Readers, when I’m ready to get the cozy reading season started, I reach for the most autumnal genre of them all: gothic fiction.
As a certified scaredy-cat, I find that gothic novels provide a welcome balance of spooky-but-not-scary reading. With an emphasis on atmosphere, this genre puts gloomy rainy nights, crumbling castles, and supernatural events on the page—with the occasional dash of romance.
As we prepare to lean in to the darker side of our reading tastes with seasonal reads in the MMD Book Club and beyond, I’m sharing a whole list of gothic novels to enjoy, with a mix of Victorian classics, southern gothic contemporaries, and ghostly historical fiction.
I hope you find a goosebump-inducing read on today’s list, whether you’re welcoming fall with open arms or staying in summer reading mode for as long as possible.
22 novels filled with eerie hauntings, hidden secrets, and Gothic castles
This moody literary mystery, set firmly in the tradition of gothic greats like Jane Eyre
, kept me guessing from start to finish. A little dark and deliciously creepy, perfect for curling up with on a cold day. When one of Britain’s most celebrated novelists reaches out to the young and relative novice Margaret Lea, Margaret has one question: Why?
While she decides whether to take on the assignment, she begins reading one of the author’s works: Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation
. She is captivated by the stories, and puzzled by them because the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? More info →
This 1930s classic feels surprisingly current and holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller. Du Maurier’s approach is unusual: the woman of the title is dead before the action begins; the young second wife, our narrator, is never given a name. She doesn’t understand what’s going on for a long time, and neither does the reader. By the time you find out what really happened, you may find yourself one of the many readers who feel almost complicit in the crime. This page-turner makes for a great book club pick with discussion fodder galore: marriage, Manderley, and (she says with a shudder) Mrs. Danvers. More info →
My daughter loved reading this romance, mystery, and psychological thriller all rolled into one (she even said it may be the best book she’s ever read, which brings me so much joy as a book-loving parent). Its themes were astonishingly modern for 1847, making it a must-read classic to this day. I say fall is the perfect time to pick up this groundbreaking classic that features one of literature’s greatest—if not universally beloved—heroines. My daughter might argue that any time is the perfect time to meet Jane, an orphan who becomes the governess for a brooding Byronic hero’s children, learns to speak for herself, and makes bold choices. More info →
This is on my TBR, and comes highly recommended by MMD editor Leigh Kramer. She inhaled the last 400 pages of this Dickensian literary mystery and had to know what would happen next. The relationship between gentry and servant can be fraught—and even more so when one is running a con on the other. Maud and Susan are complex characters that beg a reaction (and a book club discussion), particularly when they do disagreeable things. With striking twists and turns, their relationship runs the full gamut of emotions, particularly because literary fiction is not known for giving queer characters a Happily Ever After. More info →
Some of you may recognize Tananrive Due’s name from the epigraph of The Other Black Girl
: “Black history is Black horror.” In her debut short story collection, Due infuses everyday small town stories with horror tropes to create a distinctly southern gothic effect. The titular novella features a young ghost-hunter who visits his grandparents, only to discover the ghosts are much bolder this year. Other stories bend genres in unique combinations, exploring pandemic outbreaks and Afrofuturism while staying true to gothic horror themes. Bonus: each story includes an afterword from Due. I’m a hesitant horror reader, but the author commentary might be enough encouragement for me to pick this up. More info →
A beautiful copy of this novel sat on my shelf for a long
time before I finally picked it up. While it isn’t my favorite from the Brontë sisters, I am glad I read it. A groundbreaking classic, and downright scandalous in its day—this story hasn’t lost much of its shock value in the intervening 160+ years. Heathcliff is every bit as much the abominable scoundrel now as he was then, and the English moors are every bit as creepy. Read it once, and decide whether you love it or hate it. (And if you do both, you’re in good company.) The gloomy landscape and plenty of scenes on the moors make this a perfect read for a rainy day. More info →
Hint, hint: if you’ve been meaning to read this tome for awhile and need some extra motivation, we’ve got you covered in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club
this fall. The setting is a small Vermont college, the characters members of an isolated, eccentric circle of classics majors, who murder one of their own. The story begins with the murder, and the lonely, introspective narrator devotes the rest of the novel to telling the reader about his role in it, and how he seemingly got away with it. Strongly reminiscent of The Likeness
in setting, Crime and Punishment
in plot, and Brideshead Revisited
