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October, 2004 : Essay:

Horror's Hearth and Home

The Use of Setting in American Gothic Fiction

Colonists brought many things with them when they migrated to the New World. Much that came across the Atlantic was adapted to suit the needs of a new environment. Two of those things—fear and literature—grew into the unique genre we know today as American horror fiction. The roots of that genre are easily traced back to the European Gothic novel, a genre that employed mystery and horror based on history and placed in settings familiar to the people for whom it was written. But setting tales of fear in European trappings lost effectiveness on a new continent without castles, without royalty and without any history acknowledged by the white settlers. And so it was necessary that the literature of fear had to adapt to what was familiar to its audience, reflecting the values and taboos of a new culture. The purpose of the present work is to trace the use of setting in American Gothic fiction as it evolved from its European roots to the present day, examining the settings used in important genre works and how they relate to the changing mind set of the American people.

In the Beginning

American Gothic fiction lacks understanding without a brief nod to Europe, where the form was born. In 1764 Horace Walpole wrote his short novel, The Castle of Otranto, which concerned mysterious happenings in an old European castle. The tale was filled with the accouterments we now see as stereotypical and almost comical. Whispers, shadows, crumbling parapets and clanking chains all were present in Walpole's novel, along with giant helmets and swords.

Walpole set a precedent as the author of the first piece of literature to be called a "Gothic novel." As Markman Ellis points out in his study of the form, the word "Gothic" invokes an historical enquiry. The "novel," however was a very new form at Walpole's time. This could lead one to the assumption that a Gothic novel is an oxymoron for "old new." And indeed, as will be seen here, the past is always present, often as an obstacle to the future, in Gothic fiction.

The form caught on quickly and soon "penny dreadfuls" were being churned out regularly in England. American writer Charles Brockden Brown took what he learned from imported novels like Walpole's and those of Anne Radcliffe and created the first American Gothic, Wieland.

The setting of Wieland, though on American soil, is really very European. For instance, an important ring of pillars created as a temple by the elder Wieland is very reminiscent of such European structures as the ruins of Rome, or even England's Stonehenge. Brown's heroine describes the temple as:

...a circular area, twelve feet in diameter, whose flooring was the rock, cleared of moss and shrubs, and exactly level, edged by twelve Tuscan columns, and covered by an undulating dome...

The landscape of Brown's novel is not used to its full effect, as the reader could easily substitute Bronte's England for Brown's America. However, Brown does accomplish something that would become a staple of the later American Gothic; he sets much of his novel within the mind of his character.

The psychological setting is more American than the external landscape, as the narrator, a young girl whose brother has become a mass murderer, is tormented by her own guilt and denial of what she sees happening around her. The emotions are highly Victorian, very European, and intensely melodramatic; each circumstance is played over and over and analyzed by the narrator as she searches for her own guilt in her brother's behavior. It is a part of the collective makeup of Americans to ask "Why?" And so, in our fictions we must ask the question, and usually we are only satisfied when the question is answered. Brown's book lays the groundwork for a morally serious mode that would prove vital to later authors.

The use of a physical American landscape in a Gothic tale was more successfully used by Washington Irving in his story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," where the hapless Ichabod Crane encounters an American icon, the Headless Horseman, in a race through the dark, virgin forest of colonial America. Irving's tale, however, is whimsical and reads more as a comedy than a true Gothic.

In both Brown's novel and Irving's short story, supernatural elements are, in the end, proven to be misinterpreted natural effects produced by evil men. Not so in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown." Here we have an American Gothic effort with obviously supernatural forces at work in an unmistakably American setting. Like Irving, Hawthorne uses the colonial frontier as the backdrop for his tale. Young Goodman Brown is first seen bidding his wife, the aptly named Faith, good-bye at the door of their home in Salem village. He explains that he must leave her on this night and sets off on

...a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude...

On the frontier, where Goodman Brown lives, there is the constant threat of Indians lurking behind the thick trees, or of wild animals that would use humans for food. But also, in the unknown wilderness, there is the possibility that one might encounter Satan himself, as Goodman Brown does that night. The very concept of Satan and witchcraft are ideas brought to the New World by white settlers, once again showing the horror of mixing old and new.

The key to understanding the American Gothic at Hawthorne's time and, in many cases, until fairly recently, is knowing that the evil waits where civilization has not yet gone. As Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft would later say, fear of the unknown is the strongest emotion. Therefore, in American Gothic fiction, terror always was out there, beyond the frontier, waiting to be conquered by the brave citizens of a nation made up of pioneers.

