While darkness and isolation are themes that pervade the setting and characterisation, corruption is arguably a meatier concept that nestles at the heart of what many authors want to say in this genre.
Corruption can on the surface simply be part of the grotesque, with signs and symbols of physical decay building on/adding to this element. The aim could simply be to nauseate or horrify the reader, particularly if this shows up in ‘body horror’ form.
It is usually, however, found in its deeper sense of legal, political, cultural or religious corruption (or all of the above). Personal corruption, a kind of moral devolution, is often a key aspect. Usually the protagonist is beset by corrupted forces, facing the underbelly of their world alone.
This could be represented by an elite male figure, the representation of power in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction of this type, who is usually aiming to become Lord and Master of the female’s life through underhand and nefarious means. Corrupt judges and other figures of the law are common, as are mad, abusive husbands, decadent princes or other figures from the ruling elite, and so on.
It is usually corruption within institutions meant to help others. Beware of the following:
☠️ The Church – in Catholic Gothic, another subgenre or element with major overtones in gothic horror, you cannot trust priests, monks, nuns, archdeacons, canons, or bishops. Don’t go into monasteries or abbeys, they are usually isolated and dangerous. Beyond Catholic Gothic, beware of Nonconformist preachers, sin-eaters, and so on. Less regulated than their institutional cousins, who knows what they can get up to.
See also: Gothic classics like The Monk, or The Pit and the Pendulum. George Haggerty’s article on the Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction is worth a read, as are posts of a similar nature on The Gothic Wanderer blog.
☠️ Anyone connected to the legal system. They are going to use their powers to silence you, keep you off-balance, or be an unintentional antagonist through their refusal to accept an outsider’s word over that of whoever upholds the status quo. You will run to them thinking they will help you, but it’s almost certainly a trap.
WritingHorrorFiction’s blog has a great post on Bram Stoker’s The Judge’s House as a starter for ten. Gothic fiction often explored contested legal issues and evolving legal technicalities, with villains exploiting loopholes in the law as well as the potential for corrupting legal officials.
☠️ Anyone in the medical profession. If they aren’t compiling you from a patchwork of human remains or experimenting on themselves, they will be withholding your medication or deliberately poisoning you, infecting you, or lying to you about what’s wrong with you. If not you personally, then someone else.
☠️ Anyone in any position of local authority. This covers everybody from the local wise woman or the mechanic that everyone knows to the local magistrate, and especially the local elite family who have probably inbred themselves down to their last psychotic bachelor or consumptive heiress. Either way, they will probably try to bury you alive or summon a mob with torches and pitchforks.
☠️ Anyone with links to a secret society: see above. It’s never benevolent, especially in the German Schauerroman.
☠️ Politicians. Just say no.
☠️ Any combination of the above.
Corruption, Corruption, Corruption | Rules My Soul
Problems with Corruption: Corruption is intersectional.
One of the main reasons that some classic Gothic fiction is cringeworthy or just unpleasant for a modern reader, aside from the melodrama, is the perpetuation of ableist, anti-🌈, racist, xenophobic and imperialist themes that go into deciding who is corrupt or a corrupting influence on the protagonist.
For the English, it isn’t just the Europeans who could be easily swayed by bribery or lust, and Otherness is not confined to pretty much the entire continent of Africa and the Far and Near East, but also applied closer to home, to the Welsh, Scottish and Irish and the Romany.
Othered characters might be ambiguous, helpful to their English ‘betters’ in a subservient way (in which case, providing comic relief for the [presumed English, imperialist] reader by their superstitions, mannerisms and dialogue) or be a corrupting influence on the (English) protagonist for the same reasons.
Empire Literature, like Rider Haggard’s popular potboiler adventure novels, often played with these anxieties in a colonial setting, some of which also borrowed gothic conventions and developed gothic themes.
It doesn’t stop there. White American men are also not to be trusted in British Gothic fiction, although it depends on the sympathies of the author and intended readership. For English Gothic, they can be ambiguous stock characters when they appear, with a few exceptions.
Not only this, but corruption can also be sexual and physical, represented by a coded (or explicit) LGBTQ+ character or by physical disability. Most usually, a villainous character of this type will be a hedonist, bisexuality might be hinted at, and they will probably suffer from a venereal disease like syphilis, contracted during debauchery. Leprosy/Hansen’s Disease is another possibility, which reinforced the stigma and misconceptions around this disease. This ‘corruption’ of the body is mirrored by the corruption of their morals, and can also be intertwined with mental illness.
Again, this is not a trope that needs to be perpetuated: it doesn’t add much, because you can have a well-rounded POC disabled LGBTQ+ character as your protagonist and explore their own journey through the corruption of those around them, their isolation as they combat these forces, the darkness they face within themselves and others.
Privilege and social status are intersectional but exploring these experiences does not need to Other said protagonist in a negative, unsympathetic way. Quite the opposite. It all depends on what kind of story you want to tell, and if Gothic conventions, themes, symbols etc enable you to tell it effectively.