Last year, I ran a workshop where I talked about Gothic and Horror literature. This was called: “The Cathedral of the Deep: What Gothic Is and How To Write It”. I thought, given there was some interest in the topic, that it would be great to share some of the ideas I talked about in this seminar online. Now, while I have studied Gothic literature pretty extensively (and Horror is a kind of raison d’etre), I am by no means the sole expert on the subject, and there are many other academics, writers, and enthusiasts who have their own opinions on the matter. I do not purport to present the only way to understand and write Gothic here, this is merely my own approach to it. What I hope is that these methods and ideas can help you in producing your own work, whether it be a short story, poem, or even a video-game, script, or movie. The underlying concepts of Gothic are beyond one medium of expression.
WHAT YOU WILL NEED
This is not just a blog or opinion piece; I intend it more as a class. So, I’d recommend that you have a notebook and pen handy. Also, you might want to have Twitter open in another window. You can message me any questions as you read along: @josephwordsmith . I will try my best to get back to you as quickly as possible. I’m also going to dropping a lot of reading/viewing recommendations, so make sure you make a note of the things you want to check out. This class is going to be divided into two parts, due to the depth into which I plan to go. That’s pretty much it folks!
A (VERY, VERY) SELECTIVE HISTORY OF HORROR
Modern Horror has its roots in Gothic literature. While there are subtle differences, shaped by time and society, understanding classic Gothic literature, and how it works, can give us insight into how to write Horror that is a cut above the rest, that is more than cheap scares or gratuity and transcends into something cathartic and emotionally resonant. So, let us take a walk through a history of horror.
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is widely regarded as the first Gothic-Horror novel, but the Gothic stretches back much farther. In the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe both wrote plays that can not only easily be classifiable as Gothic, but may even have been used as templates by subsequent writers for what Gothic is. First, let’s consider two of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays: Macbeth and Hamlet. Macbeth is the height of Gothic, with its bloody deeds, visions, ghosts, magic and atmosphere of terror. It remains one of the most concentrated examinations of evil ever written. Hamlet is perhaps less typically Gothic than Macbeth, but contains ghosts, religiosity, madness, and many other themes that are explored within a tense narrative that breeds unease in the audience. I would recommend you go to see either of these plays, so long as they are being put on by a good company. If you wish to see a truly Gothic cinematic adaptation of Macbeth, I recommend you watch the 1971 film version by Roman Polanski, in which the symbolic elements of the play are drawn out in staggeringly vivid ways.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is perhaps less well known (despite “Faustian pact” being a common idiom), although in 2016 the Duke of York Theatre in London put on a sublime production of it starring Kit Harington which did something to revitalise interest in the play. This iconic work portrays a magician who makes a deal with the devil: his soul for 27 years of unlimited power. It is an extremely Gothic work, with its magical rituals, sexual undertones, metaphysical discourse, spirits, demons and religiosity. If you can find a good version of this play, I’d highly recommend it. The language is challenging, but once you get into it, this barrier will fall away.
These plays were written towards the end of the sixteenth / beginning of the seventeenth century, and remain some of the most celebrated plays in any language to this day. How is it that they remain so potent, even now? And why do we hold onto these plays, when many of their contemporaries are now being forgotten? One answer, I believe, is in the nature of Gothic, and Horror, itself. Horror is perhaps the only genre defined by an emotion. It’s about feeling, powerful emotional response, and of course strong emotional reactions stays with us.
I would be remiss not to mention the great Mary Shelley, whose Victorian novel Frankenstein has become a benchmark for Horror and Science Fiction writers throughout the world, and is Gothic through to its bones. Again, the success of Frankenstein is not in clever plotting or even in its Horror, because there are scarier books. No, its success is in the emotional resonance of the ending, and realising that we have misjudged the “monster” all along. Sympathy is an integral part of Horror. We must sympathise with Macbeth, to understand the gravity of his errors, to feel his terror as the walls close in. We must sympathise with both Victor Frankenstein, the tortured rebel creator, and his creation, “the monster”, in order to learn a profound lesson at the end of Frankenstein.
