I’ve done a couple of posts on the themes and conventions of Gothic novels, and the many subgenres there are (there are actually more, but a good place to look is the University of Wales Press series on Gothic Fiction). I have also discovered a cool WikiHow post on How To Write Gothic Fiction that comes with pretty pics and a quiz.
I thought that now I’d actually look at some Gothic fiction, some published and some works in progress (WiPs) by various authors. Maybe even me. I’m inviting gothic horror writers to do guest posts on various conventions and subgenres and showcase their own work, showing how they use these themes etc in their own fiction and/or why they write in their chosen subgenre(s).
First of all, let’s take the theme of darkness. It’s often linked to the other key themes of isolation and corruption, which could be represented by monstrosity and the grotesque. These all feed into each other to create the classic Gothic atmosphere, which is ripe for melodrama. If you’re aiming for non-cheese, you need to know your setting really well.
Darkness is not just literal, of course. It’s a metaphor, a way of representing the good/evil dichotomy. Or, if you choose to reconsider this, you might end up with shades of grey, or… twilight. [See what I did there]
The Conversation has a great piece on the rise of YA Gothic, due largely to Meyer’s Twilight series. It looks at the role of the passive human heroine, and how girl monsters in other works subvert this trope and its problems. Central to the contemporary gothic novel, argues Dr Michelle Smith, is that ‘Instead of contemplating a child’s potential to head towards either good or evil, recent Gothic YA acknowledges the possibility of both the good and the monstrous residing in one person.’ The classic monster now more closely resembles the [American] teenager themselves, occupying the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, exploring constructs and possibilities of the self and forms of self-expression (including sexuality and the capacity to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’, or whether these concepts are meaningful at all).
With this in mind, the themes of darkness, isolation and corruption, with the monstrous and grotesque as elements or symbols within these themes, don’t have to be cheesy. The settings can be urban or genuinely creepy rural landscapes. That said, the weather is probably bad.
The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden [book trailer above] is a good example of non-cheesy contemporary gothic urban fantasy, where the protagonist has to embrace magic and the supernatural to survive, solve a mystery, and grow as a person. There is romance and danger, a terrible storm that sets off the inciting incident, and the atmosphere is steeped in the wonder and drama of New Orleans, making it decidedly Southern Gothic in flavour.
Question to consider: What’s the balance of light/dark like in the book trailer?
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Classic Setting: A lot of action happens in the dark or at night. Or it’s a very gloomy day and there’s very little sun. It’s probably also raining. Definitely windy. There is probably a storm somewhere.
Gothic fiction is heavy on pathetic fallacy. If your protagonist is grief-stricken, it’s probably raining. If they are defeated and overwhelmed, it’s probably stormy. If they are being chased by the Villain or a figment of their own fevered imagination in their nightgown across a blasted heath, bare foot, then it’s definitely doing both, and it will be dark because even the moon will have abandoned them.
That said, darkness can be on your protagonist’s side. It can conceal dangers from them, but it can also conceal them from the dangers. It gives them the perfect opportunity to sneak around and solve mysteries by candle/torchlight while others sleep. It gives them the opportunity to face the darkness in others and in themselves.
It doesn’t have to be cold and frightening: it can be rich and warm, a summer night’s darkness, or cozy and perfect for story-telling, like a winter’s night by an open fire. That might lead you into the framing narrative, or story-in-a-story that is a well-known element of the genre.
It also opens up opportunities for hospitality to the Loner/Outsider/Stranger character, which may or may not prove to be a good idea, but at least empowers the protagonist to do something positive for someone needing help or companionship.
It’s the perfect setting for all those sinister candlelit dinners, too, which often teach the protagonist more about what they are facing and foreshadows future themes and events.
Protagonists can be attracted to the night, either as their favourite time of day, or by the things it represents: night life, star-gazing, freedom from oppressive daily activities and obligations.
This can/will have consequences, though. If the monster is also represented by darkness [the darkness in their soul or the void where their soul should be] then this is generally what draws the monster to the protagonist, or vice versa. This is most prevalent in vampire novels, for obvious reasons. What happens after that is variable, depending on the story you want to tell.
Issues with the Dark/Light Dichotomy: Beware of the colour-coding that goes on in classic Gothic fiction, where light/dark are transposed onto the sensitive issue of racial profiling – i.e., anyone who is not a white collar white Protestant is dangerous. The villain is usually dark-haired and dark-eyed, but generally aristocratic or has a hold over the protagonist that creates a power imbalance in the relationship.
This physical appearance may be used to conjure links in the readers’ mind with people groups who are ‘not to be trusted’ or who were associated with passionate natures (often meaning ‘mental instability’), which for nineteenth- and twentieth-century English readers would have included anyone who isn’t typically ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which can be how heroes are explicitly described.*
For more, see Charles Michael Bondhus, Gothic Journeys: Imperialist Discourse, the Gothic Novel and the European Other.
So there are things to watch out for as a reader, and also as a writer.
In contemporary society where these associations and stereotypes are arguably not so prevalent anymore, a dark-haired villain is more likely to create a character that readers find attractive/sexy, rather than frightening: see also, Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries and any number of others.
Plus, the genre could definitely use more POC protagonists: everyone should have the chance to run through a haunted forest in the dark!!
*A short rant by me, a Welsh person:
Even my favourite author, Agatha Christie, a heavyweight of twentieth-century Golden Age detective fiction, described the dark-haired Welsh as ’emotionally unstable’, a pervasive stereotype that has been shored up by recent research and scathingly critiqued by Aled Blake.
Why is this relevant?
Because it plays into the ethnic/racial and classist issues prevalent within the classic genre. Wales, with its high proportion of non-conformist working class, was always ripe for Othering, and the Blue Books (1847) reinforced the idea that the Welsh were immoral and lazy. Tempting for Gothic horror monster fodder.
Wales is a perfect Gothic horror setting in many ways, and Simon Maginn’s novel, Sheep, is a potentially good example of Gothic horror in a Welsh setting. It was ‘adapted’ [read: they totally changed the plot] into a film starring Maria Bello and Sean Bean, called The Dark, which, whatever you think of the film itself, falls into the Gothic category rather comfortably too. At least the local characters are not Othered because of their intrinsic Welshness.
The Welsh Gothic is definitely a Thing in both languages – Welsh and English – first appearing in 1780, and is another national Gothic form that can be read through a postcolonial lens. It acts as a vehicle for the shifting issues of Welsh identity and its perception by others, and also features unique elements from Welsh folklore and superstition, like the sin-eater, the cwn Annwn (hellhounds or hounds of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld/Underworld), and Welsh druids and witches.