an orangutan who inflicted this terror on the two female victims.

Poe builds up to this conclusion slowly and deliberately; allowing readers to reach their own horrified conclusions. The first ‘hint’ that is dropped is in the inability of anyone to discern what the killer was saying when they were outside the scene of the crime. The following quotation is Dupin’s summary of the conflicting witness testimonies:

“The Frenchman supposes it the voice of a Spaniard, and ‘might have distinguished some words had he been acquainted with the Spanish.’ The Dutchman maintains it to have been that of a Frenchman; but we find it stated that ‘not understanding French this witness was examined through an interpreter.’ The Englishman thinks it the voice of a German, and ‘does not understand German.’ The Spaniard ‘is sure’ that it was that of an Englishman, but ‘judges by the intonation’ altogether, ‘as he has no knowledge of the English.’ The Italian believes it the voice of a Russian, but ‘has never conversed with a native of Russia.’ A second Frenchman differs, moreover, with the first, and is positive that the voice was that of an Italian; but, not being cognizant of that tongue, is, like the Spaniard, ‘convinced by the intonation.'”

Murders in the Rue Morgue
‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Richard Svensson.

To add to this, the voice is described as both “shrill” and “harsh.” Dupin is quick to stress that it cannot have been the dialect of anyone outside of Europe, either. Thus, this is the first hint; unrecognisable as a human voice, the killer must be non-human. Dupin also alludes to several other non-human occurrences pertaining to the murders. The agility required to access the murder scene through the window, as the killer did, was said to have been “almost praeternatural.” Furthermore, the murderer’s lack of motive is discussed as evidence that it was not the work of an intelligent human; but rather, an unthinking beast. Additionally, the injuries sustained by the two victims required more strength than even the strongest man was capable of. The discovery of a clump of hairs clutched in the hand of the deceased was the final clue that this was not a human crime. As the narrator exclaims, “Dupin!…this hair is most unusual –this is no human hair.” Dupin introduces each of these clues slowly; giving the reader enough time to hypothesise what might have happened. A feeling of the uncanny increases with each line.

As Dupin is telling the story to the narrator, his feelings of disgust match the reader’s (or, at least, the Victorian reader’s). When the murders are described as ‘peculiar,’ the narrator’s reaction is “to shudder, without knowing why.” Moreover, an indication that the narrator is feeling something deeper than mere surface level horror is the way in which he describes his feelings. He states, “I felt a creeping of the flesh…” This demonstrates how deeply uncomfortable he is with the information he is learning; something that is likely mirrored in the readership.

By the story’s conclusion, there is definitive proof that this crime was committed by an orangutan. More unsettling for a Victorian audience, however, is just how almost-human the creature is. To begin with, the crime is assumed to have been the work of a human, implying that the creature’s actions were close enough to the actions of man to be mistaken. More than this, though, the orangutan was somewhat domesticated as it lived with a sailor. At one point, the animal attempts a very human-like procedure:

“Razor in hand, and fully lathered, it was sitting before a looking-glass, attempting the operation of shaving, in which it had no doubt previously watched its master through the key-hole of the closet.”

This human-like intelligence would have unsettled an audience already fearing this type of behaviour. This juxtaposition that Poe has created — a ‘savage’ beast that is simultaneously very human-like — directly exploits the anxiety regarding the perceived link between devolution and crime.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, tackles the fear of regressive evolution in a different manner to Poe. 8 The antagonist of the story — Mr. Hyde — is human. However, he is described in ways that allude to him potentially being an evolutionary ‘throwback.’

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
‘Jekyll and Hyde’ by iesnoth.

The story opens in a very Gothic manner; with a mysterious person having trampled a young girl’s body in the middle of the street. The idea of him being unhuman is set in motion from this point, as onlookers remark that “it wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.” Thenceforth, the story revolves around discovering just who — or what — Mr. Hyde is.

Of course, by the novella’s conclusion, readers learn who Hyde is. He is the ‘evil’ side of Dr. Jekyll, an upstanding medical practitioner; associated with good. After experimenting with a drug, Jekyll found that he could turn himself into this unrecognisable man. The body and mind of Mr. Hyde became a safe space for Jekyll; they allowed him to carry out his evilest desires without tarnishing his own reputation.

The insinuations of Hyde’s primitiveness continue throughout the novella. It begins subtly; he is said to be in some way deformed, but in a manner that no one can seem to identify. In another instance, he is regarded as such:

“There is something more, if I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? or can it be the old story of Dr. Fell? or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?”

By the text’s conclusion, the primitive accusations are more overt and he is said to have “ape-like spite.” These descriptions become evermore significant when one learns of Hyde’s fate. As Jekyll recounts, when he began experimenting with the drug, he could alternate between Jekyll and Hyde whenever he consumed the elixir. It was a conscious choice. However, as time went on, he found himself waking up as Hyde, despite going to sleep as Jekyll. Shortly after, the Hyde persona begins to consume him entirely. As Jekyll explains himself, “this brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Eventually, the only time he could exist as Jekyll was in the immediate aftermath of taking the drug. No longer did he transform into Hyde; he was Hyde. Jekyll became the side effect. This can be, and was by Victorians, interpreted as an example of an intelligent, modern man devolving into an ancestral form.