Emotion is the key. As a reader, you read a Horror book to be scared, or at least repulsed. As a Horror writer, you aim to write a book that will haunt your readers. Stephen King said: “First, I’ll try to make you feel terror. If I can’t I’ll make you feel horror. If I can’t do that I’ll gross you out. I’m not proud”. These words, in a way, show three key forms of Horror. The empathetic (terror), which means we experience the emotions of the protagonist as our own. The sympathetic (horror), which means we feel sorry for, can relate to the protagonist and their predicament. The gruesome (disgust), which means we feel revulsion or are “grossed out”. All three are valid, and can be intermixed at will.
THE FOUR KEY ELEMENTS OF GOTHIC WRITING
So, I have listed some things that define Macbeth, Hamlet and Doctor Faustus as Gothic texts. However, this is all a bit vague. I’m now going to narrow it down to the four key elements that define a text as Gothic, and how these “serve the beam”, to quote Stephen King once more. When you understand how each of these four elements work, and how they work in cohesion, you will be able to look at classic Gothic literature, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, Dracula, Jane Eyre or even modern Horror texts for that matter, and see how these elements have been used. What’s more, you’ll be able to use them yourself to create a Gothic piece. This is not to say that all the writers I have listed are thinking about the genre in this way, they probably don’t, but I believe there are mechanics beneath the surface that writers pick up subconsciously from years of study and internalisation.
Dean Koontz said many faults in a writer could be forgiven if they could “weave a warp and weft of mood”. Gothic is about atmosphere: how do we feel stepping into the haunted castle, or walking through the woods alone, or seeing the seductive vampire? One technique for creating mood is sense. Most writers focus only on one, vision, so they spend hours laboriously describing their scenes, as though their novel/story were a transcript of a movie. Think deeper. What are the sounds, smells, sensations?
This works in two ways:
The first location described in Macbeth is Macbeth’s imposing fortress home which sits upon a high hill overlooking a forest: “This castle hath a pleasant seat”. You can immediately see parallels with the later novel The Castle of Otranto, where the setting of the ‘castle’, and its labyrinthine mazes, becomes symbolic of the labyrinthine mind of Lord Manfred and his schemes. In Dracula, the first quarter of the novel is set in Dracula’s keep, and we even return there at the end. Dracula also has another castle in London which becomes his base of operations.
Most Gothic literature is structured in elegant and baroque ways. For example, in Frankenstein, we have the ‘framed narrative’ device, going deeper and deeper into the story through different lenses. In Dracula, we have the epistolary device, the story told through various letters. A fabulous modern Horror story that uses ‘architecture’ in a compelling way is ‘The Woman in the Hill’ by Tamsyn Muir, a short story recently re-published in Best of Horror 2016. This used an epistolary device to create a sense of verisimilitude.
You maybe asking ‘what is verisimilitude?’
Think about the plethora of recent Horror films using the ‘found footage’ trope. This is the cinematic equivalent of a letter, because the story is being posed as authentic and coming from one authentic source. These kinds of structures have evolved in one sense from the early Gothic ‘epistolary’ novels, but also have remained bizarrely consistent for hundreds of years. Walpole’s novel The Castle of Ortranto was released, posing as a real translation of an Italian manuscript found in a crypt. Only later did he reveal the truth. This is Gothic verisimilitude. The supposition of believability. Narrative architecture in Gothic literature can be used to create this sense of believability in order to draw your reader deeper into the maze of your story.
The title of this seminar: The Cathedral of the Deep, comes from the video-game Dark Souls, which is created by Japanese game-developer Hidetaka Miyazaki. The Cathedral of the Deep is a location the player can explore which is said to house the remains of the god-eating monster Aldlich, Lord of the Deep, who’s actually a kind of viscus sludge. The Cathedral itself is full of gorgeous paintings, golden braziers, candles, statues, gargoyles (some of which come alive and attack you), undead, maggot-ridden creatures that thrash in pools of blood, and also, invading spirits from other worlds, ghosts, and a fanatical cult of archbishops. Miyazaki is clearly a big fan of the Gothic – he revealed in an interview he read many English Gothic and Fantasy writers in his youth, though he struggled to translate them – and the worlds he creates are based on Western Gothic and medieval traditions, even if they do have a Japanese twist to them.
Here architecture is reflected in the artistic game and level design, as well as the elliptical storytelling. “The Cathedral of the Deep” is, I believe, a perfect encapsulation of the Gothic. The Cathedral represents architecture, structure, design, trappings, style. The Deep represents deeper meanings, what’s buried beneath, desires, emotions. Bear these two concepts in mind when you begin to write your Gothic fiction. What is the external architecture of your piece? Are you writing it as a letter, or a journal, or is it rather that the setting is baroque and magnificent? Then, what are the underlying emotions? Often the degraded emotions of Gothic protagonists contrast with the splendour of their surroundings.
