This week in gothic horror chat, I’m looking at another theme mentioned in the first post. I’m going to use a horror novel I think fits the Welsh Gothic genre as an example of how effective this element is, and how it can drive the plot forward.
Isolation is another key theme of the Gothic Horror genre. It crops up in various forms with symbols and characters, interwoven with pathetic fallacy and setting.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic example of how the themes of loneliness and isolation can be developed through a Gothic novel, but they lend themselves very well to the pressures of modern life, too.
In Simon Maginn’s dark psychological novel, Sheep, the family (James, Adéle and their young son Sam) go to a remote farmhouse on the west coast of Wales, Ty-Gwyneth, on an extended ‘holiday’. James is contracted to work on the house and do it up for its new owner, while Adéle, a painter, locks herself in one room to paint for an exhibition. The family have each other, but they are grieving for the loss of Ruth, the absent daughter, who drowned before the novel began. None of them are very good at communicating with each other, and this means that even together they are separated by gulfs of misunderstanding. As Adéle’s state of mind deteriorates and the family have strange experiences, things begin to unravel.
Lewyn, their neighbour, is also isolated. A gay man who grew up in a Welsh sheep-farming community in the 1960s/70s, he left to join the army. When we are introduced to him (the book came out in early 1990s and is roughly contemporaneous), he has already left the army and his lover, a fellow soldier, many years ago to return to the farm and look after his ailing dad, who has since died. He is tormented by nightmares and dark memories of the farmhouse that the new family have moved into, but begins to strike up a friendship with them. This being the early 90s, it’s not that easy to be open.
Maginn never classifies this novel explicitly as ‘gothic’ yet he has been influenced heavily by the gothic tradition, recommending the Gothic Fantasy trilogy, Gormenghast, in his This Is Horror interview (linked above).
The reviewer of Sheep who thought it should be ‘Horror’ because “There is no shelf marked ‘unusual and disturbing’” clearly forgot that this is pretty much what Gothic fiction is.
Sheep Spoiler-Free Gothic Horror Bingo Card:
☑️ Dream/nightmare sequences
☑️ Corruption/disease images, symbols & theme
☑️ Local history adding menace & colour to contemporary events
☑️ At least one Bad Thing happens in the night
☑️ isolated setting reflecting isolation of characters
☑️ Nature as threatening, pathetic fallacy, water as ambiguous symbol
☑️ Deterioration of mental & physical health
☑️ Ambiguity of supernatural vs natural explanations
☑️ Atheism vs faith in oppositional positions, ambiguous interplay (thoughtfully done and not overstated, in this case)
☑️ House needing repairs containing dark secrets
☑️ A Locked Room Setting
☑️ Mysterious Deaths & Transgressive Acts
☑️ Dinner Might Be Dangerous trope
(Don’t Wanna Be) All By Myself
The characters in the novel are isolated in various ways.
Firstly, they are isolated geographically. The nearest town is a car ride away. The farmhouse is on a sheep farm, and the sheep are themselves symbols of Otherness (a nice change from Othering the other characters). The farmhouse is situated near the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, a cliff where several tragedies have occurred over time. Now, the isolation of the setting becomes more ominous through the interweaving of local history and gossip, more elements that make up a good Gothic tale.
Secondly, they are isolated because their relationships are fractured. James finds it hard to relate to Sam and his drinking is driving a wedge between himself and Adéle. Sam finds his parents hard to read and has to deal with his sister’s death the best he can given that his parents don’t know how to explain things to him without getting angry or upset. Adéle’s mental state is deteriorating and she doesn’t know how to explain what’s happening to her, or how to communicate with James, whose own parents do not communicate well with him or each other. Suspicion and confusion also push them apart, and they don’t deal with this well since they are already struggling to talk effectively to one another.
Thirdly, Adéle and Lewyn are isolated physically. Lewyn lives alone, while Adéle spends much of her time locked away, painting. They also are locked in their own experiences: both have aspects of their lives that cannot be easily understood by the other characters, or properly discussed.
In a gothic horror, isolating the protagonist(s) is essential to the mood and tone! Also for the plot, because the most awful things can happen when there’s no one to hear you scream.
There is also so much characterisation that can go into this theme. It’s not enough to just have an isolated protagonist – the isolation must have an obvious impact on their mental and physical wellbeing. Are they extroverted and bad at being alone? Why is this, and how have they ended up in their current situation? Would they let it get to them faster than a character used to being alone for longer periods?
What is stopping a character from just picking up the phone? Sure, it could be ‘the wire’s been cut! Signal is gone!’ but it’s more interesting if the reason is psychological.
If they are usually alright being alone, what is it that pushes them to the edge? What stops them getting help before this point? Are they pulled into a false sense of security or manipulated by another character? Are they afraid to ask for help because they want to preserve a projected ideal of themselves? How are their flaws/weaknesses working against them?
My protagonist is alone in Chapter One of The Crows because she has a complicated relationship with both her parents, her relationship of five years has ended badly, and her old friendship group has imploded under the strain of discovering her ex cheated on her with two of her old friends. She has thrown herself into renovating an old ruined house, but now it’s finished, her mother can’t understand why she wants to live there rather than sell it on. The locals think it’s cursed, and she’s not making new friends as fast as she thought she would.
My novel opens with a conversation with her mother, the builders leaving for the last time, and Carrie being left alone in the house. My novel is lighter in tone than serious gothic fiction (I hope: the humour’s dry and dark but deliberate), but I have enjoyed totally rewriting it and seeing Carrie’s transformation develop.
I found doing a Myers-Briggs test for her very useful in this regard, as it helped me to find a baseline for her behaviour and make sure that her actions made sense within the context of her strengths and weaknesses. Carrie is an ISFJ: this is scarily accurate in terms of her strengths/weaknesses and romantic relationship role. I did the test after I conceived her fully and when I was midway through the rewrites. It helped make sense of the actions I was struggling with and how to make her grow naturally.
How about your protagonist?
What symbols of isolation are in your story?
How does the setting reflect and develop this theme?