Poe and Urban America

Edgar Allan Poe and Gothicism fit like hand and glove. Called the father of the American short story, Poe utilizes elements previously used by both Brown and Hawthorne to create a style that is uniquely his own. Often even more pessimistic in tone than Hawthorne, Poe deals in darker, more claustrophobic settings and is one of the first American writers to use a new Gothic landscape—the crumbling despair of urban America. Poe does not send his characters into the untamed forest, but often confines them to cities where the buildings suffering from urban decay are more like the rotting castles of Europe.

Critic Fred Botting points out that Gothic fiction in both America and England was changing during this time.

Domestic, industrial and urban contexts and aberrant individuals provided the loci for mystery and terror. Haunting pasts were the ghosts of family transgression and guilty concealment; the dark alleyways of cities were the gloomy forests and subterranean (sic) labyrinths; criminals were the new villains, cunning, corrupt but thoroughly human ... Traditional Gothic traces were strongest in representations of scientific innovation, being associated with alchemy and mystic powers.

Like Brown, but to a higher degree, Poe utilizes the human mind for many of his settings. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the room, the house, the city where the madman commits his crime does not matter. We see the house, the bed and the rest, as the narrator kills the man with the "evil eye," but the reader is firmly fixed in the mind of the lunatic. By the time the killer confesses his crime, the reader is so overwhelmed by the claustrophobic confines of the madman's thoughts he is grateful the tale is at an end and he can escape.

In other Gothic stories, Poe embraces and redefines physical settings. In his only novel-length work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe globalizes the Gothic environment, taking elements of the decaying castle and setting them on the high sea as Pym travels to the South Pole. As Neil Barron suggests, Poe's restructuring of the Gothic tale would inspire later authors such as Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad to reset the Gothic from castles and monasteries to rivers and the open sea, where travelers constantly must face the unknown.

In the late 1930s another fantasist would make great strides in the American Gothic. Similar in many ways to the best of Poe, Lovecraft's style is often archaic, his characters lunatics, and his conflict internal. Lovecraft, sometimes called the first American science fiction writer because his tales, written at a time when man was just beginning to stretch infantile fingers toward the heavens, often dealt with "elder gods" and other evil entities that dwelt in the dark places between the stars. His characters did not travel into space, but were adept at finding an Earth-bound setting that was somehow connected to those elder ones.

In "The Colour Out of Space," readers see that when civilization spread westward, some of the land left in New England still resembled the place where Goodman Brown met his own Dark One. Lovecraft writes:

It was morning when I saw it, but shadow lurked there always. The trees grew too thickly, and their trunks were too big for any healthy New England wood. There was too much silence in the dim alleys between them, and the floor was too soft with the dank moss and mattings of infinite years of decay...

It is not that the audience overlooked this dark place in its rush westward, but that those beings who dwell in space, that new frontier we are about to jump into, has claimed a piece of our own planet and America no longer can live there.

Between them, Poe and Lovecraft are responsible for influencing nearly any piece of American Gothic, and perhaps any Gothic literature worldwide, from the mid-nineteenth century until today. Biographies and interviews of other writers in the field show without a doubt that these two men had a profound effect on the genre. However, neither Poe nor Lovecraft delved much into the realm of longer fictions; both held their tales to the form of the short story, which was the most popular form for the genre at their time. As the short fiction form faded somewhat in popularity and the horror novel gained, America began to see longer and more detailed images of Gothicism.

American Horror Novels Come of Age

For instance, Shirley Jackson's masterful The Haunting of Hill House takes us, like Poe did, into the mind of the tormented lead character. As lead character Eleanor joins a team of psychic investigators who are studying Hill House, we learn much about her past life of repression and kinetic activity because we see with her eyes and think with her thoughts. Because we are grounded in Eleanor's mind, it is not so hard to accept Hill House as Eleanor does at the book's end.

The physical setting of The Haunting of Hill House is uniquely American, as Hill House is the new Americanized version of the European castle in a way that Brown could not have envisioned when he wrote Wieland. The first paragraph of the novel tells us all we need to know about the house:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there walked alone.

Like Hill House, Eleanor is "not sane." The floors of her mind are not firm and the doors do not often shut so neatly. When they do shut, it is disastrous to open them.

Following The Haunting of Hill House we see horror move into our own homes. No longer is the evil entity something that must live in the crumbling castle, the unexplored wilderness, or even the deserted mansion where children throw stones and run away. It is now in our homes, our beds, and more than ever, in our minds, as evidenced by Eleanor's severe narcissism.

This theme is very evident in a later haunted house novel, Anne Rivers Siddons' The House Next Door. As Stephen King would later say in analyzing the house in this book:

This is no gothic manse covered with drifting tatters of fog off the moor; there are no battlements, no moats, not even a widow's walk. . . . Whoever heard of such things in suburban Atlanta, anyway? When the story opens, the haunted house hasn't even been built.