All Gothic literature is spiritual in some way, or else, extensively utilises the mythos and trappings of religion. This is linked to the architecture. Often, the Gothic uses religious structures as key focal points: cathedrals, churches, holy ground, or, metaphorically, internal religious structures of belief and faith.
This also includes deeper themes and questions of reality: who are we, where do we come from, what is reality?
A modern fantasy novel such as City of the Iron Fish (Simon Ings) captures this perfectly, where we go into the nature of existence by exploring this mysterious city, which slowly comes unravelled. When the hero tries to leave this city in the story, he eventually reaches a liminal barrier in the desert where everything fades into stick drawings – including the hero himself. This is a terrifyingly meta/fourth-wall breaking moment that reflects Gothic ideas.
Modern cinema uses religion too. Alien, apparently a simple survival tale, is steeped in religious questions. There is evidence of a master-race that creates both the human race and the xenomorphs – therefore exploring the origin of our species. The more recent films, whilst not a patch on the original (for lack of mood I’d wager), go into the questions of what constitutes humanity, intelligence, love, connection, morality and much more through the character of David (played by Michael Fassbender). In addition, the xenomorphs’ home planet is presented as a cipher for Hell itself.
Madness is also linked to religion in the Gothic, because madness was, in the past, suggested to represent a deeper connection to God. For, how could God’s will and power be understood by a sane person? So, madness, and how it de-constructs the architecture of normal life, is a common theme of the Gothic. The novels of Christa Wojciechowski explore madness and perception in extremely Gothic ways, and are well worth reading.
You might ask the question: ‘Could a Gothic novel be written without religious elements?’ I hate to be prescriptive, so my final answer is ‘Maybe’. However, I’d argue it would be almost impossible. The novel, Hidden People, attempted to do this quite ambitious, but sadly, for me, it was not quite successful.
Last but not least. The language of Gothic literature is often elevated and poetic. Frequently, throughout the history of Gothic literature, poetry and prose are blended. Think of Horace Walpole’s sonnet introducing The Castle of Otranto, the works of Edgar Allan Poe (Fall of the House of Usher in particular), the poetry of Percy Shelley, Byron (the poem ‘Darkness’ perhaps the most Gothic poem ever written), and, of course, Shakespeare and Marlowe’s plays. There’s a sense of richness and beauty to the language essential to contrast and juxtapose with the horror. If you want a modern example, the short stories and novels of Richard Thomas, in particular something like Tribulations, perfectly strikes a balance between Horror and beauty.
The acronym for these elements is M.A.R.L. and the way I remember it is: Marlborough Reds, the cigarette brand. It’s easy to remember because ‘red’ is a key Gothic colour: red is the colour of desire, blood, and red and black are the colours of death. The red lips of the seductor, the red eyes of the vampire. Red is also the colour of sexually transmitted diseases: red spots on the genitals, face or hands. Sexually transmitted diseases are another key Gothic theme (Dracula is arguably an allegory of about STDs), because they imply the taboo, transgression. Transgression ties in with religion as one of the four key elements of Gothic.
Now, we’re going to do some practical work to exercise our creative muscles and see how we can use this theoretical knowledge. Pick your favourite Horror film, story, book, whatever. Write down the four key elements as headings, and then, beneath those headings, list all the elements that fit into these categories. Some elements may even fall into more than one. For example, the creepy setting of a graveyard (which evokes mood) also has a specific layout, which becomes plot-integral later, therefore this graveyard is also part of the architecture of the piece. This example is from Stephen King’s story “Graveyard Shift” if you hadn’t guessed already! Try to write a few of these, see what elements really appeal to you, and think about how you might subvert their usage for your own tales.
Thank you so much for coming this far. I hope that this class has been of use to you. We’ve now reached the end of Part 1, where we’ve closely examined “What Gothic Is”. In the next class, we will look in more depth at “How To Write It”. Specifically, in Part 2, we will cover: writing a five act structure synopsis for our story, writing a compelling opening, writing a first paragraph, and more!
If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.
Until next time, my friends!