Gothic fiction, a.k.a. Gothic Horror, is a hard genre to do well because of how deeply rooted in Western European (and particularly British) realities of the late Enlightenment and early modernity it was. Take for instance, the "horror" aspect: Many things that its contemporary readers considered horrifying about Gothic fiction are pretty quaint by today's standards — largely because they have since become part of our daily lives. On the other hand, a lot of motifs and themes of the Gothic literature remain strangely relevant to us today, so to help you grasp the fundamentals of its enduring appeal, here is a guide for writing it.
See also the Index of Gothic Horror Tropes.
Some Literary TheoryIn her 1980 book The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Sedgwick argued that a single idea underlies all tropes, themes, and motifs of Gothic fiction: that of the Self being dramatically sundered from something that it normally has access to, such as its own past, family, a lover, or even life itself (literally or metaphorically). While the triad of the Self, an object of desire, and something separating them is a common Conflict setup, what makes it essentially Gothic is that the connection the Self shared with what it had lost was proper, necessary, and natural. No longer capable of making this connection, Gothic characters go to dangerous, transgressive, and violent extremes to restore their original oneness, often realizing the futility of their actions in the end. Tyler R. Tichelaar dubbed these figures "Gothic wanderers" and traced their literary origins to John Milton's Paradise Lost, specifically to Satan, Adam, and Eve longing to return to Eden after being cast out.
Similarly, Anne Williams in her 1995 book The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic observes that the "Gothic is... pervasively organized around anxieties about boundaries (and boundary transgressions)". Boundaries in the Gothic, whether moral, social, natural, or metaphysical, are often blurred and things are rarely as clear cut as they seem, so transgression is used, paradoxically, to reestablish and to reinforce them by showcasing its horrific consequences. While it may appear that the Gothic championed conservative values, most historical Gothic authors were, even more paradoxically, very progressive individuals during their time, so Gothic fiction's stance on boundaries and transgression is ultimately ambivalent.
Multiple scholars of literature have observed that Gothic fiction surged during times of sociopolitical crises and exposed contemporary anxieties of the educated (British) middle class. These anxieties centered on the erosion of traditional social institutes like family, gender roles, religion, royalty and nobility, as well as on new threats like accelerating urbanization, unchecked scientific experimentation, and growth of the poor and working classes. Feminist scholars in particular have put forth countless interpretations of the Gothic as an artistic expression of the conflict between the patriarchal, conservative order and the emerging individualism and female empowerment.
- Transgression: Like much of Romanticism, Gothic fiction is firmly rooted in the presupposition of a "natural" order of things both in the universe and in the society and concerns rebellion against said order and/or the authority imposing it. As romanticism's Darker and Edgier side, however, the Gothic refuses to celebrate this rebellion and instead frames it as a transgression, exploring its consequences for both the perpetrator and innocent victims. Transgression against natural order tends to be epic in scope (think Dr. Frankenstein trying and failing to play God), while transgression against (conservative, patriarchal) social order tends to be more personal (think Emily St. Aubert repeatedly defying her father and Count Montoni) — more on them in the Choices section. Either way, Gothic "horror" is always about the human cost of transgression, rather than just being scary.
- Thicker Than Water: Pretty much every Gothic story is a story about family, specifically about losing it and, if the author feels generous, finding it again. Family secrets, homes, lost lineages, inheritance, primogeniture, marriage, and blood all play crucial roles, since the Gothic, like Romanticism at large, was very concerned with the weakening of the family unit by the advent of modernity (and particularly by The French Revolution, which spurred the first British Gothic boom in the 1790s), and sought to validate and to reinvent it.
- Romance: Romantic love is an important part of the Gothic, but the "romantic paradigm"note is almost always gleefully subverted. In The Castle of Otranto, true love is torn apart by death and the surviving lover has to marry another, while in The Monk, Ambrosio's twisted desire for Antonia is the source of his most heinous transgressions. In "The Raven", the narrator is driven mad by the clash of Eros (his love for Lenore) and Thanatos (death taking her away), whereas in Frankenstein, Victor and Elizabeth's doomed relationship only adds to the cost of his transgression. A major exception is the "Gothic romance" subgenre, which lets love prevail in the end, but it is still subversive in showing the heroine as a subject, rather than an object in the romantic relationship.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Gothic fiction often introduces us to its characters long after they have been displaced them from some initial Edenic state of bliss, to which they now long to return by atoning (if it was their own transgression against order and authority that displaced them) or by sticking to their virtues until the end (if they are a victim of another's transgression). Their alienation from family and society forces them to wander (literally or metaphysically) in search of their lost Eden, tormented both internally and extenally, by dark prophecies, revenge, unquiet dead, etc.
