“The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body; and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fiber of my frame.” – “The Black Cat,” Edgar Allan Poe
When you think of fantasy stories, you often think of dragons, fairies, magic and new worlds. Fantasy, however, encompasses a wide array of sub-genres, such as paranormal, high fantasy or even many dystopian stories. One genre that is deeply embedded in American classical literature is gothic.
Gothic stories began in the late 1700s and were particularly popular in Europe in their beginnings. Writers such as Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe helped to define the genre. Here in America, Edgar Allan Poe brought the genre to the public, with his works still regarded as the first and most prominent in American horror.
Gothic can cover any style, from horror to romance, though the former is, by far, the most popular. It’s a very exclusive genre, known for its description of dark, aged buildings and dreary scenery. Gothic horror stories often have a supernatural element. Most often, the theme also deals with inner turmoil, especially focusing on a character’s descent into madness. The best examples to find this are, not just Edgar Allan Poe (though, when in doubt, always start with Poe), but H.P. Lovecraft and his work, The Call of Cthulhu.
While it seems like these stories are far from relevant anymore, many horror and thriller writers—including Stephen King—use tried and true elements perfected from hundreds of years of gothic storytelling styles. So what makes a great gothic story and what can you use to write one? Here are five tips for gothic novels.
- It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
The setting is everything in a gothic novel. It’s important to know that, even though the stories started cropping up around the late 1700s, the term ‘Gothic’ is much, much older. It dates back to the 4th century, A.D. with the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, the original Germanic tribes. Known for their beautiful and intricate architecture, they fascinated the later world, inspiring darker stories involving old stone castles and mysterious atmospheres. It’s always helpful to read some of the classical gothic writers to get an idea about the descriptions for the settings.
There’s also a sub-sub-genre referred to as, “southern gothic”. These stories take place, as you would be led to believe, in the South, usually around a very secluded area, such as a swamp or very small town. “The Southern Vampire Mysteries”, the series of books by Charlaine Harris that later inspired the television series, True Blood, is an example of this style. The castles or large Victorian mansions are traded for former plantation homes or homes built on cursed lands. There are often supernatural entities that are tied to the history of slavery or the original, indigenous people. These stories are well-researched, incorporating the history of that area with the happenings of the story. It makes for a fantastic (though often depressing) story to tell but be prepared to research everything about the location in which you are writing about. If you aren’t familiar with the American South, you’ll want to research everything from culture to wildlife to seasonal climate.
The atmosphere in most gothic stories is almost always dark, gloomy, with little description of the details around the characters. There’s an important reason for this: the gothic stories gave way to modern horror stories, and the focus was always on the characters. Keeping the setting dimly lit is a great way to build mystery and tension.
- Something Supernatural is Usually Present
During the Victorian era, a curious fascination with the occult rose among the upper classes. Tarot, Ouija boards, runes and astrology were all the rage. As this is when the popularity of the gothic story was hitting its peak, these elements often found their way into the stories. Possession, witchcraft, ancient spells and other mind-altering magic were usually the external cause of the character’s struggles. If you’re trying to write a modern equivalent of these masterpieces, I would suggest learning about the Victorian era divination techniques, such as seances and mediums. Omens—visions and dreams that foretell of an impending event—are also a common theme in gothic literature.
- The Internal Struggle
Whether or not you choose to incorporate a supernatural to plague your character in the external world, there is most often an internal struggle going on, as well. Characterized by loss of self, terror, violence and an inability to control one’s actions, this struggle is often as gripping to the reader as it is the character. In “The Black Cat”, Edgar Allan Poe describes a man that starts by explaining what a kind and gentle soul he used to be, particularly describing his fondness for pets and a preference for his black cat, Pluto. As the story progresses, we see the character, who develops a drinking problem, start to slowly become violent, first toward his wife and his other pets, and then eventually toward his beloved Pluto. When you read the story, not only do you see the progression that will make your stomach turn (to put it delicately), but you’ll also feel the character’s fear and panic, his rage and his hopelessness.
The internal struggle is a key aspect of the gothic novel. It’s a shift in an otherwise sane, rational person, to a place where they cannot trust themselves or their senses. It is a betrayal of oneself and the struggle highlights the fear and misunderstanding of “madness” back in the days before we had an adequate grasp of mental illness. Presently, if you would like to use the same elements, it’s possible to study the effects of illness on people and how they might be affected now. If you go this route do not spare any moment researching. Illnesses are very real and have a very tangible impact on people, and the last thing you ever want to do is misrepresent such a thing that we still have a social stigma regarding for the sake of making your character or story “interesting”. My advice is to only go this route if you have experience with the illness yourself or if you know of anybody with the illness that is willing to give you advice and critique on the character’s actions from beginning to end.
- The Religious Aspect
There were often points in many gothic novels that religion—or especially clergy—played a role. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, religious items such as a crucifix are dangerous to Dracula. The tie between the Victorian religious dominance and the occult were often very strong in gothic literature.
As we’ve touched on in previous points, the physical description of the setting is not always explained in detail, but the internal struggle of the character nearly always takes center stage. Emotion is an important theme in gothic literature. As most things Victorian, the general attitude toward gender was often unforgiving and strict; women were seen as the emotional sex, often being dismissed as “hysterical” when upset. Men were regarded as calm and in control of their emotions. Many stories often see this latter point disregarded, creating, at the time, a paradox in which a man could not behave appropriately in polite society.
Nowadays, we understand that men and women can experience strong emotions, and it’s probably just because we’re humans capable of doing so. That does not stop many people—both men and women—from trying to always mask their emotions to appear in control of everything around them. These people often become frustrated and flustered when they find that their emotions are finally becoming too overwhelming to rein in anymore. It’s an angle that can be used to create the same disconnection and terror without implying any superiority or inferiority of any gender.
The gothic genre is one that takes a lot of research, due to finding its origins in a time that little was known about many things that have since been found to not only be based on inaccurate knowledge but also based in actions that may cause harm to groups of people. It’s because of this that this genre requires very careful research and thought. With that said, this is the genre that brought us the horror novels, and revisiting the classics may help inspire your story, especially if horror is the theme you’re aiming for.
Are there any gothic writers you’re particularly fond of? Which gothic stories do you find inspiring? Leave your responses in the comments below.