Elsa J. Radcliffe – Gothic Novels of the Twentieth Century (1979)

Review by Justin Tate

In the foreword, Radcliffe writes: “This bibliography may be of use some day in the distant future to scholars who, from my observations, appear to be interested in this type of literature only in retrospect, when it achieves the distinction of antiquity, if nothing more.”

These are prophetic words. At long last, we have reached that “distant future” where scholars are intrigued by the literary merit of paperback gothic fiction. Radcliffe’s bibliography catalogs pseudonyms, personal reviews and publishing information for nearly 2,000 gothic titles—a majority printed during the golden revival of the 1960s through mid-1970s. For those obsessed with reading, researching and writing about these novels, it is hard to imagine not having Radcliffe’s book on the shelf.

Part of Radcliffe’s mission, beyond identifying all the books marketed as gothic, is to help sift out books which masquerade as gothic. Publishers regularly placed “gothic cover art” (for example, a woman running from a house) on generic romances and mysteries to sell more copies. Such tactics infuriated genre fans like Radcliffe. Using an “A” through “F” rating system, she reserves some of her most scathing reviewers for novels which stray too far from specific tropes of gothic fiction.

As for the formula, Radcliffe offers her perspective on the not-so-secret recipe. To be a “true” gothic, she writes, the plot must contain:

1. The supernatural
2. A quest or a wrong to be righted
3. A setting that includes an old dwelling, traditionally a castle
4. A fantasy of wealth suddenly acquired, or inheritance
5. Mystery, suspense and intrigue
6. A fantasy of romantic love in some form, often including a love-hate, trust-fear ambivalence between men and women
7. Romanticism of the past and an historical setting—no longer necessarily medieval, but of a generation past or more
8. Confrontations between the forces of Good and Evil

It’s a good list, and any author looking to revive this genre would be wise to write it down.

Very, very few titles receive her “A” grade. Generally speaking, a “B” is the best score most novels can hope for. Even a “C” is something of an honor.

She is often disappointed by books affiliated with high expectations. Regarding Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, for instance, she compares it to expecting crème brûlée and receiving pudding. She goes on to argue that Rebecca is actually “romantic suspense” and not truly gothic.

She’s not entirely a snob, though. A glowing “Holy Cow!” is used to describe Richard Matheson’s classic Hell House (“A” rating). She is also kind to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, noting that it is “probably the most disturbing ghost story I have ever read. It’s a beaut!” (only a “B” rating, however).

Feminist overtones receive higher scores. She praises Marie Corelli’s The Secret Power as a “bonanza of feminist ammunition” and gives it an “A”.

Strong horror elements generally lower her opinion. She didn’t score Stephen King’s 1974 novel Carrie, but did note that it’s a “sensationalist product of the current fad for disaster stories…obviously written with one eye to the film industry. I found the book totally unenjoyable.”

William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) comes out more favorably, with a “B” rating, but only tepid praise. She calls it “fairly well-written” and “probably the least offensive of the child-demon-type tales.”

While her reviews of these now-classics are amusing, it’s Radcliffe’s commentary on the obscure, out-of-print and difficult-to-find titles that are most significant to gothic research. To turn any random page is to find dozens of fascinating books which have been sadly forgotten.

As for the bibliography itself, she arranges it beautifully by author’s last name. One of her crowning achievements is her diligence to sleuthing pseudonyms. As was fashionable at the time, some authors wrote under dozens of pen names. Hunting down a particular author’s complete works is significantly easier with this list. In the back, she also includes an index arranged by title. Handy, indeed.


Little is known about Elsa Jean Radcliffe (1935-2011), however her obituary shows that she was not an academic in the traditional sense. She was, in fact, a registered nurse with a fondness for gardening. Her super fandom of gothic literature led her to become a scholar, however, and this book is also mentioned in her obituary.

We do know that she frequented public libraries in rural Pennsylvania and felt indebted to the interlibrary loan department for her research. She must’ve spent innumerable hours in the library creating this bibliography. Even with Google, it is a daunting task to find the multitudes of gothic romances published during the ’60s and ’70s. Many appeared on paperback spinners for a few weeks, then instantly went out-of-print to make room for new titles. Researching all this with merely a card catalog seems like an insurmountable task. But she got it done, and we are all indebted to her efforts.

Obituary taken from the newspaper Public Opinion in Chambersburg, PA. Dated 01 Feb 2011, Tue, Page 4.

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