(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)
To understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel. We must go back beyond the builders putting the capstone on Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, and on past the last lick of paint on the iced cake of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House; back again another six hundred years past the rap of the stone-mason’s hammer on the cathedral at Reims, in order to finally alight on a promontory above the city of Rome in 410 A.D. The city is on fire. There are bodies in the streets and barbarians at the gates. Pope Innocent I, hedging his bets, has consented to a little pagan worship that is being undertaken in private. Over in Bethlehem, St Jerome hears that Rome has fallen. “The city which had taken the whole world,” he writes, “was itself taken.” The old order—of decency and lawfulness meted out with repressive colonial cruelty—has gone. The Goths have taken the Forum.
The term gothic was first used as an insult, and writers of the genre have always had a reckless disregard for either praise or blame. At first, however, the insult was leveled not at a work of literature, but at the brutally ornate architecture of gargoyles and buttresses which distinguish the great cathedrals of the medieval age. During the renaissance, Giorgio Vasari—an Italian scholar with a taste for the white facades and polite proportions of Classical architecture—found himself within a vaulted cathedral, and was appalled. It was, he said, all confusion and disorder, a “deformed malediction” that “polluted the world.” It was as barbarous an act of social and aesthetic rebellion as the work of the Germanic tribes that tore down the last of the Roman Empire. It was, in fact, Gothic.