in tone. Opinions differ widely on Tartt’s debut novel: it’s a compelling—and chilling—tale, but there’s not a single likable character. More info →
I remember reading Jackson’s short stories in middle school, but I didn’t think of picking up her short 1962 novel until a few years ago, since readers with great and diverse tastes kept recommending it. I first heard about it on the (sadly discontinued) Books on the Nightstand podcast, but its themes of family secrets, hateful neighbors, and mysterious deaths aren’t the stuff of bedtime reading. It’s not exactly
scary, but Jackson sure is good at spinning a story with a creepy atmosphere. Heads up avid listeners: the audio version makes it come alive. More info →
Part coming-of-age classic, part parody, and part social critique, this 1818 novel remains one of Jane Austen’s lesser-read (and underrated) works. We paired it with The Whispering House
for our annual Austen in August celebration, and readers have been surprised by just how funny
this novel is, despite its place among the moody gothic classics. The heroine, Catherine Morland, is a 17-year-old girl with an active imagination and a fondness for sensationalist literature. While visiting Bath with her friends, she falls in love with Henry Tilney, a much more logical (and wealthier) member of the upper class. Their romance is secondary to Catherine’s delightful imaginings as she allows herself to be swept up in gothic fantasies of her own making. Whether you aspire to be an Austen completist or simply love any novel featuring a sprawling gothic estate, this is a novel worth reading. More info →
When I think of Oscar Wilde, I think of farcical plays or one of his sassy quips, like “I can resist everything except temptation.” Rarely do I remember his Victorian gothic exploration of vanity and morality in The Picture of Dorian Gray
. Obsessed with his own youth and beauty, Dorian Gray locks a portrait of himself away in an attic—but this isn’t just any painting. As the years pass, the picture ages with wrinkles and lines, while Dorian’s face remains youthful and unfazed. Emboldened by his eternal youth, he engages with virtually every vice available until his conscience catches up with him. With allusions to Shakespeare and highly discussable themes, this classic is perfect for reading with a literary lens. More info →
This isn’t an easy book to read (and if you struggle through the first half, you’re not alone), but persevering readers will be rewarded with one of the most important and beautifully written multicultural historical novels in the American canon. Sethe escaped slavery and fled to Ohio, but her memories stay with her, as does the ghost of her baby. Though she attempts to bury her past, Sethe is thwarted at every turn—most of all when a young woman shows up at her door, bearing the same name as the ghost baby’s headstone: Beloved. I can’t improve on the publisher’s description, which says Beloved
is “filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope.” If you’re interested in adding an iconic southern gothic novel to your TBR, look no further. More info →
This book completely surprises many modern readers who think
they know the story—and find it to be nothing at all like they expected. Many critics consider Shelley’s eerie tale of a dangerously ambitious young doctor and the monster he creates to be the very first science fiction novel, and influential for the horror genre as well. Fewer people know it all started as a ghost story, when Shelley and her husband stayed with Lord Byron and everyone came up with spooky stories to entertain one another. Though she couldn’t think on her feet, Mary later wrote down her creepy story (said to be inspired by a nightmare). It remains a classic to this day. More info →
This story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family, set in the present day, stands firmly in the southern gothic tradition. Ward’s evocative prose imbues even the family’s most painful moments with tenderness and beauty. She based the novel’s structure on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
, saying, “I am in awe of how Faulkner volleys back and forth between multiple first-person POVs and still tells a coherent, moving story. I thought I could try to mimic that in the structure of Sing, Unburied, Sing.” The result is this moving, haunting novel. More info →
In this 2020 Summer Reading Guide selection, young widow Alva has two priorities: restoring a dilapidated Hyde Park mansion so she can write her interior design book and moving past the death of her abusive husband. Only one problem: the house is haunted and the workers refuse to come near the house. Enter scientist and ghost hunter Sam. Alva can’t afford any complications in her life, nor does she want to risk her heart. But Sam wants nothing more than to prove she deserves her very own happily ever after. As soon as he figures out how to get rid of the ghost, that is. An enjoyable, humorous historical romance set during the Gilded Age with nods to the gothic genre. Heads up for a few open door moments. More info →
Moreno-Garcia’s gothic horror novel is deliciously creepy, but not frightening. She situates the story firmly in the tradition of country house classics like Wuthering Heights