Whereas many dwelling places in the traditional Gothic hold (and reveal) old family secrets, the house in Siddons' book works on the minds of the three families who consecutively occupy the home, bringing out their darkest desires, causing death and, maybe more important in Southern life, public shame.

The theme of evil residing in the oldest places continues in Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, which is set in an East Coast (Manhattan) brownstone that is "...old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail..." More importantly, the apartment house is an extension of Rosemary's repressed Catholic childhood. As a child, she lived in the closed environment of Catholic school, but now, as an adult, she considers herself agnostic as well as grown up. The apartment building and its inhabitants soon close around Rosemary and form a new society where she must once again take an assigned role.

Vietnam, Watergate and Beyond

Following in the success of Rosemary's Baby came The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Often seen as a story about a little girl possessed by the devil, The Exorcist is actually a story about the internal struggle of a Catholic priest, Damien Karras. On the one hand, Karras represents the old European institutional religion, but he also is a priest of the newer religion called psychiatry, once again combining the ‘Gothic novel" concept of "old new."

The external setting here is interesting because now the horror has invaded our nation's capital city, "...the house was a rental. Brooding. Tight. A brick colonial gripped by ivy in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C...." The setting in time is important here, too, because it is during the period when the American population was losing its faith in its government due to the Vietnam conflict and the Watergate scandal. Thus, it is easy to believe the devil had moved from the forests to our capital.

In 1977 Stephen King published his third novel, The Shining, and cemented his place as a major force in American Gothic fiction. In his previous novel, Salem's Lot, King had explored the idea that an evil place would draw evil unto itself, and in The Shining he brought that idea to the forefront by sending Jack Torrence, an aspiring playwright, to the Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jack is fleeing his old life as an alcoholic schoolteacher and abusive father and husband in search of a new start in a new location in the American West.

With its myriad of rooms, long, empty corridors, history of murder and perversion and its abundance of ghosts, the Overlook Hotel is the American setting most similar to the Medieval European castle. In the hotel basement, which, with its furnaces resembling the instruments of torture so often housed in the dungeons of castles, Jack finds a written history of the Overlook that serves as his first link to the spirits and evil of the place.

The setting here is one of isolation. As winter snows down telephone lines and block roads, Jack and his family are trapped with the ghosts of the Overlook. Civilization is as far from the Torrences as it was from Goodman Brown; we are once again alone in the wilderness, even if we have the conveniences of a modern hotel at our disposal. Like the beating of the tell-tale heart, Jack cannot withstand the evil forces of the hotel; the walls of his mind move closer together and the hotel seems to shrink as he goes on a murderous rampage.

Anne Rice, another Gothic writer to emerge from the political turmoil of the 1970s, published her novel Interview With the Vampire in 1976. Rice re-invented the vampire and, while doing so, made New Orleans the archetype of a haunted American city. But the tale begins in San Francisco, a point far to the west in the American landscape. Louis, the vampire, is telling the story of his life on a plantation outside New Orleans, linking the old to the new to show how we got to where we are. On the plantation, we have an oratory similar to that of Brown's Wieland, as well as the southern swamp, which provides a rural, frontier atmosphere that is reminiscent of Hawthorne's forests of the colonial northeast. Soon Rice moves us into New Orleans proper and we watch the river city grow around the vampire heroes of her tale, from a French fortress in the New World to a thriving American city. But Rice goes further into the pasts of her characters and that of the American people by having Louis and the vampire child Claudia return to Europe in search of other immortals.

When the story is finished, Louis is still in San Francisco. The journey westward for him, and for us, is complete. San Francisco is as modern as any American city, proving that civilization has spread from coast to coast. Only space, that unknowable blackness Lovecraft warned us against, remains to be conquered. That, however, is not feasible for individuals, even vampires, and so the American Gothic remains Earth-bound, leaving the terrors of space mostly to the science fiction genre.

Postmodern Gothic

As the 1980s came to an end and the 1990s dawned, a new type of Gothic writer emerged in America. These writers have no physical frontier in which to place their characters; there is no place where civilization has not gone, no place where they can point and say, "It is there, where we are not, that the evil thing lives." In Poppy Z. Brite's novel Lost Souls, America is shown to be a land of torn dreams populated by predators and prey. In one passage, she describes a dawn in an American city, "The sun came up on the Wednesday morning trash in the gutters, the butts and the cans and the gaudy, forgotten beads..." However, there is no singular setting here. Instead, Brite's vampire characters are a nomadic band of killers who cross the country in search of all sorts of perverse and deadly pleasure.

Brite's characters—one of whom is named Nothing—are products of their place and time; without morals, parental guidance, or a religious base, they are lost between the confines of America's borders, and, as they bounce from state to state, city to city and victim to victim they remain empty, searching beings living only for the moment. Where they are does not matter to them. They have nowhere to go. With no land to explore and conquer, they lack identity. There is only the black van they use to move from one place to the next.

