Characterized by a combination of horror, ominous scenery (old castles, wilderness, graveyards, etc.), the supernatural, and romance, gothic fiction originated in 18th century England. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole is widely considered the first gothic novel; Otranto tells the story of a nobleman who wrestles with the consequences of a mysterious curse.
Supernatural elements are a strong theme in gothic fiction. Evidence of the supernatural may include ancient prophecies that predict the future with uncanny accuracy, ghosts, demons, angels, and omens. In some cases, these intrusions of the supernatural have natural explanations; in other novels, supernatural events are never explained, and contribute to the unreal and frightening atmosphere created in the novel.
Gothic novels often feature a young and tragically beautiful female heroine who is threatened with violence or an early death. Frequently, the young woman finds herself in an old castle or church; indeed, gothic fiction derives its name from a type of architecture originating in the 18th century and imitating medieval stonework.
Gothic literature has often been criticized for being hyperbolic and formulaic; the characters do not act or speak realistically, and the direction of the plot is often quite predictable. Additionally, the romantic aspects of the novels can seem tacked-on or grossly overblown.
The popularity of gothic novels began to decline in the Victorian era. However, Edgar Allen Poe effectively incorporated a number of gothic elements into his fiction and poetry, highlighting themes of horror and romance and setting his narratives in disturbing physical locations. A number of contemporary authors utilize gothic elements in their work, including Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Harper Lee.