Magnificent in decaying splendor, lonely, haunted and windswept, the big old building stands at the center of most Gothic fiction.
From staples of Gothic fiction like the Castle of Otranto to the House of Usher, from Thornfield Hall to Wuthering Heights, from Manderley to the Overlook Hotel, the Gothic setting or Gothic mansion provides a gloomy backdrop for the action, and is often a character in its own right.
Let’s analyse the features of the typical Gothic mansion in Gothic literature.
1. Isolated Location, Exposed to the Elements
By placing the house some distance away from the nearest settlement, the Gothic literature author creates a sense of isolation. When in danger, the protagonist can’t easily turn to neighbors for help.
Whether the house stands in the desert, like the crumbling palace of Dar Ibrahim (The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart), in the cold Rocky Mountains like the Overlook Hotel (The Shining by Stephen King), on a wave-lashed coast like Manderley (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier), or on a windswept moor like Wuthering Heights (Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë), it gets battered by the elements, especially storms.
The wild weather creates a gloomy, dramatic, terrifying atmosphere in and around the house.
Here are two brief extracts from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, describing the house’s wind-swept location:
“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving the alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had the foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.”Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
“About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire.”Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe:
“Thus speaking, and having carefully shaded his lamp, he hurried to one of the casements, and threw it freely open to the storm. The impetuous fury of the entering gust nearly lifted us from our feet. It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance.”The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart:
“I’m not sure whether it was the flash of lightning or the almost simultaneous crack of thunder that woke me, but as I stirred in bed and opened my eyes the sound of rain seemed to obliterate all else. I have never heard such rain. There was no wind with it, only the cracking of thunder and the vivid white rents in the black sky. I sat up in bed to watch. The window-arches flickered dramatically against the storm outside, and the portcullis squares of the grille stamped themselves on the room over and over again with their violently angled perspectives of black and white. Through the window that I had opened the scents of flowers came almost storming in, vividly wakened by the rain. With the scents came, more palpably, a good deal of the rain itself, hitting the sill and splashing on the floor in great hammering drops.”The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
2. Large Size – Too Big for the Current Inhabitants
Most Gothic mansions found in Gothic fiction are of enormous size, way too large for the needs of the current residents who occupy only one wing or one floor. Many rooms are left empty, home to bats, rats and ghosts.
The whole west wing of Manderley has been preserved exactly as the dead first wife left it, a shrine to her memory. (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier).
Of the sprawling Moorish palace of Dar Ibrahim, only few rooms are inhabited by the owner and her servant, the rest are left to fall into ruin. (The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart).
Thornfield Hall has several unused rooms. (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë).
3. Once Magnificent, Now Decaying
The mansion featured in Gothic literature was once famed for its opulence and grandeur, but now it is falling into disrepair due to neglect and lack of funds.
Faded curtains, threadbare carpets, creaking stairs and creaking shutters contribute to a creepy atmosphere.
The building’s dilapidation serves as a metaphor for the inhabitants’ moral decay, and this is a frequently used symbolism in Gothic fiction.
Here are two excerpts are from different sections of The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart:
“The walls, high and blind, showed here and there the remains of some coloured decoration, ghostly patterns and mosaics and broken marble plastered over and painted a pale ochre colour which had baked white with the strong sunlight.”The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
“At the foot of each pillar stood a carved marble trough for flowering plants. These were still full of soil, but now held only grass and some tightly clenched, greyish-looking buds. There was one spindly tamarisk hanging over the broken coping of the pool. Somewhere, a cicada purred gently. Grey thistles grew in the gaps of the pavement, and the pool was dry.”The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
In The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator observes
“…a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.”In The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
4. Attics, Tunnels, Underground Chambers, Secret Rooms
Hidden, forgotten or forbidden, the mansion in a work of Gothic fiction features secret rooms that harbor sinister secrets or terrifying truths.
Often, they’re located below ground, e.g. cellars where the vampire hides to avoid daylight, where the mad scientist tortures his victims and where the villain keeps his ferocious dogs chained, or underground passages used by smugglers, counterfeiters and kidnappers for their nefarious deeds.
In The Shining by Stephen King, the basement houses the boiler which needs regular maintenance and explodes in the end. In The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, the tomb in which Madeline gets buried apparently alive is in a family mausoleum below the house itself.
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe:
“The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.”The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe
Attics often house illicit residents or secret prisoners. In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, a madwoman – Mr Rochester’s wife – is kept imprisoned and hidden in the attic.
5. Dark Secrets
Almost every Gothic mansion in Gothic fiction holds a dark secret, often relating to madness, bigamy, murder, imprisonment, forged wills, unlawful inheritance, sexual deviation, incest, rape, atrocious deeds either committed by past generations or still going on.
In The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe the house has apparently been the site of incest over generations, and in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë the owner of Thornfield Hall keeps his mad wife locked up in the attic while he attempts bigamy.