“The implication is that the brutal and uncivilised Hyde is somehow a reversion to a more primitive stage of human development; a ghastly evolutionary precursor who stands in a direct genetic line behind the eminently respectable Dr Jekyll.” 9

Of course, Stevenson could have selected any monster for Jekyll to transform in to; a vampire, a zombie, an apparition. Each would have provided a similarly Gothic reading experience. However, the choice to depict a devolved man was deliberate and effective. More than this, the novella sends the message that even the brightest minds — such as a doctor — are capable of regressing. Victorian readers were likely left to wonder what hope was left for everyone else.


The figure of the vampire has been used throughout literature to represent fears and anxieties. The character of Dracula, from Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name, is no different. 10 His physical appearance, his peculiar actions, and even aspects of vampire lore all allude to regressive evolution.

‘Dracula’ by AliyaSapphire.

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s novel follows the story of Count Dracula — a Transylvanian vampire — as he attempts to infiltrate England. The protagonists, often referred to as the ‘Band (or Crew) of Light,’ are quintessential, ‘modern’ men and women. They are the exemplary figures of evolution; they are what Victorian society feared losing. After Dracula makes a victim of one of their friends, the Band of Light team up to defeat this source of evil.

Not only is this figure of evil a vampire — a fictitious monster — he is also representative of the evolutionary throwbacks feared by Victorians. Jonathan Harker, one of the good guys, visits Dracula in his Transylvanian home; he gets to witness the beast in his own environment. However, he does not yet know that the Count is not human. Dracula and his home are discussed as inherently old. Harker notices a collection of coins in the vampire’s house. None of which are “less than three hundred years old.” When the vampire is giving him a brief synopsis of Transylvanian historical events, Harker remarks that “he spoke as if he had been present at them all.” These allusions suggest that Dracula himself is from the past. The insinuation that the vampire is an evolutionary throwback is solidified when Harker catches him leaving his house through the window. Leaving the man aghast, he observes:

“But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.”

A mix of human and animal; Dracula appears to be a kind of ancestral form. This idea that he is a threat from the past is further demonstrated in some aspects of vampire lore. One such aspect is the need for Dracula to sleep on his native soil in order to stay alive. Thus, in travelling to England, he transported several boxes filled with Transylvanian soil with him. This is symbolic of him bringing the past into the future, as Transylvania has already been set up in the story as inherently “old-fashioned.” It is in this way that the Victorian fear is realised. Like an evolutionary throwback, Dracula is a figure of the past posing danger to the modernised present. Not only did the Band of Light need to destroy Dracula himself, they also “set out to destroy the boxes.” They were to rid modern England of any sign that Dracula had walked amongst them.

His simple existence is not the most terrifying part of the story, though. It is the impact he will have on others that would have been most concerning for readers. The fear of regressive evolution materialises in two different ways within the book; both forms allude to the idea of social degeneration. 11 The first fear involves others taking on the traits of Dracula (or a different figure seen as an evolutionary throwback). This is evident in the actions of Harker who spends time within the vampire’s home. After observing his lizard-like crawling out of the window, Harker chooses to imitate it:

“Where his body has gone why may not another body go? I have seen him myself crawl from his window. Why should not I imitate him, and go in by his window? The chances are desperate, but my need is more desperate still. I shall risk it.”

Thus, the devolved Dracula’s alleged ability to influence man’s movement away from modern and respectable behaviour is complete. Harker successfully scales the wall twice. His actions are not a once-off coincidence; it is deliberately repeated. The once quintessential Englishman is transformed through the simple act of observing Dracula.

Band of Light
Image from the 1931 film adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Pictured is the ‘Band of Light’ appearing both well dressed and educated.

The second fear present within the narrative of Dracula is the ability of such an ancestral form to silently assimilate into modern society. The idea here is that, these ancestral forms are too similar to the evolved human, and can therefore ‘degenerate’ England’s bloodline without detection. Indeed, Dracula becomes most terrifying to Harker when the vampire is spotted in England. Harker begins to panic at the site of the man who is mingling with a busy London crowd. But, more disconcerting is the fact that his wife Mina is unable to recognise him, “I don’t know him; who is it?” The reason this leaves Harker so panicked is because Dracula appears to be no different from those around him. The Count could live his life undetected, and as was previously mentioned, eventually sully the bloodline of England.

Both of these ideas are inherently problematic as they are linked to xenophobia. The source of anxiety is from a figure from a foreign region; the ‘thing’ worth protecting is the idea of a so-called ‘pure’ bloodline. While the present readership likely perceives this as the hateful sentiment that it is, for Victorians it was a genuine anxiety. Therefore, it makes sense that Stoker would rely heavily upon these fears of a racialised evolutionary throwback to create a truly Gothic atmosphere within his novel. Of these three texts, though, Dracula is the most hopeful. It is only within Stoker’s novel that this threat from the past can be eradicated. The figure of the devolved past ultimately proved a weak opponent for the modern human.