- Byronic Hero: A specific variant of the Gothic wanderer, expies of Lord Byron — "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" — are popular in Gothic fiction as both protagonists and villains. In short, if your main character isn't a Byronic hero(ine), then your antagonist should probably be one.
- Secret oaths and forbidden knowledge: These two tropes usually go hand in hand in Gothic fiction. The protagonists are often privy to knowledge they are not supposed to have (usually relating to their or another's transgression), but are bound by honor not to disclose it, resulting in even deeper alienation. This can be something personal, like Aubrey's promise to keep Lord Ruthven's nature secret, or something grand, like St. Leon learning the Rosicrucian secret of eternal life and having to Walk the Earth to avoid people finding out about it.
- Supernatural: Phenomena unexplainable to a rational mind (particularly ghosts, curses, prophecies, and generic dark powers) are a staple in Gothic fiction, whether they are real in-story or not (see Choices, Choices below). Even when they are, however, the supernatural is never the focus of the story, but a device to embellish human corruption and moral flaws, and is therefore associated primarily with villains and transgressors.
- Feminine/comedic and masculine/tragic Gothic are two distinct subgenres first identified by the feminist scholars Kate Ferguson Ellis and Eugenia DeLamotte and further studied by Anne Williams:
- Feminine Gothic is typically written by female authorsnote and its (female) protagonist typically transgresses by attaining some knowledge forbidden to her by an authority (echoing Milton's Eve and, even more relevantly, Psyche violating Eros' trust) in pursuit of romantic love. Her subsequent wandering usually ends in a happy marriagenote , restoring her personal Eden and suggesting that transgression may be a good thing if done for the right reasons. Stylistically, feminine Gothic typically features a single omniscient third-person narrative voice.
- Masculine Gothic, on the other hand, starkly condemns its (male) protagonist's transgression and rarely, if ever, has a happy ending for him. Like Miltonian Satan, the protagonist tries and fails to be The Hero and is forced to wander for the rest of his life, longing in vain to return to Eden, although in later Victorian Gothic, he is at least given a chance to redeem himself before he dies. Stylistically, masculine Gothic is usually told in first person by multiple disjoint narrative voices and perspectives.
- In addition to feminine vs. masculine, which are mainly distinguished in the British Gothic, there have been several subgenres of Gothic fiction that arose in other parts of the world:
- Germany developed no less than three Gothic subgenres: The Schauerroman (shudder novel), which is the most similar to a conventional Gothic novel but is considerably more cynical and typically focuses on necromancy and Secret Societies; the Räuberroman (robber novel), which focuses on the life and deeds of outlaws; and the Ritteroman (chivalry novel), which focuses on a knight or a soldier finding himself dealing with magic, secret tribunals, and other Gothic elements.
- The Gothic (particularly Ann Radcliffe's) was hugely popular in Imperial Russia, with the first original Russian Gothic novel, The Island of Bornholm, published by Nikolay Karamzin in 1794 (same year as The Mysteries of Udolpho). The king of Russian Gothic, however, was Nikolai Gogol, who wrote several Gothic short stories based on the Cossack lifestyle, Ukrainian folklore, and Orthodox Christianity in the early 1830s, including "St. John's Eve", "A Terrible Vengeance", "The Portrait", and "Viy".
- The French Gothic tradition largely largely echewed the supernatural in favor of exploring the darker sides of humanity, exemplified by works from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, through The Count of Monte Cristo, to The Phantom of the Opera.
- The most famous regional subgenre, however, is most likely the American Southern Gothic. A mixture of a classical Gothic novel and social commentary, the Southern Gothic novel uses the macabre to explore the values, cultural character, and social issues of the American South rather than just for the sake of suspense or exploring the transgression of one character.
- Southern Gothic got its own offshoot in the form of Southern Ontario Gothic, in which certain Canadian authors transposed the themes of Southern Gothic to the very different social conditions of Toronto and its surrounding region.
