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Christa Carmen Poster

Top Five Modern Gothic Horror Novels

by Christa Carmen

Join me as I count down the Top Five Modern Gothic Horror Novels, written by some of the most talented authors working today, having rated their works using the following:

Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter:

  • Protagonist is isolated—either physically or emotionally—from those around her
  • Setting is old & rundown (bonus points for a dungeon, secret room, etc.)
  • Atmosphere is one of mystery, horror, & dread
  • High emotion reigns
  • Supernatural elements abound

Be warned...like stormy weather, dilapidated manors, damsels in distress, and sinister omens, spoilers abound, and all the views expressed within this post, including subjective analyses of the novels, and the explorations of the themes within, are my own.

Runners-up/the usual suspects: ‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King; Lives of the Monster Dogs, Kristen Bakis; The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters; The Elementals, Michael McDowell; Blackwater: The Complete Saga, Michael McDowell.

Rabbits In The Garden Cover 5) Rabbits in the Garden, Jessica McHugh

With Rabbits in the Garden, Jessica McHugh establishes a decidedly Ann Radcliffe/The Mysteries of Udolpho feel, thanks to the novel’s dream (nightmare?)-like plot, and the hallucinatory depiction of her characters’—Faye, Natalie, and Avery Norton’s—precarious psychological states. Like Radcliffe’s Emily St. Aubuert imprisoned by Count Montoni, Avery’s evil guardian is her own mother, a woman whose cruelty is rivaled only by her instability. Taunton Lunatic Asylum is vividly written and, in its combination of mental health horrors and claustrophobia-inducing configuration, terrifyingly realized. McHugh plays with the traditional Gothic in that she presents Taunton first as an epic collection of fire-ravaged walls and leaf-cluttered corridors. The reader will be granted a pass back in time to before the structure of the hospital was a picked-apart skeleton, but our upfront knowledge of its fate, coupled with an atmosphere of decay, leaves no uncertainty as to what we are in for.

McHugh’s writing pops with brilliant imagery, nuanced characters, creative plot lines, and rich settings, but what struck me most about Rabbits in the Garden is its overarching theme of hopelessness. In its bleak outlook on life for young women in the 1950s, it reminded me of what is probably the best Gothic horror novel ever written—The Monk—and its bleak outlook on life for young women in the 1790s.

In Stephen King’s introduction to Matthew Lewis’ classic, he describes the novel as “a black engine of sex and the supernatural that changed the genre—and the novel itself—forever". Faye’s behavior is no less obscene than Elvira’s, who, having risen from the grave, predicts her daughter Antonia’s death three days from when she sees her. When we take into account Avery’s descent into her mother’s basement, Faye’s obsession with the sexual appetites of rabbits as a stand-in for those of her daughters, and the innumerable scenes of desolation and depravity, it is safe to say that Jessica McHugh has created her own black engine of sex and madness, terror and the annihilation of self, tragedy and despair.

Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter:

  • Protagonist isolated—physically or emotionally—from those around her: 10
  • Setting is old & rundown (bonus points for a dungeon, secret room, etc.): 8 + 1
  • Atmosphere is one of mystery, horror, & dread: 8
  • High emotion reigns: 9
  • Supernatural elements abound: 0

Total: 36

Wylding Hall Small 4) Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

On a Friday afternoon in mid-May, I found myself in a minivan along with fellow horror authors Ben Keefe and Cordelia Abrams, on our way to a Horror Writing Lock-in at the Westport Library in Connecticut. Grady Hendrix was to host the event, and in our excitement, we passed the time by raving about My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör, before moving on to great horror novels by other authors we admired.

I’m not sure if it was Ben or Cordelia who first brought up Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, but ‘you cannot go wrong with this book’ was the sentiment that was unequivocally expressed. Within minutes, I’d dispensed with another Audible credit to download the audiobook. I mention this because listening to Wylding Hall as opposed to reading it in print contributed to much of my enjoyment of the novel, what with it being structured as an oral history, a series of interviews with the members of Windhollow Faire, a British folk band that spent the summer of 1972 at a cavernous old house in the English countryside known as Wylding Hall.