Terror and the Sublime

Though it is understood how Victorian Gothic writers interacted with this societal fear, it is helpful to understand why they did so too. Through preying upon commonly-felt anxieties, Victorian Gothic writers could elicit feelings of terror within readers. Rather than a momentary jump-scare; this terror leaves readers feeling dread and fear. But, curiously, it also leaves them somewhat in awe. The belief that terror was vital to the Gothic was put forth by Ann Radcliffe; a writer known as the Matriarch of the Feminine Gothic Movement. In an essay published in 1826, she explains the difference between horror and terror:

“Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” 12

Ann Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe, author of ‘The Italian’ and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’.

According to Radcliffe, terror is capable of achieving an objective of the genre: the sublime. The sublime, many argue, “is experienced when overwhelming pain and terror lead to a sort of delight.” 13 Edmund Burke — a philosopher associated with the sublime — described terror as vital to achieving this feeling. This is as terror allegedly produces the strongest emotion that the human mind is able to feel. 14 This makes sense when one considers humans’ odd fascination with being spooked. The thrill of a ghost tour or a midnight screening of a scary movie are not punishment; they are sought for enjoyment. For Victorians, they sought their sense of the sublime from some terrifying Gothic fiction!

Based upon this objective, it would not have been enough for Gothic fiction to comprise of entirely isolated and wholly fictitious monsters. A vampire or an evil murderess are frightening; but, they are not likely to appear in the everyday lives of readers. To produce terror — and subsequently the sublime — writers had to prey upon the deeply-felt anxieties that already existed. Regressive evolution proved the perfect topic for Gothic fiction, as it was a fear that was felt by a widespread readership. Whether these authors themselves feared what they were writing is unclear. What is clear, however, is that they knew just how to unsettle an entire generation of readers.

A murderous orangutan, a man who can transform into an ancestral form of himself, and an antiquated vampire are certainly inspired ideas for a story intended to terrify. For a contemporary readership, these figures might only serve as a source of horror. To us, they are nothing but fantastical or unlikely beings. They may scare or spook, but it is only momentary. It would be easy for a present day audience to mock the fears that Victorian Gothic literature exhibits.

Jekyll and Hyde
‘Jekyll and Hyde’ by Thomas Tan 揚淞.

However, if one, again, considers our present day fascination with dystopian fiction, readers one hundred years from now may do the same mocking. Present within the pages of these texts are the aspects of society that are currently feared. This includes everything from complete surveillance in 1984 to the gross abuse of power in The Hunger Games. One might guess (and hope) that society will have one day moved far enough past these problems for them to seem ridiculous. Perhaps future readers will mock the society that was preoccupied with dystopia enough to write hundreds of books about it.

Through identifying this connection, it can be understood why these Gothic texts were so popular, despite their confronting subject matter. Victorians were taught to fear many things; regressive evolution is just one example. Authors like Poe, Stevenson, and Stoker only exacerbated this by making such anxieties the focal point of their popular texts. By exploiting societal anxieties, these writers were able to create terror and evoke feelings of the sublime within their widespread readership. Such ideas are broad generalisations and cannot be reflective of an entire society. However, one must conclude that these fears were prolific enough to earn themselves pride of place in at least three famous works of Gothic fiction. Victorians feared regressive evolution; proof of this can be found within the pages of their literature.

Works Cited

  1. Gray, S 2019, ‘Gothic Literature in the Eighteenth Century’, in Jeanette A. Laredo (ed.), A Guide to the Gothic, The University of North Texas Libraries,
  2. Buzwell, G 2014, ‘Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siecle: mutating bodies and disturbed minds’, British Library [webpage],
  3. Ibid.
  4. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2019, ‘Evolutionary Thought Before Darwin’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [webpage],
  5. Sherlyn, Q 2020, ‘Glossary of the Gothic: Atavism’, Raynor Memorial Libraries [webpage],
  6. Ibid.
  7. Poe, E. A. 1841, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, The Poe Museum [webpage],
  8. Stevenson, R. L. 1886, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Project Gutenberg [eBook],
  9. Buzwell, G 2014, ‘Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siecle’.
  10. Stoker, B 1897, Dracula, Project Gutenberg [eBook],
  11. Burdett, C 2014, ‘Post Darwin: social Darwinism, degeneration, eugenics’, British Library [webpage],
  12. Radcliffe, A 1826, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, New Monthly Magazine, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 145-152.
  13. The Gothic Library 2020, ‘Gothic Vocab: The Sublime’, The Gothic Library [webpage],
  14. Ibid.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Re: Jekyll & Hyde: this particular piece of literature also is expressing early anxieties of intoxicant use which, in the United States would become more pronounced in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries and culminate through Prohibition.

    • What’s also interesting to me is that this same time period gave us the Sherlock Holmes stories, where gothic influence aside, Holmes himself regularly uses cocaine and morphine when under-stimulated, and generally the reader isn’t led to judge him much for it. Maybe it’s an outlier, but I think it’s interesting how our attitudes toward drugs and addictive substances have changed since then.

      As for Jekyll & Hyde, it’s also a relatively early example of a split-personality (or of mental illness in general) that’s attempting to get inside the person’s head in a way, or understand them, though still a far ways off from being sympathetic.

