The phenomenon of Gothic fiction is of considerable cultural importance. It is not often that a literature of terror attains the popularity which this fiction attained, and it is remarkable that such a literature should be able, as Gothic has been, to dominate a culture’s imagery of fear for a century and a half after its ostensible supersession. Ostensible, because the Gothic has in fact lived on: through the nineteenth century in the works of Dickens, Poe, Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker, and into the twentieth in the short stories and novels of, for instance, Wells, Conan Doyle and Peake, and, above all, in the horror film. A thorough interrogation of Gothic would need to take account of its history and of its survival, and this is a massive topic: (1) what I intend to do here is rather to examine a group of key texts written between 1764 and 1797 and to discuss the social relations visible within them. I do not mean to demonstrate social themes or ideas: the notion that Gothic is a form of escapism has long since been exploded. (2) My concern is not with content but with literary and social role: we know now that Gothic is not unconcerned with society, but to understand its meaning and purpose we have to move beyond the conventional categories, according to which Gothic simply provides comment on religious practices, sexual manners, social hypocrisy. We need rather to take seriously the fact that Gothic is a distinctive fictional mode, (3) quite different from realistic or naturalistic modes; although the characteristics of this mode are, of course, largely determined by the social problems with which Gothic tries to deal, and may indeed be defined as a series of strategies for dealing with tabooed material. Of necessity these strategies are partly revelatory and partly evasive, and they are also deeply fissured by class and social relations. But the strategies cannot be isolated purely within the texts: in so far as the texts are sustained acts of communication, they need to be looked at as parts of a web of social relations, in which author, narrator, characters and reader all play a part. Furthermore, Gothic is deeply concerned with fantasy, and this also plays an important role within this web of relations: that is to say, it has always been known that Gothic attends to a set of problems concerning relations between bourgeoisie and aristocracy, but what 104also needs to be grasped is that the portrayal of this relation which Gothic offers is a fantasy one, and that the roles which the writers enjoin us to adopt may bear a relation to social reality which is at best tangential. (4) I shall begin with some prefatory remarks on ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764), and then move on to consider ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794), ‘The Monk’ (1795) and ‘The Italian’ (1797).