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Gothic Romance Genre

What is the Gothic Romance Genre?

Centering on mystery and conflict, it seems that the authors of this genre are often inspired to set their books on or near cliffs, crashing waves and coastlines. Gothic romance is a genre that was quite popular up through the 1980s, and was identified by the characteristics it shared with the Gothic novel – it is suspenseful, set in a remote setting which is often medieval (think turreted European castle), includes something (or someone) that is haunted, and includes the supernatural.

One central feature of the Gothic romance is that it usually includes two male characters who “compete” for the heroine’s love. There is often a marked contrast between the two – one being secretive, dark and mysterious, and the other being charming, friendly and open. The darker suitor is frequently suspected of having some secret in his past which impacts his present-day and which prevents him from falling in love. The heroine then engages herself in the mystery in order to discover whether or not the dark character did what he is accused/suspected of doing. If the book covers are any indication, the heroines of these novels fancy flowing/billowing dresses as they are often depicted running across the grounds of a castle/mansion/estate in them. Interesting note: Harlequin actually had an 18-part series of Gothic romance novels which were published from 1983-88.

What to Expect in the Gothic Romance Genre

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  • a highly-spirited heroine who often finds herself in trouble and needing to be rescued

  • a dark, mysterious “hero with a past” who spends much of the novel pushing away the heroine since he thinks he isn’t good enough for her

  • usually a second contrasting hero – much “lighter” in both tone and coloring, although sometimes he ends up being the “real” bad guy

  • the heroine moves into a dark, often-haunted, large mansion/castle as a young bride or a governess

  • the dark hero is almost always significantly older (by at least 10 years) than the heroine, who is usually barely into her 20s when she arrives at the haunted mansion/castle.

  • servants are often quirky (but not dangerous)

  • a mystery to be solved

  • some supernatural component which underlies the entire story

Gothic Romance Characteristics

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  • Level of Angst

    Gothic romance novels have a relatively high level of angst; there is always the concern that the dark, mysterious hero will actually turn out to be guilty or will be killed by whatever is haunting them, and the concern that the heroine would not be able to be with him. The entire Gothic genre is underscored by sentimental narration, and with the dark settings and the dark hero with a mysterious past, there is an impending sense of doom which underlies the genre. Of course since it is a romance, it always ends well for the heroine and the hero, but there are occasionally characters – usually “bad” characters, but also sometimes friends of the heroine – who find themselves in serious trouble or dead by the end of the book.

  • Character Development

    The level of development of the Gothic romance characters is extremely high since it is essential to understanding the motivations of the hero, the heroine and usually 1-2 other significant supporting characters. Their interactions with whatever supernatural activities are going on also require a more developed set of characters.

  • Plot Strength

    Often the strength is very high since Gothic romance authors take their cues from the works of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.

  • Romantic Tension

    This depends on how many romance novels you have read. Obviously it’s a romance novel, there will be a “happy ending.” That said, Gothic romance characters do seem to work a lot harder to achieve it than characters in other genres, and not everyone is “happy” in the end.

  • Level of Eros

    There is a lot of sexual tension in these novels – usually developed through about 2/3rds of the novel before it is finally consummated. There is some kind of appeal for the dark, secretive hero and the light, open, naïve heroine…she is almost always the pursuer of the relationship, and he is almost always eschews her attentions since he believes he is not good enough for her. Of course, the more he tries to push her away, the more she is determined to solve the mystery and “free” him so he can he with her. Rarely is he the pursuer, except when they finally get into the bedroom.

  • Prose Quality

    Again there is a strong foundation for this genre with the English Gothic novel. Given the level of involvement with the plot and subplots that this genre demands, generally the quality of the prose is quite good and well developed.

Related Romance Subgenres

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  • Gothic romance is, in and if itself, a subgenre of Gothic fiction (also known as Gothic horror), popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries. The original genre combines fiction and horror, and often features death. The Gothic romance also features the “death” part of the formula, as the threat of “potential death” is always hanging over the heroine…usually her own, or the mysterious death of someone in the past which she has to solve before she can find true love with her dark hero.

Gothic Romance isn't for you if

You like quick, easy sex in your romance novels – the Gothic romance delivers fulfilling sex scenes, but not until quite a ways into the story. You don’t like mysteries.

Gothic Romance is totally for you if

You like suspense, and can suspend your disbelief to embrace the supernatural (think ancient curses). You are willing to wait for the romance to unfold, and enjoy mysteries

Popular Gothic Romance Books
  • 1 The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)


    By Ann Radcliffe. Is often credited with starting the genre. It is a classic gothic romance.

  • 2 The Romance of the Forest (1791)


    By Ann Radcliffe. Furthered underscored this new approach to the traditional English Gothic novel.

  • 3 The India Fan (1988)


    By Victoria Holt. Is one of the better representatives of the modern genre, which peaked in the 1980s. Holt, born Eleanor Hibbert, was one of the most prolific authors of the 20th century, publishing over 200 books in a variety of different genres, but was perhaps best known for being the “queen” of the Gothic romance.

  • 4 Mistress of Mellyn (1960)


    By Victoria Holt. Has all the classic characteristics of the genre – a dark mountain, a heroine serving as a governess to a difficult child, and a mysterious employer who is at the heart of some family secrets.

  • 5 Touch Not the Cat (1976)


    By Mary Stewart. Is an interesting twist on the genre since the heroine is the one who is haunted by a family curse.

  • 6 The Trembling Hills (1956)


    By Phyllis Whitney. Takes Gothic romance to the hills of San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake.

  • 7 Mists of Midnight (2015)


    By Sandra Byrd. Is a more modern version of the Gothic romance, but set in Victorian England with a heroine named Rebecca Ravenshaw, it certainly is a throwback with its imperiled heroine and mysterious setting.

  • 8 Castle Barebane: A Novel of Suspense (1976)


    By Joan Aiken. Is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek telling of a story about a writer who is searching for a little excitement in her life. Going to England to help her half-brother’s family sets the groundwork for the mystery which will unfold as she is enmeshed in uncovering what happened, leading her to explore what she wants out of her life.

  • 9 Moonraker’s Bride (1973)


    By Madelyn Brent. Is one of the few Gothic romance novels to start and end in the Far East. Of course the heroine ends up moving to England for a substantial part of the story, and while there she has a series of cultural misunderstandings and misadventures en route to discovering what she values most. It is only when she returns to China, however, that she discovers her true love.

  • 10 Till Dawn Tames the Night (1990)


    By Meagan McKinney. Features all of our favorite elements – a governess, orphans in danger, a dashing pirate, a bejeweled locket that people are willing to kill for and a heroine names Aurora Dayne.