6. Haunted or Cursed
In Gothic fiction featuring a Gothic mansion, ghosts, vampires, or curses haunt the house.
In DracuIa by Bram Stoker, the residing count is a vampire. The building in the novel The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne is cursed.
In The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson), the building itself is an evil character that possesses one of the residents.
Sometimes, the supposed paranormal activity is not genuine, but caused by captives or criminals.
Mysterious noises in the night and desperate screams are explained away as “the castle ghost,” and villains encourage superstition about dangerous hauntings to keep locals from investigating.
In The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer, the supposed haunting covers the smugglers’ nighttime activities.
In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, the weird ghostly laughter floating around after midnight comes from the madwoman locked in the attic.
7. Ownership Coveted or Disputed
Often in Gothic fiction, heirs scheme to murder the owner of the house – or they have already murdered him or her, either recently or in the distant past.
Perhaps a last will and testament was forged or signed under duress. Bigamy, often committed generations ago, comes to light and changes the line of inheritance and ownership.
In The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a greedy villain accused the true owner accused of witchcraft and had him executed, so he could acquire the house.
In Touch Not The Cat by Mary Stewart, a previous owner is revealed to have married his true love before contracting an approved marriage, and the supposedly illegitimate son is revealed to be the legitimate new owner.
In The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart, the murderers impersonate the eccentric old lady owner they have killed.
8. Evokes Ambivalent Feelings at First Sight
On seeing the Gothic building for the first time, visitors and new residents in the story are impressed by its splendor. At the same time, they – consciously or subconsciously – experience a strong sense of unease.
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe:
“I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer:
“Kate’s first view of the great house drew a gasp from her, not of admiration but of dismay, since it seemed to her for a moment, staring at the huge facade, whose numberless windows gave back the sun’s dying rays in every colour of the spectrum, that the building was on fire.”Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
9. Destruction at the Novel’s End
Towards the end of the Gothic novel, often in a dramatic climax, the house gets destroyed. It may fall victim to an earthquake, a flood or – most authors’ favorite – a flaming inferno.
Thornfield Hall, Dar Ibrahim, Manderley and other famous Gothic mansions all burn to the ground.
The house’s dilapidated state often contributes to the destruction (e.g. the wall crack in The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe), as does the owner’s or caretaker’s carelessness, greed or neglect (e.g. the neglected boiler in The Shining by Stephen King).
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe:
“While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher.'”The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier:
“The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart:
“The scene was like something from a coloured film of epic proportions. The walls towered black and jagged against the leaping flames behind them, and one high roof, burning fiercely, was now nothing but a crumbling grid of beams. Windows pulsed with light. With every gust of the breeze great clouds of pale smoke, filled with sparks, rolled down and burst over the crowd which besieged the main gate, and the Arabs scattered, shouting and cursing and laughing with excitement, only to bunch again nearer the gate as the cloud dispersed.”The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart:
“It came in a tidal wave, that smashed through the ancient walls of the maze and broke, filthy, and swirling with the weight of the whole moat behind it, against the pavilion. The old structure seemed to shake and groan as if it would tear from its moorings in the grass, and buck away down the flood like a ship dragging her anchor. Then the water found its way in. There was a choking, fighting eternity, in which every second seemed like an hour, when the water pounded the gaping walls, spurting through with terrifying power. The jets shot in from every side, splashing and swirling together to join in a whirlpool which started, as rapidly as a sink filling under the taps, to rise from ankle to crouching thigh, to waist, to breasts…”Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Gothic Setting Variations in Gothic Literature
While most Gothic fiction has a gloomy, creepy, decaying building as the main location, the role is sometimes taken by a ship, train or coach, e.g. in the short story The Phantom Coach by Amelia Edwards:
“My attention being thus drawn to the condition of the coach, I examined it more narrowly, and saw by the uncertain light of the outer lamps that it was in the last stage of dilapidation. Every part of it was not only out of repair, but in a condition of decay. The sashes splintered at a touch. The leather fittings were crusted over with mould, and literally rotting from the woodwork. The floor was almost breaking away beneath my feet. The whole machine, in short, was foul with damp, and had evidently been dragged from some outhouse in which it had been mouldering away for years, to do another day or two of duty on the road.”The Phantom Coach by Amelia Edwards
When you study Gothic literature, bear in mind that Gothic is seldom a pure genre. Instead, Gothic fiction is a mash-up of two or more genres, especially Horror, Historical, Steampunk or Romance. For example, The Shining by Stephen King is Gothic Horror, while The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer is Gothic Regency Romance.
Analyzing the “mansions” in these works of literature, you’ll find that none meets all the criteria exactly, but every one displays most of the features.
What is your favorite work of Gothic fiction? Tell us about the mansion at its heart. Which of the nine features does it embody?