Part of the fascination of Frankenstein is that it has elements from two different but often related genres, Gothic and science fiction. When we talk about history, “Goths” refers to the people from where modern Germany is now who invaded the Roman Empire about 1,700 years ago. When we talk about art, “Gothic” refers to a kind of art and architecture common in northern European in the Middle Ages.
“Gothic” architecture became fashionable again in the 18th century. In 1747 Horace Walpole converted his house at Strawberry Hill in London into what he called “a little Gothic castle”; here he wrote The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic Story, a novel full of passion, horror and a monstrous ghost, set in southern Italy in the Middle Ages. It was published in 1746, and the Gothic genre in fiction was born.
Walpole’s novel was a huge success, and was quickly imitated, notably in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1749) by Mrs Ann Radcliffe and The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis. Gothic novels were full of mystery and horror, often involving the supernatural .
Settings were often castles full of secret passages. Mary Shelley’s description of her vision inspired Frankenstein is a perfect example of a Gothic scene: “a pale student ... kneeling beside the thing he had put together .. the hideous phantasm of a man”. Unsurprisingly, when in 1986 the film director Ken Russell made a film about that night’s event, he called it Gothic. Frankenstein with its moments of horror, the supernatural creature and its wild landscapes, has elements of the Gothic, and the elements contributed to the novel’s immediate success. In the USA, Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) wrote influential Gothic short stories. In Britain, there are elements of Gothic in 19th century fiction, such as the secret attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Cathy’s ghost in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but the height of Gothic was reached in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
In the 20th century horror became extraordinarily popular in fiction, and some stories by writes such as Stephen King show Gothic influences. Cinema and computer games draw obviously from the Gothic tradition; at the end of the 20th century there was even a “Gothic rock” genre with groups such as Black Sabbath and “goth” fashion involving black clothes.