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Gothic literature was born in 1764 when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, which is considered to be the first gothic novel ever written. Gothic literature was originally written as a reaction to the age of reason, order, and the politics of eighteenth-century England. Containing anti-Catholic sentiments and mythical aspects, Gothic literature explored the tension between what we fear and what we desire. The stories were usually set in some kind of castle or old building that showed human decay and created an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. Often, one of the main characters would be some sort of damsel in distress, threatened by some man.
The words chosen in these novels and short stories were very descriptive, creating overwrought emotion and often, feelings of gloom and horror. Also, within the plot, some sort of ancient prophecy, along with omens and visions, could usually be found. The most important elements to the structure of canonical gothic literature, however, are supernatural and unexplainable events.
In The Castle of Otranto, much of the plot surrounds one unexplainable incident: a giant black helmet falls on Prince Conrad, thus killing him. Because of Prince Conrad’s death, Manfred, his father, captures a passing peasant, Theodore, and pursues Isabella, Conrad’s fiancee. Later, it is learned that Jerome (the minister) is Theodore’s father. If the helmet had never fallen on Conrad, Manfred never would have stopped Theodore, and Jerome would never have found his long lost son. Manfred, still believing that Theodore is guilty of dropping the helmet by sorcery, is ready to execute him.
At this point in the story, Isabella’s long lost father appears, which halts Theodore’s execution. It is later learned that Isabella’s father found her because a dream he had led him to a monk, who led him to Otranto. The supernatural event here is the dream, which turned out to forecast reality. He accuses Manfred of not being the rightful ruler of Otranto. Eventually, everything is confirmed when the giant version of Alfonso the Good that has been living in the castle (another mysterious incident) breaks through the walls and proclaims Theodore the natural heir of Alfonso and the rightful ruler of Otranto.
The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin, whose author remains anonymous, also has a similar dependency on a chain of supernatural events. Sir Thomas Fitz-Martin acquires an abbey, which he finds in ruins. He is certain it can be repaired, so he and his people venture inside. Upon exploring the abbey, Fitz-Martin opens a door with difficulty, only to be met with severe shrieks from inside that particular room. Later in the story, the superstition surrounding those screams is explained.
Evidently, every night, the ghost of St. Anna can be seen walking up to the altar. She stays there until midnight, and then walks to the south tower. She screams three times, and the ghost of the evil Baron, who possessed the abbey years before, comes. Then, Anna chases him with a “fire-brand” in one hand and a dead baby in her other arm. The two ghosts eventually come to the Baron’s old room, where “dismal yells and dying groans” can be heard from. Fiery lights surround the Baron’s old room until the clock that hasn’t been touched in years strikes two, or sometimes three o’clock.
This story of supernatural occurrence strikes the curiosity of Rosaline, Sir Thomas Fitz-Martin’s daughter, who then decides to go investigate the south tower. When she does, she finds the torture chamber where they killed St. Anna so many years ago. She is debating whether or not to go in, when she hears a voice commanding her to enter. She feels almost possessed, as the voice tells her to reach inside the coffin. When she does, she pulls something out and takes it with her, fleeing in terror. It is the supernatural phenomenon of this voice that brings in St. Anna’s story, which is written on the papers with which Rosaline fled in terror.
The Vampyre by John Polidori casts an interesting slant on the element of supernatural events. The entire story is a supernatural event because Lord Ruthven is a vampire, a supernatural creature. Before this is revealed to the reader, however, there are important unexplainable events that allude to his being a vampire and are of utmost importance to the story. It is the mystery of Lord Ruthven’s appearance that first attracts Aubrey to him, and thus begins the story. Aubrey wants to get to know him better, hopefully to understand the enigma of his demeanor.
They leave on a trip together, and Aubrey notices that Lord Ruthven is extremely charitable. He also notices, though, that Lord Ruthven always gives his money to the scoundrels of society, those who will piddle away the charity pursuing their vices. Then he realizes that all who receive money from Lord Ruthven end up far worse than they were before the charity. Although Aubrey cannot explain this, it intrigues him and makes him wonder if there isn’t a spark of evil in Lord Ruthven.
Some time later, Aubrey receives letters from his sister and his guardians. The letter from his sister is very loving, but the letter from his guardians bears only bad and mysterious news. They tell him that his traveling companion is pure evil, that all the women at home that he wooed because of their virtues, have now come forth and shown that they are tainted, and pursue their vices publicly. The people of their town find this unexplainable and very unnerving. He was suspicious of Lord Ruthven’s evil before, but upon reading the letter, Aubrey decides that he must leave Lord Ruthven for the remainder of the trip.
Aubrey travels to Greece, where he stays with a kind family and falls in love with their daughter, Ianthe, although he does not act on it. It is here that he learns the legend of the vampire. One day he goes to a place to research, and they tell him to be back before dark because of the vampire. He loses track of time and it is soon dark. He hears a scream and runs toward it. He finds a hut, and picks up a dagger that is inside. However, he is too late. Ianthe was murdered by the vampire. Aubrey falls into a fever and Lord Ruthven returns to him and nurses him back to health. Soon after this, they are attacked by robbers and Lord Ruthven is wounded.
He dies, but makes Aubrey promise to him that he will not speak a word of his death. When Aubrey goes back for Lord Ruthven’s body, it is gone, and the robbers tell Aubrey that they had to put it in the moonlight the first night of Lord Ruthven’s death. They go to where they left the corpse, but it has mysteriously disappeared. Aubrey decides that it is time to go home. On his way home, he goes through Lord Ruthven’s things and finds a shaft that matches the dagger he found in the hut exactly. This confirms for Aubrey that Lord Ruthven is the vampire.
When he arrives home, his sister holds a drawing-room. Here, Aubrey is snatched by the arm and told to ‘remember his oath.’ Aubrey is dumbfounded because Lord Ruthven is supposed to be dead, but here he is, pursuing his sister. This drives him into a terrible fever. During this fever, he figures out that his sister is engaged to Lord Ruthven and fears for her. He tries to stop the wedding, but everyone thinks that he is crazy and dismisses him. His sister is killed at the end of the story.
The fact that Lord Ruthven is a supernatural creature accounts for all of the supernatural events and the entire story. If he was not a vampire, his demeanor would never have attracted Aubrey initially, and Aubrey never would have gone traveling with Lord Ruthven. Had Aubrey not gone traveling with him, he never would have discovered that Lord Ruthven was a vampire, and gone crazy. If Aubrey had not gone crazy, he would have been able to stop the wedding and save his sister’s life.
Supernatural and unexplainable events are crucial to the plot of a gothic story. Often, they act as the backbone of the plot and many of the circumstances and coincidences rest upon them. In The Castle of Otranto, they act as the coincidence drivers as well as supply some of the omens and visions, another element of gothic literature. They bring the real story to the surface in The Ruins of the Abbey of Fitz-Martin, and provide the foundation for the story in The Vampyre. Without the element of supernatural and unexplainable events, much of the canonical gothic literature would not stand on its own.