9 Classic Gothic Books From the 20th Century

Stories about maidens in peril, isolated estates, and mysterious hauntings

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Maidens in peril, isolated estates, and an atmosphere of suspense. These are some of the typical elements of Gothic novels.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Scholars generally classify 18th-century Gothic novels in two modes: the male Gothic novel (The Monk), which has supernatural elements and more sensationalistic content, and the female Gothic novel (The Mysteries of Udolpho), where there is a rational explanation for the mystery at hand and romantic elements. Although some researchers have quibbled about whether such distinction is accurate, one thing is for sure: Gothic novels made a huge comeback in paperback form in the ’60s and ’70s before wilting away once more. My novel Mexican Gothic, set in a former mining town in the mountains of Hidalgo, is inspired by this long history of the Gothic tradition.

If you’re seeking Gothic thrills or wish to know where to start reading, here’s a list of books for you. 

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Tales of Love of Madness and of Death by Horacio Quiroga (1917)

The title says it all. Sometimes called the Edgar Allan Poe of South America, Quiroga’s melancholic stories are suffused with an ever-present violence and the whiff of death. The book contains one of the most clever vampirism stories I’ve ever read. 

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Dragonwyck by Anya Seton (1944)

A young, romantic woman visits a distant relative’s estate. Her cousin is dashing and tied to a frumpy, annoying wife. Cue the young maiden falling head over heels in love, not only with the man but with his lavish lifestyle. The wife dies and Mr. Perfect is suddenly available. However, when fairy tales come true, they can get rather dark. 

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951)

More kissing cousins. Gothics tend to keep it all in the family. Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel is Rebecca. But My Cousin Rachel is worth mentioning because it has an inversion. Rather than a young woman being attracted to a mysterious, older man, we have Rebecca as the intriguing, potentially dangerous older woman who has enthralled the twenty-something, inexperienced narrator. 

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The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso (1970)

Surreal and weird. That’s probably the way to succinctly describe this novel by Chilean writer José Donoso. People who like linear plots might want to skip this one, but fans of David Lynch will enjoy the feeling of living through the waking nightmare that is the aristocratic Azcoitia family.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Shirley Jackson always had a way with opening lines and with challenging female characters. One of her most interesting creations is Merricat Blackwood, a teenager who lives in an isolated house with what remains of her family. A visit from an estranged cousin threatens the stability of her self-enclosed world.  

Beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

The tale of a haunting, in more than one sense. Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman, killed her child rather than have her taken back into slavery. Now that child seems to have reappeared in the shape of an enigmatic young woman called Beloved. 

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Aura by Carlos Fuentes (1965)

The past also returns to haunt the protagonist of this novella. A young man answers a help-wanted ad and finds himself in a decrepit house in downtown Mexico City inhabited by a senile woman and her mysterious, beautiful granddaughter. 

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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

If you ever thought Rochester from Jane Eyre was not a great romantic hero, then this is the book for you. Wide Sargasso Sea gives voice to the mad wife in the attic, taking us to the Caribbean for a “prequel” to upend all prequels.

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin (1990)

Another retelling of sorts, this one from the point of view of a maid working for Dr. Henry Jekyll. Told in epistolary form, it displays a voice that is faithful to its time period and does justice to the oppressive elements of Gothic fiction.

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