Wylding Hall is creepy. It is vast. It is a place where dead birds littler the floors and ghost girls appear in photographs taken on the grounds. It is the scene of Windhollow Faire’s brief coming together, as well as their subsequent falling apart. It is the setting of the last known sighting of the band’s lead singer, Julian Blake. And, as Kat Howard points out in her review of Wylding Hall for Tor.com, it is not the location at which the one piece of evidence in Julian’s disappearance—the photograph of the mysterious girl—is first seen. This photograph is only reviewed after the band has departed from the manor, which establishes Wylding Hall as a supernatural setting, rather than a simply eerie one, albeit in hindsight.

Hand’s choice to utilize this particular element of Gothic fiction is done to the story’s advantage. The unexplained manifestation is ultimately supernatural. It has to be. Though Tom Haring, the band’s manager, tries to drum up a rational explanation, the implication that everyone present at Wylding Hall that day knew the girl from the bar was not suggests that her presence in the photo is something not of this world. Which leads to the creepiest, most harrowing question of all... what really happened to Julian Blake, and where is he now? Listen to Wylding Hall, narrated by Jennifer Woodward, John Telfer, Dan Morgan, Emma Fenney, Simon Victor, and Kris Dyer, and while I can’t say that you’ll find out, you’ll certainly enjoy trying.

Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter:

  • Protagonist isolated—physically or emotionally—from those around him: 7
  • Setting is old & rundown (bonus points for a dungeon, secret room, etc.): 7 + 1
  • Atmosphere is one of mystery, horror, & dread: 8
  • High emotion reigns: 7
  • Supernatural elements abound: 8

Total: 38

The Death Of Mrs Westaway 3) The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware

This novel is shelved in the mystery/thriller section of your local bookstore, not the horror one, but when we consider the tarot card readings, an overly devoted housekeeper à la Mrs. Danvers, a flock of ever-present magpies, and a narrowly avoided murder at the hands of someone only recently established as a long-lost family member, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is horrific enough for me.

Of Ware’s fourth novel, the Washington Post said, “Among other Gothic delights, there’s a crumbling old mansion, a disputed inheritance, an orphaned heroine and a grim housekeeper whose signature supper dish is gristle stew.” Reviewer Maureen Corrigan even goes so far as to say that Westaway is, “…straight from the “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” playbook.” I would argue that its most delicious element of Gothic horror is its steadfast insistence on immersing the reader in the deception of its characters and the deterioration of its near-locked-room setting. Harriet “Hal” Westaway is isolated by the lies she feels forced to tell, and by having to stay in the attic bedroom that had once been her mother’s prison—a bedroom featuring the word, ‘help,’ carved into the windowpane, and a door that refuses to open in the middle of the night due to what the housekeeper would like Hal to believe is old wood and swollen bolts.

And old wood and swollen bolts are Trepassen House. Ware presents us with this iron-gated Gothic mansion, in steep decline from its former greatness, as well as a family unit that consists of numerous fractured and strained relationships. We know that, for at least a single moment in time, members of the Westaway family were happy, but this moment, forever captured by a fortuitous photograph, is the key to a multi-layered mystery: what happened to Maude, and how did Hal’s mother, Maggie, really die?

I find it strange but fitting that the plots of both The Death of Mrs. Westaway and Wylding Hall hinge on a single photograph; these photographs initiate profound changes in the lives of those within them. Also interesting is that, for Wylding Hall, questions arise from who is present in the photograph but shouldn’t be, and for The Death of Mrs. Westaway, the trouble stems from that individual who obscured himself from the camera’s flash, but should have been included in the image.

It is no mystery as to why Ruth Ware is called the modern-day Agatha Christie. Hal’s journey through the intricacies of Trepassen House’s past, through what ultimately becomes her own past, is as enjoyable as a hot cup of tea on, well, on a dark and stormy night.

Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter:

  • Protagonist isolated—physically or emotionally—from those around her: 9
  • Setting is old & rundown (bonus points for a dungeon, secret room, etc.): 9
  • Atmosphere is one of mystery, horror, & dread: 10
  • High emotion reigns: 8
  • Supernatural elements abound: 3 (Hal’s reliance on her tarot cards lends the story a patina of the supernatural)

Total: 39

There Is No Lovely End Cover 2) There is No Lovely End, Patty Templeton

Fans of the Gothic horror genre were thrilled from the soles of their combat boats to the tips of their jet-black hair at the news that the story of Sarah Winchester would be coming to the big screen, with the heiress to the Winchester rifles fortune to be played by Dame Helen Mirren. Unfortunately, the film bombed with critics (Rotten Tomatoes score = 14%) and disappointed horror fans everywhere, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. The whole disaster could have been avoided if directors Michael and Peter Spierig had made a different Sarah Winchester film: Patty Templeton’s There is No Lovely End.

Templeton’s book about Sarah Winchester’s search for serenity through the services of a medium—a medium wanted dead by his own mother so he can no longer commune with the spirits—takes the Southern Gothic charm of Michael McDowell, adds a dash of black humor reminiscent of the best of Tim Burton, throws in a highly entertaining ensemble cast of strange and unusual characters, then sets it all on fire with the blast of a Winchester rifle. To hell with the traditional, bring on the apparitions and outlaws, the misery, murder, and miracles!

This book is truly a treat, infusing the Gothic horror novel with new life as surely as Nathan Garlan’s skills give voice to the ghosts whom he serves. Crack open this box of tricks and get reading... the only thing you’ll regret is that it eventually comes to a lovely end.

Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter:

  • Protagonist isolated—physically or emotionally—from those around her: 8
  • Setting is old & rundown (bonus points for a dungeon, secret room, etc.): 9
  • Atmosphere is one of mystery, horror, & dread: 9
  • High emotion reigns: 9
  • Supernatural elements abound: 10

Total: 45

Paper Tigers Cover 1) Paper Tigers, Damien Angelica Walters

I had read Damien Angelica Walters’ short story collection, Sing Me Your Scars, prior to experiencing Paper Tigers, so I was somewhat prepared for the haunting lyricism of her decadent prose, for stories of the disenfranchised and the suffering, and for the horror and unsightly happenstance her work promises awaits us all. Even still, I was genuinely awestruck by the Gothic fever dream that is Walters’ debut novel.

The protagonist in Paper Tigers is a woman named Alison, who shares the same air of misfortune as Sarah Winchester, Avery Norton, and Hal Westaway, but whose hardship is both psychological and physical, grey-matter and marrow-deep and seared across her skin. An old photo album (I declare the official mark of the modern Gothic horror novel to be the presence of mysterious photographs!), the inability to go out save for at night, and a shadowy sanctuary where things can be what they seem, but are definitely not, the landscape Walters’ has created for Alison to traverse, to come to fear, and to attempt to leave, is synonymous with those crumbling castles of Victorian novels past, too beautiful and too tragic to remain intact.

There are no literal basements or underground lairs into which Alison descends, but the surreal and macabre funhouse she finds within the album is as dangerous as any labyrinth or oubliette, and the clanging of the demonic grandfather clock that figures so heavily in the novel echoes those ghostly moans and rattling chains of the most timeless of Gothic installments.

The tigers in Walter’s novel may be made of paper, but their bite will leave you bleeding, clawing at your throat, and gasping for air.

Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter:

  • Protagonist isolated—physically or emotionally—from those around her: 10
  • Setting is old & rundown (bonus points for a dungeon, secret room, etc.): 10
  • Atmosphere is one of mystery, horror, & dread: 10
  • High emotion reigns: 10
  • Supernatural elements abound: 10

Total: 50

Thank you for coming along with me on this countdown of the Top Five Modern Gothic Horror Novels, and seek me out on social media if you'd like to discuss any of the Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter ratings, or the novels featured here in general.

Horror DNA would like to thank Christa for sharing this piece with us. Please be sure to follow her and pick up a copy of her book using the links below!

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