- Horror vs. Terror: A distinction first described by Ann Radcliffe in On the Supernatural in Poetry, terror is the dread and suspense you feel before a horrifying experiencenote , while horror is the feeling of revulsion and abjection you get after itnote ; another way to put it is that terror is the fear of what might be, while horror is the fear of what is. Terror is associated more with the feminine Gothic, whose heroines must repeatedly face their own fears (often discovering them to be overblown), while horror is more of a masculine Gothic thing, whose protagonists are traumatized by their confrontation with mortality, irrationality, and corruption (often expressed in supernatural events). Radcliffe argued that terror is the prime source of Burkean Sublime, while horror was later strongly associated with the Uncanny by Freud (see Potential Motifs for more on the Sublime and the Uncanny). Lastly, Stephen King in Danse Macabre has introduced a third option, "revulsion" — a visceral gag-reflex, which he sees as the lowest form of scariness that relies on cheap gore instead of psychological nuance.
- With the human cost of transgression being the Central Theme of Gothic horror, the choice of a particular transgression that is the cause of your characters' downfall is crucial. Gothic horror is difficult to write because to be properly horrified, your audience has to identify with the moral and universal order your characters transgress against. Classic transgressions fall under a few overlapping categories:
- Transgression against the Divine covers rejection of God (the classical Wandering Jew archetype), blasphemy (in word and/or deed), and actual attempts at usurping divinity (which often overlaps with the next category). This transgression is best used in Christian or, alternatively, existentialist stories, unless the transgressor is a religious institution (with the Roman Catholic Church being the favorite punching bag for English authors of the Victorian era).
- Transgression against Nature covers the Scale of Scientific Sins, but primarily any tampering with the line between life, death, and undeath: extending life way past its natural limits (via alchemy, Faustian Bargain, etc.), bringing the dead back to life (overlaps with usurping divinity abovenote ), Creating Life (ditto), vampirism (in nature, living things feed on the deadnote , but vampires are the dead who feed on the living), etc.
- Transgression against family runs the gamut from marital infidelity to incest and is particularly insidious, given how important family is in the genre. On the other hand, Gothic fiction often presents the institute of primogeniture as transgressive against familynote , resulting in a number of second sons, first-born daughters, and bastards cast as sympathetic victim-villains.
- Transgression against social norms, such as class divide, gender roles, and sexual taboos. Gender role transgression is particularly prominent in the feminine Gothic, whose heroines' attempts at self-determination through honest labor are commonly met with automatic assumption of prostitution and subsequent social ostracization. Breaking sexual taboos, meanwhile, is more of a masculine Gothic thing (from The Monk to Dracula) and covers all kinds of perverse, weird, and dangerous sexuality: incest, homosexualitynote , violence, abduction, rape, necrophilia, etc.
- Finally, gambling is a special kind of evil in Gothic fiction, combining elements of all of the above in one big transgressive package. It is a transgression against the Divine because The Gambling Addict rejects the grace of God in favor of Chance; against one's family, because gambling inevitably leads to its financial impoverishment and moral ruin; and against social norms, because it allows for social advancement without birth or merit, serving as the antithesis of the Protestant work ethic prevalent among British middle class at the timenote .
- Gothic fiction is rife with beings and events outside the accepted confines of nature, as well as various omens, portents, and visions, but whether the supernatural is real in-story or merely all a "Scooby-Doo" Hoax is up to you. There are two schools in Gothic fiction regarding the supernatural: the classicnote school, originating with Horace Walpole and carrying through most of the masculine Gothic tradition, treats the supernatural as real; whereas the Radcliffenote school (whose adherents include the Brontës) tends to provide rational explanations for "supernatural" events, at most leaning towards Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundanenote . Both approaches are equally valid, because the supernatural is not the point of Gothic fiction, but merely a tool to showcase the darker sides of humanity. However, even non-supernatural stories like Jane Eyre usually have numerous mentions of folktales, ghost stories and the like.
- Additionally, location and timing vary. Some stories, like The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho and Carmilla confine their stories to a single large Building of Adventure, usually a Big Fancy Haunted House in a few days, whereas others (such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Jane Eyre) range over a wide variety of locations and occur over a period of months or years.
- Gothic "horror" is not Horror in the modern sense of Cosmic Horror, Splatter Horror, etc. It does not try to scare or to shock the audience with an external or psychological threat, but to confront us with our moral failings and corruption, while also suggesting a path to redemption. Gothic fiction is therefore unexpectedly humanistic, especially compared to the outwardly similar, but utterly nihilistic Lovecraftian horror. While you may be tempted to spice up your Gothic story with Eldritch Abominations from beyond, don't, as the two genres are inherently thematically incompatible.