Brite has been hailed as the first Gothic novelist of Generation X, capturing the milieu of the music and art of the modern youth culture. Though the works of King, Rice and others of their generation still top the best-seller lists, authors of Brite's generation are getting a foothold on the shelves of bookstores' horror sections. The new authors bring with them a culture that changes immediately, knows no frontiers other than those of cyberspace and that, in many cases, has lost all confidence in organizations of the past, thus reducing the feeling of terror once invoked by the decaying remains of ancient institutions.

Whether America and the American Gothic are truly as hopeless as Brite's characters in Lost Souls remains to be seen. It is plain, however, that the external setting of the American Gothic generally reflects the attitudes and beliefs of the characters populating the tale as well as the environment of the author. At the time of Brite's novel, for instance, good and evil had lost some definition in the minds if Westerners due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism. It will be interesting to watch the development of the American Gothic in this new century, a century in which America was shaken early by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

There are many things that could drastically alter the course of American Gothic fiction. The war on terrorism and the changes that war has brought and will bring to civil liberties is one possibility. Will the Gothic setting become bunkers or haunted sites of terrorist attacks? The continuing expansion of giant corporations is another; this, of course, brings the fear of becoming a nameless cog in the corporate machine or that of becoming unemployed and destitute as jobs are outsourced to other countries where people will work for lower wages. Will this magnify the postmodern sense of homeless terror used so well by Brite? The increasing influx of Hispanic immigrants who bring with them a strong Catholic faith could eventually alter the religious outlook of the nation. Would this bring back the old settings of church, graveyard and the unholy? Or, as space stations become more common and larger populations of humans spend increasing amounts of time in the closed populations of these man-made, unearthly worlds, perhaps the genres of horror and science fiction will overlap even more than they currently do and we will discover that Lovecraft really knew all along that horror's hearth and home is not of this world, that we only see a reflection of it here and are most in contact with it when we plumb the dark depths of our own minds.

Only time will tell. History shows us, though, that we can count on the settings of our future tales of horror being a reflection of the time in which the story was written.

Works Referenced

Badley, Linda. Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Barron, Neil. Fantasy and Horror. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

Blatty, William Peter. Exorcist. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Botting, Fred. Gothic. London: Routledge, 1996.

Brite, Poppy Z. Lost Souls. New York: Dell, 1992.

Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland. 1798. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Ellis, Markman. The History of Gothic Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1965.

———. "Young Goodman Brown." 1835 The Celestial Road and Other Stories. New York: Signet, 1963.

Irving, Washington. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories. Old Tappen, NJ: Andor, 1976.

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin, 1959.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Berkley Books, 1981.

———. Salem's Lot. New York: Signet, 1975.

———. The Shining. New York: Signet, 1977.

Lovecraft, H.P. "The Colour Out of Space." Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. New York: Del Rey, 1963.

———. Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover, 1973.

Mighall, Robert. A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell-Tale Heart." The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1985.

Rice, Anne. Interview With the Vampire. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. 1764. New York: Dover, 1966.

Watt, James. Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Copyright © 2004, Steven Wedel. All Rights Reserved.

About Steven Wedel

Steven E. Wedel is a life-long Oklahoman who grew up in Enid and now resides in Moore with his wife and four children. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma and a master’s degree in liberal studies, creative writing emphasis, from the University of Oklahoma. He has worked as a machinist, newspaper reporter, corporate writer and public relations director, among other things. Wedel is the author of Seven Days in Benevolence (Double Dragon Publishing, 2004) Murdered by Human Wolves (Scrybe Press, 2004), Shara (3F Publications, 2003), Darkscapes (Publish America, 2002) and other works. Call to the Hunt, a collection of werewolf stories, will be available from Scrybe Press in the near future. Wedel has published numerous pieces of short fiction, several how-to articles for writers and has taught a course in horror writing at Moore Norman Technology Center. Visit him online at


Sep 27, 21:16 by John Frost
Discussion of Steven's study of the history of horror.

(To read the article itself, click here.)
Sep 29, 07:39 by Adrian Simmons
Good article. I don't even like horror stories, and I thought this article rocked.

For reasons I cannot fully explain, I've always avoided Poppy Z. Brite's work. In the essay, her work sounds a lot like 'Near Dark'- a classic vampire movie of the 80s.

Oct 2, 16:10 by Steven Wedel
Glad you liked it, Goblin. Hmm. Brite and "Near Dark." Similar concept in some ways, but Brite's book really didn't have an upbeat ending like in the movie and it seemed more ... depraved. There are no taboos in a Brite story.

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