The Gothic Bluebook: Terrifying the Masses

While reading Franz J. Potter’s book The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800-1835 Exhuming the Trade (2005), I recently stumbled upon the new-to-me concept of a Gothic bluebook. As far as I can tell it is a precursor to the now infamous penny dreadful of the Victorian era.

Generally, between 36 and 72 pages long, and (of course) distinguishable by their flimsy blue covers, these books were cheaper than novels and found their way into the hands of the working class—who also wanted to read plots concerned with the horrible and terrifying but couldn't afford to buy novels or pay to participate in circulating libraries.

Originally, it was thought that bluebooks were poor copies or abridged versions of famous works including Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole, Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe, and The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis. This created a hierarchy among Gothic fiction: novels held literary status (they were longer, often included poetry and philosophy) and bluebooks were cheap renditions that stripped any intellectual 'value' of the original texts and reinforced the view that—on the whole—Gothic literature was for 'uncultured', 'uneducated' people who simply wanted to be thrilled by reading, not educated by it.


Of course, Gothic literature is known for its repeated use of common tropes. Deceased parents, land ownership, secluded houses, crumbling castles, sublime nature—just to name a few! So, while some of the bluebooks might have been simplified versions of known novels, there is a lot of room for repetition in the Gothic genre.

A closer look at the content of the bluebooks that still survive demonstrates that there were writers who did created original content, “from the first appearance of a werewolf to early instances of science fiction” (Potter 40). And there were more bluebooks published than Gothic novels between 1800 and 1825, meaning that the bluebook market continued to rise even as interest in Gothic novels decreased. Research indicates that it is difficult to concretely say how many bluebooks were in the market, given the cheap production, high circulation, and often anonymous authors.


While we may never know the extent that these Gothic bluebooks permeated English culture, those that remain certainly add to the English Gothic literary tradition.


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