- As with all rules, there are exceptions, which nonetheless proves the rule: The Eldritch Abomination in question may be somehow linked to a character's past or moral failings and can be defeated, though it's more than often an uphill battle. For example, Chaos in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow tries to force Soma into taking Dracula's place as the Dark Lord because he's the reincarnation of Dracula and Chaos is the source of Dracula's power. Soma's able to defeat him, but for the first half of the fight, he has to do so without the various souls he's collected, and it only gets harder from there. And Sutekh of the Doctor Who episode "Pyramids of Mars" (from an era of Doctor Who actually called the "Gothic Horror" era) can't be ignored by the heroes, as the Doctor shows what will happen if they just go back to 1981 without dealing with him in 1911, making him an allegory for apathy, and the Doctor ultimately defeats him after enduring a terrifying Mind Rape from him.
- A lot of classical Romantic and Gothic fiction revels in Purple Prose, which serves to underscore the sublime descriptions of nature and heightened emotional states, but occasionally goes too far in the direction of "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night". Purple prose is a divisive practice in modern times, but a certain amount of it is expected in a Gothic novel, so our best advice for you is to remain focused on using it to express character' emotions and awe of nature and not to show off your vocabulary or, heaven forbid, to distract readers from weak characterization and plot holes.
- Gothic conflicts are always personal. A Gothic villain is never an abstract Evil Overlord or a force of nature, but a powerful yet flawed human being with whom the main characters share an emotional connection and who is out to get them in particular. Many would-be Gothic stories fall flat because they fail to establish this personal relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist and miss out on its dramatic potential by veering off towards purely functional relationships and political or existential conflicts.
- Gothic imagery alone does not a Gothic story make. Setting it inside a Haunted Castle, populating it with devious tyrants, fainting maidens, and oracular ghosts, and throwing Dramatic Thunder and/or Ominous Fog in for good measure is not enough. Unless you use said imagery to explore the alienation and suffering of someone who willingly or unwillingly violated the established order of things, your story is not Gothic on any but the most surface level.
- The virginal maiden is almost always the heroine and pure of heart, but this has long since been subject to ridicule. There are alternatives—maybe your heroine is a low-born Lad-ette who isn't pure of heart at all and is in fact more than a little sinful herself?
- The clergy of the old-school gothic stories are always weak, and usually evil. Why not make the clergy an ally to the heroes?
- The genre is cluttered with broody Byronic Heroes. As with the virginal maiden, alternatives exist, including:
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment. As an offshot of Romanticism (itself a reaction to the birth of the modern world), Gothic fiction was concerned with many of the same themes and topics. When the Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Enlightenement encroached upon the mysteries of Nature by seeking a scientific rationalization for them, the Romantics responded by professing that civilization has made us sick, that only Nature can heal our bodies and souls, that the world cannot always be explained, and that Imagination, not Reason was the sole source of morality and truth. For Romantics like Blake, the Agricultural Revolution decimated their beloved countryide and exacerbated the mass exodus from it due to enclosure. The Industrial Revolution accelerated urbanization, increasing pollution and class conflict, and invented wage labor, replacing pastoral lifestyle with factories, mills, and steam power. And, of course, The French Revolution of the 1790s tore down the Good Old Ways, sending ripples of anxiety all across Europe, which contributed to the first boom of Gothic fiction in Britain — indeed, it has been observed that the Gothic flourishes during the time of religious, political, and socioeconomic crises (such as in the late 1810s, 1840s, 187090s, etc.).
- Past vs. Present: Many works of Gothic fiction deliberately juxtapose modernity and the archaic, e.g. contrasting the bustle of Victorian London with a sleepy backwater village or a crumbling Haunted Castle. The Present in the Gothic is not an evolution of the Past, but a sudden juxtaposition, a revolution, a clash. The Past itself is persistent; it erupts and deranges the Present, no matter how much the latter wants it forgotten and gone. Ghosts are one of the most enduring elements of the genre because they are the perfect metaphor for this particular view of the Past and its relationship with the Present. Another quintessentially Gothic metaphor, one for the Past repressed by the Present, is the Madwoman in the Attic. Related themes include:
- Poetic Justice: In Gothic fiction, past transgressions are inevitably requited, if not upon the transgressors themselves, then upon their progeny, however unfair that may appear to mortal judgment. Such cosmic punishment typically involves Death by Irony, insanity, a life of agony, or eternal damnation.
