When we think of Gothic novels, we think of dark, brooding, handsome Gothic heroes. But they must have an equally dark, brooding setting for all that misery and intrigue. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the glamour locales of Gothics before. Most classic Gothic novels are centered in a mansion or a castle, or at least a very big house on an estate. They involve wealthy families with live-in cousins, aunts, and servants. There are guest houses and artists’ studios on the property. A constant parade of friends, hangers-on, and associates comes to call, to stay, or to party. Today, the term for such estates is a compound. But whether the Gothic house is a modern mansion behind electronic gates with grounds guarded by dogs, or a crumbling old castle in the middle of nowhere built by an eccentric millionaire, the house itself is always extremely significant to the story. And to the mood.
In a Gothic novel, it’s not enough to have a big house. The house has to be unique, idiosyncratic, and unashamedly grandiose. If the mansion isn’t at least a century old and filled with odd turrets and balustrades and stairways that lead to mystery rooms, then its surrounding structures must be significant. These can range from a dangerous cliff overlooking the sea to an old gazebo that contains some long-held secret. And of course secret passageways, priest’s holes, and hidden compartments in floors or walls are important, too. The Gothic heroine has a secret to uncover, and there usually is a range of locations she must search. Additionally, the house in a Gothic must have shadows. Even if the heroine arrives at a sun-filled Florida mansion, she must perceive darkness in every corner. The palm trees must create somber silhouettes through the windows, symbolic of the darkness that entraps the family that lives in the house.
America is full of mansions that would be perfect for a Gothic novel, and probably have already inspired some. Built by rich men to display their wealth, these abodes are lavish and eccentric. Perhaps you have visited Biltmore, in North Carolina. It’s the largest private home ever built in America, and it’s a copy of a French chateau in all its imposing yet cold external style touches. It would be easy to imagine a heroine getting lost in such a huge building, or being followed by a killer through its extensive gardens. Visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt estate, Hyde Park, near Poughkeepsie, NY, and you’ll see a cozier version, but with similar dramatic views, masculine library, and more. Within a few miles of it is another Vanderbilt estate whose architecture is imposing. The interiors ring the same changes: The billiard room, the dark paneled library, the lighter ladies’ sitting room, and so on. Up in Toronto, there is Casa Loma (whose interiors were used in an X-Men movie, by the way), with its Hollywood Gothic, mock-medieval architecture that reminds one of old Zorro movies. Down in Florida there is the Vizcaya, an homage to a Italian villa. And what about the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, the over-the-top estate of William Randolph Hearst in California? It certainly helped inspire some of the more Gothic scenes in the movie “Citizen Kane.”
Obviously, the social life of people living in grand mansions is different from that of ordinary citizens. Descriptions of lavish parties and balls, garden teas and masquerades, and even dangerous games of hide and seek are important in a Gothic novel. Readers love to hear about families whose home include ballrooms. If the family no longer gives such entertainments, then past glamour is evoked through tales the heroine is told by servants or relatives.
The Gothic romances written many years ago were about families who could afford to hire a live-in governess, or a paid companion of genteel background, or a secretary. People who had full-time housekeepers and other staff. Gothic novels thus always have had an air of being about people who live a special kind of life. The heroine of course discovers that despite the dress balls and fancy clothes, the hero can be a troubled man and his family has a severe problem that needs resolving.
The Gothic heroine herself has no glamour. She’s usually a somewhat down-on-her-luck, sensible young woman of no great beauty who has a kind heart. Because she’s scrupulous about doing her job right, she starts looking around her and asking questions, often questions that no one in the family has ever dared to ask. She becomes the catalyst who changes the sick atmosphere of the Gothic house by uncovering its long-held secrets, airing out the truth along with long-sealed rooms, and thereby saving and reinventing lives. Of course, if there are villains in the Gothic house, they do their best to use the secret rooms and crumbling masonry to foil or outright kill the heroine.
Today’s modern Gothics don’t necessarily have all these trappings. They may even be a quiet duel between an isolated heroine and a loner hero, with the interference of a hidden villain or group of bad guys. But without the house as the centerpiece, it’s really not a Gothic novel. After all, the title of the classic Gothic novel that pretty much started it all is The Castle of Otranto. Not Manfred, the name of the main character. Ownership of the castle is the major focus of Horace Walpole’s over-the-top story from 1764. The best of modern Gothics treat the family home as the indisputable center of the tale. Looking at these mansions, it’s no wonder that they have already inspired Gothic romances and will do so again in the future.