Gothic fiction is experiencing a revival, if it ever truly died. Originally conceived as a shadowy counterpoint to the Age of Enlightenment’s sunny rationality, Gothic novels have lurked the literary gloom for over 250 years. With their moody, crepuscular vibe, they make perfect autumn listening.
Gothics were already a well-established craze when Matthew Lewis created an international sensation with his 1796 novel “The Monk,” narrated with exquisite relish for Naxos Audiobooks by Nicholas Boulton and Georgina Sutton. Readers of the day were scandalized by the sordid downfall of the Brother Ambrosio, seduced from his holy calling by concupiscent, cross-dressing Matilda, who then introduces him to her true lord and master, Lucifer. The 20-year-old Lewis held nothing back, spicing his tortuous tale with rape, murder, incest and torture, and earning thereby the critical admiration of the Marquis de Sade himself. Boulton and Sutton expertly reanimate the era’s elegant, overstuffed prose, offering the modern listener a captivating journey into the quintessential 18th-century shockfest.
The Gothic was so much in vogue that it became a frequent target for satire, as in the first novel completed by fledgling author Jane Austen, “Northanger Abbey,” whose heroine-in-training Catherine Morland must come to terms with the fact that real life offers much less Sturm und Drang than her addiction to “horrid novels” has led her to believe. Juliet Stevenson’s narration brilliantly contrasts the mock Gothic tone of Catherine’s dire impressions with the arch wit of Austen’s own voice. Emma Thompson takes this droll authorial voice in a vividly orchestrated full-cast recording of the novel for Audible; both productions are a delight.
Decades before Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” J. Sheridan Le Fanu perfected the vampire aesthetic in his haunting 1872 novella “Carmilla.” In a fittingly restrained reading, Megan Follows sorts through the warring attraction and revulsion in the breast of young Laura for her hauntingly familiar new friend Carmilla, who herself cherishes unwholesome sanguinary cravings for the aforementioned breast. It’s all here: sex, blood, guilt and moonlight, in a sincere rendition that feels fresher for having predated all of Stoker’s ubiquitous vampire tropes.
For kids growing up in the 1980s, the pinnacle of forbidden Gothic delights was V.C. Andrews’ “Flowers in the Attic,” recently narrated by Mena Suvari, whose youthful voice effectively spans the ghastly coming-of-age tale of the Dollanganger children, confined to their attic prison, and the now-mature Cathy looking back on that salacious welter of torture, murder and incest that has made this book such an irresistible, poisonous treat for so many readers, young and old. (If you’re new to this cult classic, save Gillian Flynn’s spoiler-laden foreword for the last.)
In Gothic fiction, as in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. In Eve Chase’s 2016 debut “Black Rabbit Hall,” our heroine seeks a picturesque property for her wedding, only to find herself lured into a drafty, crumbling old manse in the windswept wilds of Cornwall, England, spellbound by a dark history of treachery and madness that calls out to her. Narrators Nathalie Buscombe, Katie Scarfe and Cassandra Campbell plunge us into an atmosphere thick with portent from the very first utterance, while keeping every strand of the twisted plot as clear as the sepulchral atmosphere allows. Chase ranks among such contemporary Gothic masters as Kate Morton, Ruth Ware and Diane Setterfield.
In “The Confessions of Frannie Langton,” author Sara Collins gives a grim, sardonic voice to her beleaguered, mixed-race heroine as she recounts her fateful journey from a Jamaican sugar plantation to Victorian London’s high society, and into the hands of a twisted scientist bent on empirically verifying the benighted racial theories of the day. With a narrative that combines history and mystery with laudanum, forbidden lust and elaborate evils, Collins joins such greats as Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward and William Faulkner in bringing a Gothic sensibility to bear on the abhorrent actualities of racism.