- Revenge: Elaborate and personal vengeance is a particularly popular expression of the past-vs.-present conflict, and the Gothic is very interested in exploring the dangers of becoming just like the ones you exact your revenge on and hardship of remaining just when exacting retribution for past transgressions and injustices. Unsurprisingly, both Hamlet and Macbeth have served as major inspirations for Gothic writers.
- Justification of transgression: Tyler Tichelaar has identified three sub-archetypes of the Gothic wanderer, associating them with the Miltonian triad of Satan, Eve, and Adam, all of whom violate the natural (read: God's) order and are forced to wander, haunted by their respective transgressions.
- The Satanic Wanderer is characterized by his Pride, which both strips him of Eden and makes him reject his punishment and any offers of atonement, — instead he seeks to reclaim it through an even greater transgression. Masculine Gothic fiction both condemns him for this and puts him up as a Promethean figure, producing a morally ambiguous Gothic villain. The Satanic Wanderer sees himself (and is often presented) as a hero in his defiance of authority, but usually fails to actually be one and only leads others astray. Unsurprisingly, there is a significant overlap between him and the Byronic Hero. Famous Satanic Wanderers include Dr. Frankenstein, Lord Ruthven, and Heathcliff.
- The Female Wanderer is both a victim of transgression and a transgressor herself. Her literary parent, Milton's Eve, is a victim of Satan's lies and of God subordinating her to Adam, so her transgression is motivated by the desire both for forbidden knowledge and for equality with man. Feminine Gothic seeks to vindicate Eve's Original Sin by arguing that transgression against inherently unjust social institutes (such as primogeniture and patriarchy) can be a good thing. Female Wanderers are typically pitted against (male) Gothic villains, who have no feminine side to them and whose excessive masculinity causes their downfall, allowing the heroine to reclaim her lost Eden they usurped from her. Famous Female Wanderers include Emily St. Aubert, Juliet Granville, and Jane Eyre.
- The Adamic Wanderer is a sympathetic transgressor, who is often both a victim and a wrongdoer, like Eve, but accepts and endures his suffering, unlike Satan. Famous examples include Reginald de St. Leon, Frankenstein's Creature, and Edward Rochester.
- Power and constraint: One of the most enduring Gothic images is the juxtaposition of the Tyrant and the Maiden, a figure of absolute power and one of perfect vulnerability — two extremes representing the limits of humanity. The Tyrant (a.k.a. the "Gothic villain") is usually male, politically or supernaturally powerful, driven by his internal desires, emotionally intense, sociable, and exhibits severe moral failings that lead to his downfall. The Maiden, meanwhile, is usually femalenote , innocent, completely vulnerable, often in distress (terrified, persecuted, fainting), dominated by powerful men, and driven by external forces against her will. The power dynamic between them is that of constraint, as the Tyrant imposes himself upon the Maiden to keep her subjugated, although later works may invoke sexual power to reverse it, with powerful women re-dominating men.
- Liminal states of all kinds:
- The line between Rationality and Madness has been explored in literature long before Gothic, but Gothic madness in particular is a fascinating cocktail of misunderstanding and prejudice. It is directly linked to violence and crime, strongly gendered (Gothic madmen typically suffer from paranoia and madwomen, from "hysteria"), and, post-Darwin, atavistic. Specifically, many late Victorians viewed madness as "slipping back" to a more primitive and irrational stage of evolution, which in the context of Victorian classism was associated with foreigners and lower classes.
- The line between Life and Death is a popular topic in early Gothic, owing to the scientific and cultural context of the Regency and Victorian eras. Frankenstein's Monster, for example, was directly inspired by Luigi Galvani's experiments with electricity and dead matter. Later Victorians were obsessed with death, from Spooky Seances to contact the deceased, to post-mortem photography, while their increased life expectancy brought about an obsession with youth and beauty, best exemplified, perhaps, by The Picture of Dorian Gray.
- The line between Man and Beast came to prominence after Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, confronting his contemporaries with the reality that they are Not So Different from apes. The resulting cultural anxiety was sublimated by the Gothic in the animal transformations of its monster-villains like Carmilla and Dracula and, perhaps in its purest form, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Note, however, that werewolves, despite their current position as "classic" Gothic monsters alongside vampires, didn't become a genre staple until The Werewolf of Paris (1933) or even The Wolf Man (1941) — decades after the Victorian era ended.
