The Gothic story belongs to a strange little genre, one which has been overlooked by scholars and critics; maybe due to the fact that while its popularity latest it was considered "popular" literature. Along with the famous names, such as Ann Radcliffe, Horace Wadpole and Matthew "Monk" Lewis, many of the contributors to the genre were anonymous writers who were racing to fill the huge public demand for "tales of terror" that were made available to both rich and poor. Along with the good, there was plenty of dross.
For a period of about seventy-five years (1765 - 1840), the Gothic genre was at its peak, as people realized the appeal of escapism and the enjoyment of being terrified by their reading material. Novels were sold by the thousands, translated from overseas manuscripts, and were extensively plagiarized (sometimes just by taking a previously published book and changing the characters' names). In hindsight, it was only a brief period of time in which Gothic literature's popularity was at its peak, but because stories in this genre were so popular, there is a huge amount of material.
This anthology of short Gothic stories was chosen and edited by Peter Haining, who describes the appeal of the genre thus: "A marvelous escape from reality, an exciting journey through distant lands and strange experiences, a brush with the unknown, a footstep in the dark, a fluttering pulse and an evening's sheer entertainment." With this in mind, his introduction explains the intention of the collection: to trace the development of the genre and how it evolved over time. Starting in 1717 with Horace Wadpole (author of The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story and the creator of the genre) and moving through the turn of the century to G.W.M. Reynolds in 1879, this anthology contains a huge range of stories from prolific writers, including Ann Radcliffe, Sir Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Maturin, and William Beckford.
Of particular note are stories from the four authors who were present during the famous thunderstorm at Lake Geneva in 1816: Lord Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Dr John Polidori. Inspired by a book of ghost stories, and challenged by Lord Byron to write something terrifying, the quartet each dabbled in Gothic storytelling, the most famous outcome being Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Here Haining has provided other stories that were inspired by that night, giving fascinating insight into each writer's inspiration and intention.
Haining also provides mini-introductions to each of the thirty tales collected here, including background on the author, the story's place in the context of the genre, and why it's been included. As you read through the stories, it's difficult not to pick up a sense of the progression of Gothic literature and how it eventually led to the onset of modern horror and ghost stories. Through the genre began with the typical romance plot (virtuous maiden threatened by evil tyrant and rescued by knightly hero), it gradually came to include supernatural aspects, ghostly visitations, demonic horrors and grisly endings.
As such, there is a wide range of tales here. Some are adapted from fairytales and legends (such as "The Nymph of the Fountain"), whilst others are set in an accurate portrayal of an historical event (such as "The Tribunal of the Inquisition"). Some are simply a series of scary events (like "Sir Bertrand") whilst others are multi-chapter novellas ("The Anaconda"). Two particular storylines that seemed to pop up frequently were cautionary tales toward young women who are seduced by mysterious strangers ("The Unknown!" and "The Spectre Bride") and stories of young men getting into foolish pacts with the devil, which ends up costing them everything they hold dear: ("The Black Spider," "The Dice," "Magic Watch," "The Demon of the Hartz").
There are also some unfinished stories, experts from longer novels, and tales written by anonymous writers, all included to get a sense of what was popular at the time and some of the quirks involved in the publishing business - specifically, the huge problems with plagiarism that was faced at the time.
All in all, it's a fascinating read for those with an interest in the genre, though it's not a book to be read in one go if you're a casual reader. One can get over-saturated with many of the similarities in the stories, so I'd recommend keeping it on hand for quiet evenings when there might be a thunderstorm brewing outside (never turn down a good cliché). Otherwise, the book's main value is that of a look at the progression of the Gothic movement in short story form, as well as a volume that contains - among other things - ghosts, spirits, demons, giant anacondas, castles, alchemy, nymphs, Scotland, demonic suitors, vampires, cabalism, astrology, magic mirrors, séances, women strangled to death by their hair, coachmen commissioned for rides into hell, men slowly crushed in contracting prison cells, and (for some reason) copious use of the name "Matilda." Seriously, it's like every second heroine has to be called this.