Gothic fiction, where death and romance are intrinsically linked, is one of the most enduring and consistently popular genres. It is said to derive from Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, and flourished in the Victorian era, but remains one of the cornerstones of literature, largely due to its emotional and intellectual appeal. More recent examples might be The Shining by Stephen King and Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews, published in 1977 and 1979 respectively.
Gothic fiction often appears under the horror banner but, though there are often elements like restless spirits, ancient curses, and haunted houses, there is usually very little in the way of blood and gore or jump scares. Rather, gothic fiction tends to be more weighty and atmospheric. The power of suggestion comes to the fore and, often, things are hinted at rather than explicitly described, meaning a lot is left open to interpretation and the reader has a bit more work to do.
Unlike other genres, the setting in Gothic fiction is so important that it is often considered a character in itself. While not unheard of for stories to be set in the modern day, it is far more common for them to take place a century or more in the past. This technique serves several purposes. It creates a sense of disassociation within the reader, and helps promote a dark, creepy feel. Setting your story in the distant past also negates most forms of technology, which could have a detrimental effect on your story, though some writers use the juxtaposition between new and old to great effect. For example, in his classic novel Dracula, Bram Stoker referenced trains and typewriters (the height of technology at the time) yet the bulk of the story occurs in a crumbling, centuries-old castle. It just wouldn’t be as much fun if your hero or heroine could just post a ‘help me’ plea on Facebook at the first sign of trouble!
In Gothic fiction, many of the characters adhere to certain stereotypes. On the surface, this may seem unimaginative and restrictive, and there is plenty of genre-busting fiction out there that explodes such tropes but, generally, the characters form a framework around which you can build your story. Of course, you first need a hero. He or she might be flawed, but they should be relatable and fundamentally virtuous. Doctor Frankenstein in Mary Shelly’s famed novel is a perfect example because, although he inadvertently created a monster, he was actually trying to do something good.
Every hero needs a villain, someone whose intentions are undeniably evil. Their motivations are usually centered around personal gain, and they should offer a clear and present threat. Consciously or sub-consciously, the villain is often representative of wider cultural fears of the time, such as the demonization of outside forces in the form of foreigners or the perceived threat to the upper classes posed by the ‘great unwashed’ masses.
Certain tropes are considered divisive, their very existence provoking discussion and helping keep Gothic fiction relevant. For example, no Gothic tale would be complete without a ‘damsel in distress,’ which some see as a dated and borderline misogynistic concept. This assumption in itself is somewhat disingenuous when one considers how many of these so-called victims grow as the story progresses, until eventually finding the courage, strength, and means to defeat the evil persecuting them. These victories usually come against wicked, overbearing, male antagonists, thereby creating a classic battle of the sexes scenario. In this context, many Gothic tales become rich tapestries of transformation and rebirth, rather than simple tales of strife and oppression with Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre standing out as a prime example.
Maintaining an air of gloom and impending terror throughout your story is vital. One way this can be achieved is by incorporating a high level of detail. Describe the crumbling façade of a building, a long, dusty corridor, or the deep lines on someone’s face, all of which can be used as metaphors. Also, try to focus on what your characters are feeling rather than simply relating their actions, which can quickly become stilted. Don’t be afraid to go overboard on emotional outbursts like shrieking, yelling, or weeping.
Unrequited or forbidden love is another common theme, and is often used in conjunction with other elements such as redemption, retribution, family secrets, and lies. The more of these plot points you can encompass, while still keeping your story focused, and moving toward a satisfying climax, the better.
And, of course, in the course of the story, your characters should embark on a voyage of discovery, and ultimately learn something about themselves, all the while taking your readers with them.
Chris Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being a collection of short fiction called X4.
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