- American Gothic has a penchant for Psychological Horror elements in their stories — one or more of the characters may be forced to deal with their fears and their dwindling sanity in the face of the terrors they have to deal with, and some of the protagonists may contemplate doing heinous acts in order to survive. The best way psychology is used in a Gothic story comes from how the characters are affected by their surroundings. The Big Bad who hides in a castle might see himself as a man at war with the world or trying to protect themselves, or the bandits who roam the forests may be little more than predatory animals.
- Doubling is a ubiquitous narrative and psychological motif in Gothic fiction. While doubles of all sorts, from Creepy Twins to Doppelgangers, are uncanny thanks to our wariness of anything that is both distinct and indistinguishable, Gothic doubling goes deeper than these straightforward examples. Its two primary modes are doubling proper, when two distinct things parallel each other, and self-division, where a whole is separated in two parts. Doubling proper is often used to blur the line between the Self and the Other, exposing the anxieties caused by the weakening of the class, gender, racial, and national boundaries. Self-division, meanwhile, draws a new boundary within the previously whole, such as a gap between one's respectable facade and repressed antisocial urges, or the growing class divide of capitalist Victorian London. Both variations have also been used to explore anxieties around identity theft, e.g. in The Woman in White and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, respectively.
- The Uncanny is anything that is familiar to us but somehow off, and detailed descriptions of uncanny things are a big part of the Gothic "horror". Most commonly, the Uncanny is found in things that look human but aren't: corpses, lifelike dolls, wax figures, automata, vampires, etc.
- The Grotesque, i.e. exaggerated deformity, can be used to externalize the internal flaws and corruption, whether within individuals (a technique favored by Charles Dickens) or institutions (e.g. the gargoyles on top of every Creepy Cathedral in the Gothic). On the other hand, the grotesque can be paired with innocence to serve as a counterpoint to good-looking evil, as in Frankenstein (the Creature before it turns evil) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Quasimodo).
- The Sublime is a complex aesthetic ideal in Romantic and Gothic fiction that is most commonly attributed to Nature, but also to some particularly intense individuals. A reaction to the Enlightened aesthetic of the harmonious, balanced, and beautiful, the Gothic aesthetic is instead terrifying, overwhelming, unconventional, dangerous, and unstable, yet also somehow natural. The Sublime is meant to inspire awe of Nature and its power, as well as to assign humans our place in the world — a rather insignificant little place, but one we can transcend at a terrible price.
- Dreams. As the purest form of romanticized Imagination, dreams in Gothic fiction are often either prophetic, or erotic (or both), with a penchant for turning nightmarish. Francisco de Goya's famous etching "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters", while not intentionally Gothic, is a great depiction of Gothic dreaming.
- Animal Motifs. The Gothic often uses sinister animals to maintain a foreboding atmosphere. These are usually Old World creatures representing the wild and uncivilized aspects of Nature, such as ravens, bats, wolves, wild dogs, and black cats. Gothic animals can be made more uncanny with taxidermy, and apart from purely aesthetic uses, they are a common expression of the Beast side of the Man-Beast dichotomy of human nature.
- Empathic Environment. Weather events reflecting plot events is a staple in Gothic fiction and a form of metonymy, where something physical stands for an idea or a concept. For example, it will often start raining when characters are overcome by sadness, Ominous Fog will cover the landscape when the truth is being obscured or twisted, whereas a decisive confrontation will be underscored by a dramatic thunderstorm (which also feeds into the Sublime aesthetic and the themes of constraint and entrapment).
- Decay in all forms. Whether it is a once-great family dying out, a community long past its peak, crumbling old buildings, like a Haunted Castle, or even outright ruins, decay is one of the key expressions of the Past-Present conflict in the Gothic.
- Missing Moms. A typical Gothic mother is absent or dead, which is both a commentary on the suppression of women in the Victorian era, and a motivation for male characters to usurp maternal roles (done most blatantly in Frankenstein). If the mother is present, she will either be incapable and foolish (like Lucy's mom in Dracula), killed half-way through the story (Elvira in The Monk), or outright evil.
- Blood plays many different roles in the Gothic. It is simultaneously a symbol of life itself, of geneaology and familial (and racial) purity, and of money (the "blood" of a capitalist economy). All of these meanings are reflected in the Gothic vampire, who both takes life and grants a perverse semblance of it, and is often both of noble descent (thus sucking the blood of the lower classes both literally and metaphorically) and filthy rich. Vampirism may also be a metaphor for gambling, as both things drain people of blood/money and both are typically addictive and compulsive.