, and even references some of these titles. Noemí’s recently married cousin Catalina has sent an odd, urgent letter to the family, pleading for someone to save her—but from what? When Noemí visits her new marital home High Place, a remote and lavish estate built by ill-treated mine workers, she discovers her cousin’s predicament is worse than she feared: her husband is a brute, her father-in-law a terror, the staff deeply hostile, and even the house itself seems set against her—and worse, determined to entrap her. If you like the sound of a deeply strange and spine-tingling read about a smart heroine who saves herself, this is the book for you. More info →
In this lush story with gothic vibes, three mysterious sisters dwell in an isolated mansion behind a golden gate, ever-watchful that an unsuspecting man will stumble upon the garden path, that they may first bewitch and then devour him. This novel was published in France in 1992 but not translated into English until 2018. Mel Joulwan convinced me to read this super-short French novel when she described it as a “naughty fairy tale” in WSIRN Episode 219
, called “Required reading revisited.” Smart, magical, playful—and also A LOT darker than I expected; “naughty” doesn’t begin to cover it. (Content warnings for sexual assault and other sexual content.) More info →
Readers, this book is still
sitting on my TBR shelf—maybe I need the temperature to drop just a few more degrees before I pick it up this fall. Bridie Devine, infamous female detective and supernatural consultant, gets called to work on her most intriguing case yet. Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, possesses mysterious powers that have collectors and curiosity hunters circling. Bridie comes in to figure out who kidnapped Christabel, while grappling with her own complicated childhood experiences. Full of lush descriptions of Victorian London and a heaping dose of mystery, this ghostly novel makes for an interesting genre mash-up. More info →
Our August pick for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club
. With a compelling narrator, absorbing atmosphere, and loads of literary references, this modern gothic novel is a stunner. While attending her cousin’s wedding in the gardens of Byrne Hall, a drunken Freya can’t resist stumbling into the off-limits house to investigate. When she ducks inside she discovers a startling portrait on display: it looks just like her sister Stella, who, years before, died mere miles from the historic seaside grounds. Once safely home in London, Freya can’t get the house—or its portrait—out of her head. When she returns to investigate, she gets tangled up with the residing family and their eerie house—and the consequences could be disastrous. More info →
If you’re reading Northanger Abbey
with us for Austen in August, take note: Jane includes many references to this quintessential—and prototypical—gothic novel in her sassy take on the genre. A crumbling castle, a trapped heroine, supernatural events (that might actually be psychological); this tome has all the gothic tropes. On a journey through the mountains, Emily St. Aubert falls in love with Valancourt, but their romance is doomed when Emily becomes orphaned, nearly forced into marriage with a mysterious Italian count, and imprisoned in a spooky medieval castle. Originally published in four volumes, this dramatic story gained immediate popularity among 18th century readers, including our favorite Jane. More info →
Many of Kate Morton’s works could be filed under the gothic label. Though perfectly suited for this list, her debut usually doesn’t get a lot of love from readers, but our Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club community manager (and Kate Morton fan!) Ginger says this is her favorite of Morton’s novels. Here’s why: “If a gothic novel can also be glittery and glamorous, this is it. Morton’s trademark flashback style set between the two world wars all comes together at one 1920s society party held at Riverton House. I’ve never forgotten how I could not stop turning the pages to reveal each secret.” More info →
I know author blurbs are just an industry standard for modern book marketing, but I can’t help but get excited when I see words from favorite authors like Louise Penny and Charlie Lovett on a book jacket. This well-endorsed British murder mystery features a high school English teacher who teaches a niche course on gothic writer R. M. Holland every year. When one of her colleagues is found dead with a quote from R. M. Holland left nearby, Clare Cassidy starts to see her favorite works of literature in a whole new light. What follows is a procedural campus mystery for book lovers, told in three rotating perspectives—a perfect novel to read as you welcome cooler evenings. More info →
Kostova’s brooding literary thriller is hard to slot into a genre: she combines gothic, adventure, travelogue, and mystery writing in her epic novel exploring the battle of good vs. evil. The book opens in a library, where a young woman stumbles across ancient papers that lead her on the research trip of a lifetime. Kostova drew inspiration from childhood stories she heard from her father, as well as the classic Dracula tale for this dark novel—brace yourself for some fantastically weird storytelling. But her themes run deep; Kostova calls the Dracula tale “a metaphor for the evil that is so hard to undo in history.” More info →
Can you think of any gothic novels to add to this list? We’d love to see those titles in the comments.
P.S. Can’t get enough spooky (or scholarly) reads this season? Check out 31 spooky (but not too scary) books for your fall reading list or 6 tips to help you tackle a classic novel.
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