  2. Poe is the only XIX century writer (due to his quality, perfection, own history and personality) that is closer to Ancient Greeks than to his coetaneous.

    He is a myth, maybe one of the last myths of our culture. By that, I want to say that most of the horrors that are around us can be explained through Poe’s works (myths).

  3. Longalright

    Fantastic article. After studying the European Gothic at University, I’ve made shamefully little effort to explore EAP and other American authors. Some of these would be a great place to start.

    • Samantha Leersen

      Edgar Allan Poe is great because, while sometimes his writing can be difficult to understand or follow, his stories are usually only short. This makes re-reading to find clarity a fairly accessible task.

    • JCBohn

      Poe has some really fantastic works, and it is quite interesting to read him alongside his European contemporaries. “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Raven” are great places to start and become acquainted with his style.

      Another subgenre to check out is American Southern Gothic (William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are great to start with). The Southern Gothics use similar techniques but focus on the natural world in a more Realist style.

      Happy reading!

  4. Maurine

    I’d say almost all Murder on the Rue Morgue’s credit comes from the invention of the genius, entrepreneurial and haughty detective and his man-on-the-Clapham-Omnibus sidekick.

    The story itself is preposterous and silly, as is the detection. You are astute Sam in picking out the odd phrase that demonstrates Poe’s real skill, which lies is in the description of the horrific. Here he delivers strong stuff indeed.

    Otherwise the piece can be easily dismissed. I’m far more interested in what, in my opinion, are Poe’s most accomplished and ambitious pieces “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of Red Death”.

    These seem to have a purpose other than just being a vehicle for delivering the horror, unlike “The Black Cat”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Tale of Mr Valdemar” or even “The Tell-Tale Heart”.

    • – Otherwise the piece can be easily dismissed.

      I disagree with this, and with the assertion that the latter tales are mere vehicles for “delivering horror”. I think you’re reading these tales somewhat at face value as “literature” and not paying enough attention to the ideas contained within. Poe’s real skill, I feel, was his ability to engage the imagination and to explore new ways of inhabiting the reader’s mind. I wouldn’t argue that his prose, his plots, or his “craft work” descriptions were exemplary, but I would argue that his stories were a milestone in writer’s relationships with their readers.

      • Maurine

        Fair points. I’ll certainly admit to being neither a fan of Poe’s, nor of horror as a genre. I’m more interested in the tone of story-telling and its allegorical and psychological content. The sense of dissolution, ineluctable dread and melancholy in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is more interesting than the mounting climax and denouement of the story. What is it with Poe and premature burial is of greater interest to me than how I might be best affected by a tale of premature burial.

        Perhaps this has a relationship with the draughts versus chess issue that you comment on below. Poe’s, or at least Dupin’s, argument for the supremacy of draughts claims that a logical dominance can be achieved by the application of a psychological understanding of game play. This assertion has its origin in Dupin’s self-assurance in the primacy of his own analytical abilities applied to the predictive art of second-guessing another’s thoughts.

        Perhaps you are right then to judge Poe on his ability to engage the imagination, rather than his literary acumen. I’ve always thought Poe is somewhat over-rated and that his legacy has outstripped his talent.

        Wikipedia states the following:

        “He (Poe) disliked didacticism and allegory, though he believed that meaning in literature should be an undercurrent just beneath the surface. Works with obvious meanings, he wrote, cease to be art. He believed that work of quality should be brief and focus on a specific single effect. To that end, he believed that the writer should carefully calculate every sentiment and idea.”

        Some of my distaste might come from this – I like didactic and allegorical writing. Why else would anyone be driven to write fiction or non-fiction? A writer always wishes to convey something to a reader. A text is inevitably didactic through the process of allegory.

        What then is Poe doing in a story like “The Black Cat”? The story only makes sense in terms of the allegorical nature of the cat itself. The cat is a symbol of the husband’s growing psychotic insanity, it matters not if the cat is real or in his imagination. The walling up of the cat along with the body of his wife is highly improbable, surely even as an ironic device Poe does not want us to take that literally?

  5. The only thing that matters about Radcliffe is to actually sit down and read her. I love her writing.

    • I’m one of those readers who doesn’t think that Austen was criticising Radcliffe in Northanger Abbey: she was just poking fun at her seventeen-year-old heroine’s youthful naivety while at the same time acknowledging the remarkable power of Radcliffe’s romances.

      • Samantha Leersen

        Northanger Abbey has long been on my list of books that I wish to read, and now after everything I have heard about it I am absolutely positive I must read it as soon as I possibly can!

    • I’m an admirer: The Romance of the Forest, Udolpho, and The Italian are all highly enjoyable books, haven’t read the others yet.

  6. What is this crazy appeal for gothic horror?

    • I think that a big part of the appeal of gothic horror, or horror overall is that, in them, we can face the creatures of unspeakable evil and overcome them. Vampires can be staked through the heart. Werewolves can be shot with silver bullets. Zombies can be burned. Alien monsters can be put down with sufficiently large quantities of high-caliber bullets. Unlike real-life where it seems that nothing can stop the plague of politicians, pundits and plutocrats that has fallen upon us.