- Hypnotic Eyes. Originally an attribute of the Wandering Jew, the strange, mesmerizing eyes have since become a telltale sign of Gothic wanderers since at least Melmoth the Wanderer.
- A "Night Journey", usually to or from the Haunted Castle, taking the protagonists through an equally spooky forest devoid of people.
- Fisher Kingdom
Set Designer / Location ScoutLocations in Gothic fiction mainly come in two categories: imprisoning places and wilderness.
- The most obvious example of an imprisoning place is the Haunted Castle, which is also the most recognizable and enduring symbol of the Gothic — not least because of its eponymous architecture. A Gothic castle stands for claustrophobic enclosure with no maps, confusing corridors, secret passageways, and hidden trapdoors, often connecting to Creepy Caves or tombs. Its architecture seems alive with its clanking chains, howling dogs, scraping knives, and locked doors, and invokes images of entrapment, abduction, forceful restraint, and being Buried Alive. With all that said, however, an imprisoning place does not have to be a literal castle — any labyrinthine man-made structure (an Old, Dark House, an abbey, a Bedlam House, etc.) would do, as long as it conveys the emotions of isolation, alienation, and extreme duress. In late Victorian Gothic (the so-called "urban Gothic" of 1880s90snote ), entire cities (particularly London) became symbolic castles, with their labyrinthine sprawl hiding urban horrors and vices, while isolating and alienating inhabitants from one another.
- Wild Wilderness, on the other hand, is supposed to invoke an entirely different set of emotions, that of sublime awe and exhilarating danger. The Gothic had inherited this admiration of Nature from Romanticism, which often substituted awe of it for awe of the Divine, but Gothic wilderness is more remote, rugged, and savage: it's all about woods, mountains, the ocean, and wastelands of all kinds (moors, icebergs, etc.). Needless to say, the Scenery Porn potential of these settings is significant.
- Since it's usually set in a castle, expect to find an awful lot of medieval weaponry—swords, maces, lances, halberds, and crossbows are all fair game.
- Similarly, plate armor displays are a must for any old castle, especially since it can get animated by ghosts, curses, and the like.
- Torches and Pitchforks are also a must for any mob.
- Holy symbols and religious iconography.
- Portraits are popular plot devices in the Gothic, whose uses range from revealing Uncanny Family Resemblance and Identical Grandsons, to being straight up Anomalous Art like a Spooky Painting or a Creepy Changing Painting. A whole gallery of paintings can also express the decay motif by portraying the great ancestors next to their degenerate descendants.
- Mysterious manuscripts of uncertain authorship that fall into the protagonists' hands to reveal their true lineage or another plot-driving mystery. Often, some kind of supernatural force leads the protagonist to the manuscript, although, if this happens early on, it tends to be Conveniently Interrupted. On a meta level, you may present your story as a document or collection of documents you've found and prepared for publication.
- The Tyrant is usually going to be a Man of Wealth and Taste, and should usually wear the height of fashion for his era (or several years before the era you set it in if he happens to be supernaturally hundreds of years old. Red and Black and Evil All Over is a must for him.
- The virginal maiden should wear a white dress to signify her purity, contrasting with the older woman's darker or redder dress that is usually sexier.
- First and foremost, you'll need a Tyrant, like Manfred or Dracula. This Tyrant will take an interest in the heroine, even if she's a girl herself, and will plot to steal her. Of course your tyrant need not be a true villain—the titular caliph Vathek from the William Beckford novel is a great of example of this character type as an anti-villain. He is one of three characters that may or may not have supernatural powers, and he's usually the only one who does.
- After that, you will need a virginal maiden for your heroine, such as Matilda or Adeline from The Romance of the Forest, who is pure, innocent, and kind-hearted, has a mysterious past, and often turns out to be royalty. She's the second character who might have some supernatural power, and hers is usually pure or holy in nature.
- As a foil to the above, there will often be an older and more foolish woman who doesn't stand up to the tyrant—Hippolita is so obedient and weak-willed that she accepts her husband's decision to remarry.
- Last but not least, there must be a hero. Despite the Byronic Hero being a staple of the genre, your hero may not necessarily be one—in fact, your tyrant may end up being more of a Byronic Hero than the actual hero. They're usually virtuous, courageous, and brave, though like with the Byronic Hero this isn't strictly necessary—Scooby-Doo has had gothic elements since its beginning and it features a Lovable Coward as a hero. He's the third character who may or may not have supernatural powers, and certainly the one with the most variety of powers—pretty much anything goes, as long as whatever his powers are aren't quite as good as the Tyrant's—it wouldn't be a horror story if the villains didn't have the advantage.
