Human beings have never stopped being impressed by castles. From the days when they stood tall against Viking raiders to this modern age of ruins and tourist attractions, these magnificent buildings have been the scene of some of our most marvelous fantasies.
One genre of literature that owes a particular debt to those ancient builders is the Gothic novel. Although this genre is rightly considered to be intertwined with the rest of the Romantic movement, it deserves some special attention because of the unique mark it left on the literary world. This is the genre that gave us the dark, brooding antihero, the dark secret locked in a forbidden room, and (perhaps most importantly) the narrative of the captive heroine trying desperately to escape the confines of the terrifying castle.
Like the soaring outdoor settings found in other Romantic fiction, the setting of the Gothic castle transforms the novel’s characters through the power of the sublime. However, where Byron’s peaks and Shelley’s frozen wastes transform through an almost divine experience, the looming castles of Radcliffe and Reeve transform their occupants by exposing them to horror. Ghostly or Satanic figures, carnal temptation, sensational violence, and maddening isolation all drive the narrative’s heroine to her escape with her lover – or, as in Matthew Lewis’ famously scandalous novel The Monk – to her untimely and gruesome death. Many Gothic novels resonate with the theme of punishment for sexual self-expression. Sometimes, the character is allowed to escape and find redemption outside the castle walls. However, characters are just as often left to perish in agony, sometimes by Satan himself.
The Gothic castle still stands in contemporary fiction, from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth to the sad story of Sansa Stark in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Modern writers speak to an audience much more difficult to scandalize than the readers of The Monk and The Castle of Otranto; they therefore have much more leeway when it comes to what misadventures their characters will face and what lessons the characters will learn. From the coldly traditional confines of an ancient fortress to the tentacular temptation of the Lovecraftian milieu, writers of modern Gothic novels have a wide array of unnerving elements they can use to terrify and transform their characters.