      • I don’t think of zombie films as gothic because they are not picturesque. Gothic (in this sense) should be romantic.

      • Monique

        Never had touble from a vampire. Not a scratch from werewolves. Never bumped into Frankenstein’s monster in the dark. Ghosts leave me alone. The undead are less likely to hurt me than the living. And so it goes on.

  7. Feel Frankenstein could be included on here. Frankenstein is a fantastically conflicted character. In many ways the Creature is an externalisation of Victor Frankenstein’s own frustration at the suffocating effect of his domestic relations. His duties to his family and friends hold him back and prevent him from acheiving his dreams. The Creature acts like a destructive avatar, and sets about murdering Victor’s family and friends. Yet Victor’s motivation in creating the Creature are his yearnings to be invincible – he wishes to create a race of creatures immune to death and nature.

    For the Creature’s part, it desires to receive the domestic affection that Victor flees from, and which Victor denies it. Realising it cannot have this itself, it determines to destroy Victor’s loved ones in revenge.

    • Not only is there a doubling between characters (Victor and the Creature, Victor and Captain Walton), there is also a doubling between Victor and the author (both caused the death of their mother in childbirth if I remember rightly – the ‘life from death’ theme therefore also has an autobiographical element to it).

      The other major theme in the book is change vs permanence. Victor seeks unchangeable immortality. The Creature brings chaos, death or destruction in almost every scene he’s in. This is made explicit in the final chapters at the Pole, when the Creature’s arrival is preceded by a ‘ground sea’ that breaks up the ice and leaves Victor floating helplessly on a small berg. Mutability always trumps the immutable in Frankenstein, and the Creature is essentially flux on legs.

    • JCBohn

      I don’t think Frankenstein could be included in this thesis because it is not a Victorian text; it was written in 1818 by Shelley, who was a notable Romantic. You are absolutely right that it is important to discuss/consider Frankenstein in context with these three texts, though, since the Romantic focus on the grotesque and the sublime most definitely paved the way for these pieces.

  8. Great, really great article. Jane Austen shows us in Northanger Abbey, the truths of ‘normal’ society can be as scary as any gothic fiction.

  9. I enjoyed looking at the these fictional works through this paradigm, which I had not really given much thought to before. Thank you.

  10. Some horror legends are real.

    Dracula was a real person – although the real Vlad Dracula was far, far worse than the mythical one & he had no supernatural powers, he just impaled a lot of people.

  11. Thank you, Mrs. Radcliffe. I enjoyed long time ago the Udolpho one very much.

  12. Juanita

    It wouldn’t be classed as gothic, but I saw The Conjuring recently and really enjoyed it’s old school approach. That it was also set in the 70s helped to reinforce the resemblance to those horror films being made before the video nasty era.

    It is interesting how horror films reflect the social climate. The trend in ‘found footage’ movies suits the You Tube vlogging, reality tv obsessed, CCTV, phone camera voyeur age rather well. Quite what the ‘torture porn’ stuff like Hostel and Saw say about society I dread to think, but when you consider the endless stories of waterboarding, beheadings, massacres we kept hearing about, it’s no wonder that horror film makers felt they had to up the ante.

    Gothic horror is generally fantastical, highly stylised escapism. I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if we see a resurgence. Life is becoming a big grind for many of us these days, a lot of deep anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

    • Agree with that, though a number of the films that made up the so called video nasties list were made in the 70s. Its forgotten now but many movies made in that decade which never got a release in the UK were pretty hardcore esp some of the Italian crime flicks by Umberto Lenzi etc and if they were seen they were often hacked badly by James Ferman and co.

  13. Poe was primarily a poet: his works gain from being read aloud and were certainly done so by his readers.

    I rate Ligea and The Cask of Amontillado as masterpieces of their type; the one for the increasingly sinister half-world in which the story takes place and the other for the shocking passage in which the supposed victim of the villainy appears to get the upper hand psychologically.

    • Samantha Leersen

      Both stories are really great, I agree. Amontillado is so efficiently creepy. Ligeia is my favourite Poe story by far though (I even had an article published here covering that story).
      I love how his writing often leaves room for interpretation.

  14. It was a very fun story following the nature of good and evil as shown through Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

  15. Very fascinating article. As someone in love with the Gothic genre, I never considered it as a form of discussing the “other” people. They were simply scary stories to me, but I see the true scary story was using science as a way to be xenophobic, racist, etc.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I really love the Gothic genre myself because it is so often filled with such underlying themes. Not just xenophobia, though. I think it is amazing how often ghosts and ghouls are written with real world fears in mind to somehow make them scarier.

  16. Such an interesting look into scientific racism’s role in informing the gothic genre. One always hopes that these racialized themes are evoked with a layer of irony (for Poe I think maybe this may be more likely) that knows better than structures of colonial capitalist justification. Wonderful to end the piece on meditations about terror, horror, and the sublime as well.

  17. I’ve seen all of the adaptations and recent depictions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and never actually read the story embarrassingly enough.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I encourage you to. It is really short and not overly complex, so a very accessible read. If you’re interested in the story, I definitely recommend giving the original a read!