- If your hero is a Byronic Hero, remember that he shouldn't be a Stock Character that's defined simply by how Byron he is. This goes double if your Tyrant is also a Byronic Hero, as while you could certainly make use of Fearful Symmetry between the two, there should still be differences that make a difference. Why is one Byronic Hero a hero and why is the other a villain?
- The clergy is almost always weak and unable to do anything about the Tyrant, and in fact may be working for him.
- Bandits and ruffians may make up the bulk of the Tyrant's power, or they may be unconnected to him; either way, they're a minor thorn in the protagonists' side.
- Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton is not itself a Gothic work, predating the genre by almost a century, but deserves an honorary mention for the massive influence it had: Gothic fiction is ripe with references and allusions to Milton's epic and many of its protagonists are variations on the Miltonian archetypes of Adam, Eve, and, particularly, Satan.
- The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is the original Gothic novel that introduced its most enduring tropes: Haunted Castle, Ghosts, Dramatic Thunder, ancestral Curses, Really Royalty Reveals, and so on.
- The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe is the foundational novel of the Gothic romance subgenre, of the feminine Gothic tradition, of the Female Wanderer archetype, and of the "explained supernatural" school. It also codified the Tyrant/Maiden dynamic (although Walpole did it first). In spite of its influence, however, the book was relegated to the Girl-Show Ghetto for much of the genre's history, and its Purple Prose was considered florid and overwrought even at the time, so use with some caution.
- The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis helped codify the masculine Gothic and represents, perhaps, peak anti-Papism in the British Gothic, going hard on the Dirty Old Monk, Naughty Nun, and Corrupt Church tropes to bring Religious Horror into the genre.
- Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley gave us the Frankenstein's Monster tropenote and introduced the Scale of Scientific Sins to the Gothic, so it is also often named as the origin of Science Fiction.
- The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori is the origin of the modern vampire novel, associating the bloodsuckers with Byronic tendencies, nobility, riches, sexuality, and daywalking.
- Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin is, perhaps, the purest expression of the masculine Gothic wanderer archetype in literature, as well as the last great work of pre-Victorian Gothicnote .
- "The Raven" (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe is, perhaps, the most famous Gothic poem, which codified Creepy Crows, Sanity Slippage, and The Lost Lenore (which it also named) in the genre.
- Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë codified the Gothic romance, as well as the Madwoman in the Attic trope.
- Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë is the final piece of the great Gothic romance trifecta, but also a thorough deconstruction of the "romantic paradigm", as well as of many romantic tropes like All Girls Want Bad Boys, the Tall, Dark, and Snarky Byronic Hero, and Love Redeems.
- Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu gave us the Lesbian Vampire, as well as codifying many more vampiric traits, like Super Strength, Super Speed, Voluntary Shapeshifting into animals, sleeping in coffins, and living in the Überwald.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson is the other famous Science Is Bad novel, which created the Jekyll & Hyde trope and can also be read as the first famous Gothic Wolf Man novel.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde codified Creepy Changing Paintings and Anomalous Art in general, as well as being perhaps the most homoerotic work of the Gothic — so transgressive, in fact, that it got its author tried and convicted for it.
- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker is, in many ways, the ultimate Gothic novel, mixing transgression, family, romance, blood, castles, tyrants and maidens, dark pasts, secret histories, and so on under one cover, but also a stark departure from some old Gothic traditions, such as Science Is Bad and Creepy Catholicism.
The Honorable Mentions
- Castlevania makes an impressive use of Gothic imagery in almost every game and as such is an excellent visual primer, but in terms of story content only a select few of the games (namely, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance and Castlevania: Chronicles of Sorrow) are truly Gothic works; the rest are just Dark Fantasy.
- Bloodborne (2015) likewise employs a massive number of Gothic tropes, particularly in the early game, as well as more subtle Gothic themes throughout the entire story. However, it also dives head-first into Lovecraft Lite by mid-point, so most players end up seeing the Gothic in it as more of a Red Herring, despite the aforementioned themes.
The Epic Fails
- Stephen Carver (2020). "The Rise of the Gothic Novel": A survey of the early (1764-1818) British Gothic novels.