As Dr Sorcha Ní Fhlainn, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and founding member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, explains: “You see something in the shadows – that’s more disturbing, in a way, than someone with an axe. There’s a sense of the threat of the unknown, or the threat of the unquantifiable, and that’s what’s really unsettling and worrying.” For her, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is hard to beat as a quintessential Gothic text. “It works really, really well because it has within it a central character who is rarely glimpsed but pops up at the margins. The novel holds so much – issues around national identity, around women and sexuality – but it’s like a doughnut, there’s a hole in the narrative,” she says.
The Gothic is an intensely psychological form. In the hands of the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, its crumbling architectural features become props in an exploration of fear and other intense mental states. It was the psychological aspects of the gothic that appealed to the writer Sarah Hilary as a student. “I never equated gothic with lace veils and old houses, or coffins and grave-robbers,” she recalls. “The books I studied were about the awful things human beings do to one another, and the terrible price we pay for vanity, or greed, or lust.”
As a novelist, she’s put its tropes to good use. Her forthcoming psychological thriller, a modern twist on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca entitled Fragile (Pan Macmillan), begins with a description of a London house that rivals any remote monastery or dense forest for sheer creepiness. There’s a spiral staircase, a scent of neglect, “the stifled chill of a museum”. It even seems to shiver as the novel’s narrator steps inside. Yet all of this, like the ghost in Never Be Broken, the most recent instalment of her award-winning Marnie Rome crime series, is a manifestation of psychological forces.