    • Def read it. I particularly enjoyed it being mostly left to the reader’s imagination of just what perversions plagued Dr. Jekyll and manifested in Mr. Hyde. Hollywood and some comics have certainly gotten this character wrong recently, showing him as a simple hulking gorilla.

  18. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a misnomer. It should have been Dr. Hyde and Mr. Jekyll instead. Jekyll sounds much more ominous and nasty than Hyde. The deviation in the gravity and designation of words measures the linguistic distance from the nineteenth century to the present.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I can see where you’re coming from, for sure. But also, Hyde is remarkably similar to the word ‘hide’ which could be a complete coincidence, or could also have been a very deliberate choice.

  19. I first read Dracula a life time ago; creepy stuff indeed, especially the transfusions and the forced nocturnal existence of the players. Just finished reading the Penguin Classic; and the way the story unfolds via journals and letters has lost nothing with the passage of time. I guess the book will always be un-dead!

  20. Hollywood deserves some credit for popularising some Gothic novels. Anyone who manages to get to the end of ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ will never get that time back again. Unlike the film the book explains nothing.

    • CreatedByMe

      Can’t agree with that I’m afraid. The single most horrible scene I’ve read in any classic gothic horror is the scene where Hyde tramples on the little girl. The shock of his motiveless violence hasn’t yet been replicated in any film version. Also, like Dracula, the use of first person narrative accounts from ‘normal’ characters adds immeasurably to the effect of horror, which is hard to replicate on film.

  21. I enjoyed Rue Morgue but I can’t decide if I enjoyed it for the reasons that the writer outlined. For example I found this story almost comic at times and gruesome and surreal at others. I can’t get the image of an orangutan running down a street brandishing a razor and stopping to gesticulate at his captor occasionally. It’s like a one of those fancy dress monkeys out of trigger happy tv – but I loved it!

  22. Carlton

    I’ve only made it as far as The Fall of the House of Usher, and it’s taking a damn long time to fall. It seems I can only read a couple of pages of Poe’s writing before I fall asleep. There’s a really hypnotic quality to all those tangled sentences. I confess to being a bit disappointed. Having read some of the authors who followed in his footsteps, I was expecting a bit more from the fount of all horror fiction.

    It makes me wonder how seriously Poe expected his writing to be taken? Was he in fact a frustrated poet who needed to write sensational Gothic stories to put food on the table? Or maybe I just needed to be born a couple of hundred years ago to appreciate how ahead of his time he really was.

    • I read all of Poe when in my youth. Today I agree with you, a couple of pages is enough to send anyone to sleep.

    • To be honest, I’m drifting off every so often too… But plenty of it is entrancing…

  23. Gothic horror is sexy, that’s why many of us like it and prefer it over Saw and Centipede type “ugh” shlock.

  24. Christina

    Gothic fiction tells us the truth about our divided nature.

  25. Charles

    I was very glad to see this article. I was very disappointed that Radcliffe got only a mere mention, while all other authors received a fair overview and discussion.

    • Samantha Leersen

      I would love to cover Radcliffe’s work in greater detail but I felt that, following the theme of this particular article, writing about her work would have digressed too far. More to the point, however, was that she simply was not a Victorian-era writer (she passed away before the period even began). Her work on terror and the sublime was merely used for contextual background.
      She is definitely a writer worth writing and reading about, I agree there.

    • I think the article covered it well. Radcliffe is an important and underrated author and certainly a key figure in the development of Gothic literature

  26. I have always enjoyed reading Poe because one often has to work with an unreliable narrator. Is it his sanity or mine which is being called into question? And at exactly which point have I allowed myself to be undermined by the narrator. I am looking forward to either being given a big scare but Poe or scaring myself!

    • Samantha Leersen

      I love that he often presents readers with an unreliable narrator, too! I especially like how that opens his stories up to varying interpretations.

  27. It’s interesting that the anxieties that Gothic writers explored are so wildly in contrast to what we find scary today. It seems that the basis of Gothic horror is how special humanity is, and how threatening it is when something tries to take that specialness away. Where today we find horror in the idea that humanity isn’t special at all, and is easily commodified and deserves to be wiped out. Worlds like 1984 and The Hunger Games have reduced humanity’s role so deeply that humans are nothing but things to be controlled by the people in power, and the triumph comes from trying to reassert individuality in the face of that uncaring world. It’s finding specialness rather than trying to defend it.

    Modern horror plays with this theme a lot, no matter the medium from books like The Girl With All the Gifts and The Stand to movies like Resolution and She Dies Tomorrow to video games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne (Gothic inspired!) This idea that trying to be special in a big uncaring world is inherently terrifying, because we live in a world where humans are commodified and mistreated in big horrible ways every single day. So the shift in what humans are anxious about between Gothic fiction and now is quite startling.

    It’s also interesting how a human’s reaction to horror stays consistent through the years. We still seek out scary stories to feel that rush, that sublime as you called it. That feeling of being scared, but then reminded that we are safe and alive. The best horror works aren’t that ones that go for mindless gore, but rather the ones that go under the skin, the ones that prey on those deeply held anxieties, and exploit them to earn that feeling of sublime. Humans will always feel anxious, but the satisfaction of getting to the end of a good story remains constant, and that’s kinda amazing.

    Thanks for the article!

  28. This is a very interesting article, which touches on a number of points that I hadn’t necessarily thought of when I read these books. I love being able to see classical fiction in a new light.

    That being said, I’m not sure I agree that people nowadays don’t find “regressive evolution” scary. It seems to me that people nowadays are less fearful of literally turning into deformed monsters, than they are of regressing mentally and emotionally. The book Lord of the Flies, which was written in the Twentieth Century, is a good example of what this can look like. Indeed, just the other day I was reading an article by a modern political philosopher that claims that everyone secretly wishes to revert to a more “primitive” type of society than the one we presently live in–not so much because they want to become less than human, but because human nature is itself more primitive and animalistic than is often acknowledged.

  29. worldsnaker

    It is a sad thing that the many Hollywood versions of Dracula have distorted the perceptions of this story and its telling by Stoker. What I enjoyed most about reading it the second time around during my 30s is the many connections and tributes I was able to make to other stories and genres, many of which Mr McCrum has pointed out here. To me, that’s the more interesting and enduring aspect of the book — one that over-rides the old-fashioned writing style.

    And, of course, we cannot forget the many, many other popular works that Dracula has inspired — the good and the bad ones.

    • Dracula is a good book, just too long. A good hundred pages fewer and it would be a great one.

  30. Ann Bryant

    It is such a pity that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde went on the fire as along with Dorian Gray, this is one of the key archetypal works of Freudian literature.

  31. I adore Dracula. It has everything in it, all the tensions of fin de siecle anxiety over science, religion, the Other, the threat from overseas, the New Woman, homosexuality… every time I read it I find in it some new subtlety.

    Anyone who thinks they know Dracula because they’ve watched a film is missing out. No film has ever come close to Stoker’s novel.

    • Reading the novel has ruined the films! I almost wish I could go back and not read it so I could enjoy the films like I did the first time around. Almost.

  32. CarolMake

    I think Poe’s key story is the “Imp of the Perverse”- in which he discusses one of the dominant currents in his fiction- that of the little voice whispering in our ear that urges us on to do the very opposite of what is rational, sensible and good. The classic ‘cozy’ detective story, from Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie etc depends on a rational motive, and a rational criminal who tries to avoid detection. Poe’s protagonists tend not to be rational- they know they’re heading wide-eyed along the road to perdition and yet are incapable of doing anything to change their course.

    • The Dupin stories are fascinating in that regard, aren’t they? They seem to enshrine rationality, but in fact his ratiocinative method is so extreme as to become fantastical.

  33. Russell

    There was a taste for such stories long before 18th/19th century “Gothic” fiction – even before the original Gothic era from the 13th century, for instance in Marie de France’s Bisclavret.

  34. Vampires, the undead, needing human blood to live. It’s not Gotic horor but merely an inversion fo what Christianity offers and therefore is only really meaningful in our culture. Take it to India and it makes no sense at all.

    • Angel series, Buffy series, Twilight series, there is a great appetite for this genre and rightly so, as we through the vehicle of fantasy, come close to human beings of good and evil, and that age old struggle and dillema inside of all of us.

    • Actually, you find vampiric figures pretty much everywhere. The idea that some evil being is sucking the life-force out of you during your sleep is about as universal as it gets.

  35. Read Dracula years ago. The book is ok but it’s meandering and all over the place. Dracula is barely in it and unless you lived in Victorian times you won’t get half the references. I seem to recall a whole chapter/diary entry just featuring Mina having a random conversation with an old drunk on a park bench. It has bugger all to do with the story but the old man’s ramblings did make me giggle. Weird book.

    • I was surprised when I first read it by how badly it was written and yet I’ve read it more often than Frankenstein. If you think Mina’s conversation on the graveyard bench is tedious wait til the monster starts chatting to the blind old guy in the forest in ‘Frankenstein’ – it goes on for chapters!

      I think why Dracula works is the number of brilliant set pieces, even after Dracula gets to London. Lucy turning into the ‘Bloofer lady’ is particularly creepy, as is the scene in the tomb when her erstwhile lovers gang up to ‘mercifully’ dispatch her. Renfield in the madhouse with his insect catching and eating is particularly disturbing.

      Because Stoker never wrote anything to equal it it is tempting to see the book as effective despite him, rather than because of him. As other have pointed out the hysterical masculinity. Fear of female sexuality and creepy eroticising of blood suggest a whole host of repressed drives and urges that Stoker can’t have intended to dig up (pun intended!)

      • Samantha Leersen

        Dracula and Frankenstein are two of my favourite Gothic books. I agree that Frankenstein sometimes dragged, but I never had such problems with Dracula. Perhaps if I were to read it again, I might notice the issues you have both picked up.

  36. Clinton Visser

    Thank you for the article! It was a great read!

    I agree with the anxiety of regressive evolution in the Victorian era, but would also like to posit a notion that it has not disappeared, but rather grown. I suggest that the fear of backwards evolution has become so great that modern literature chooses instead to focus on the dystopian world caused by catastrophe, or the utopian world of pure perfection.

    What do you think?

  37. This article reminds me of some of my favorite university classes. Victorian literature is just so good!

  38. Michael

    Best Jekull and Hyde film adaptation anyone?

    • The best cinematic incarnation of Mr Hyde remains, in my opinion, that of Jean-Louis Barreault as “Opale” in Jean Renoir’s Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier.

  39. I have memories of having a collection of Poe stories as a child in a strange small book, however I don’t remember them being particularly terrifying so I assume that they were perhaps a pg rated version.

    • Michelle

      Used to read him a lot in my 20s, but its been a while now. Time to get back on the Camelopard, methinks.

      • I read a very fat collection of Edgar Allen Poe stories on my honeymoon, in the idyllic setting of Lake Garda in Italy. People seem to think that is odd. I don’t know why. 🙂

  40. I read Dracula many years ago when in my late teens – it scared the shit out of me like nothing has ever done since. I re-read it about 20 years later and although not quite as scary I still found it riveting.

    • Read dracula on acid… one the best ‘literary’ experiences i’ve ever had.

  41. The opening narrative of Harker’s adventure in Transylvania, with its defining image of the Count crawling head-first down the wall of his castle and rotating his head back to look up in the direction of the watching Harker, is a masterpiece of horror writing, tight and gripping and still as fresh as a virgin neck.

    The rest of Dracula is over-written and often boring – I like to imagine what a better writer – Melville, say – could have done with it, because the intrinsic power of the story is incredible.

  42. The problem with going back and reading literature of the past is that it becomes obvious that any comparison to more modern fiction is unfair, simply because everyone who followed someone like Poe had the advantage of taking Poe’s work as a base to advance from. Fiction has had the benefit of being improved and distiller until, nowadays, every paragraph has to advance the story.

  43. I could imagine Poe’s prose dragging in a full length novel but in the short stories it’s okay.

  44. Gothic horror may be old but it’s so popular it’s being re-invented all the time, because it speaks to the human story and the human heart.

  45. I really enjoyed Dracula. It’s not the best novel ever written, but there’s a lot a reader can pull out of it, a lot of hidden subtext, a peculiar set of characters, and the Freudian influence is mesmerising. A real indulgence to read.

    I also enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova’s follow-up The Historian as a really well written, researched and thought-out novel.

    • Kathleen

      The Historian! You beat me to it. The Historian is superb, in fact tbh I enjoyed it more than Dracula. Someone make the film!

    • The Historian is a truly superb novel, and made me pick up Dracula again.

  46. Great post. I’ve read Dracula a couple of times, but I didn’t know much about the novel’s background – shame on me.

  47. I find this fascinating. I just finished teaching a course on British Gothic, including Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula. Your statement “Regressive evolution proved the perfect topic for Gothic fiction, as it was a fear that was felt by a widespread readership” resonates with me and with much of what my students and I discussed this past quarter. I wish I had been able to share your article with them. Your thoughts on this make me wonder what a contemporary American gothic would look like, given the events of the past five years. What have you read, or what would you suggest, that would speak to this?

  48. rhythnm

    Poe invites us to slip into a paradox—How much shall we believe in his narratives and how much we shan’t— which was quite avant-garde in his time.

  49. Joseph Cernik

    Interesting and perceptive how you relate Darwin and his thinking to a regression in humans seen through literature. Quite good. I had not thought of a connection such as you made.

  50. Felipe Rodriguez

    Another potential noteworthy thing is Stoker’s implementation of technology and modern science applications as tools in the fight against the outsider. Could this count, no pun intended, as a promotion of the ‘benefits’ of modernity alongside the modern Englishman? I am not trying to say the Stoker is promoting the use of technology to oust and remove foreigners, but rather that it is the ingenuity of the modern Englishman and woman that could devise ways to sort of match the supernatural abilities of Dracula. Let me know your thoughts.

    • I think I agree that the way in which the Crew of Light fights back against Dracula is noteworthy. Specifically, the use of psychology which was a fledging field of study at the time is interesting. However alongside all of the modernity that the characters embody there is an interweaving of the folkloric and the religious that I found interesting. Stoker, on one hand seems to be depicting modernity as an equal and greater match to the regressive past that Dracula represents but at the same time hints that modernity alone is not enough.

  51. Horselover Fat

    Loved reading this, especially since I have not explored these works. I am surprised that there is no mention of H. G. Wells’s works in the article nor in the comments. Though his work does not associate itself with gothic horror, he took the regression theories of humanity and made them as believable and as real as possible. In “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, Dr. Moreau brings in animals from across the globe to experiment on them. He stitches human parts to the poor monkeys, tigers, dogs, etc. in order to artificially create human beings, which works! These human-animal hybrids are stupid, naïve and barbarous, similar to what people thought of the primordial versions of human beings. In the end of the book, without spoiling too much, the human-animal hybrids slowly but surely turn back to their original forms, even with the increased intellect and human parts, a clear sign of regression over time and the return to the natural order of being. I wish I could also mention Wells’s “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds”, books with similar themes but extremely different premises and theorems.

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