Blog

What My Five Favourite Films of All Time Can Tell Us About Storytelling

There’s lots I don’t like about Hollywood, but I love film. I think, in another life, I might have wanted to work on a set, even if only in a small supporting role behind the camera. But then, I love storytelling too, and the fantastic thing about novels and poetry is you need no permission or producer to bring it into being! (Of course, the brilliant independent filmmaker Joel Haver would argue that you don't need those for film, either, but that's a huge topic for another time). 

Collaboration and constraint often breed creativity and solutions, and thus films can offer us a very unique narrative insight. Because the screenplay is inherently more disciplined and “formed” than the novel, there’s much we can learn from our film-industry counterparts (and vice-versa, of course).

In this article, I wanted to talk about my five favourite films of all time, and what they—surprisingly—have in common that we can learn from as storytellers. I want to make two things clear, however, before I begin. Firstly, there is a certain film I love that is notably and auspiciously absent from the list. Namely, The Lord of the Rings. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, I’ve already written so extensively about this film, and the books on which it is based, that it’s probably time for a re-fresh. Secondly, I regard The Lord of the Rings as really being in a category of its own—totally unique and unassailable. So, it wouldn’t appear on a list like this, for it cannot really be compared to anything else! The second thing I want to make you aware of is there will, by necessity, be spoilers for the five films I have chosen, so read on at your own peril if you do not want to know what happens, and want to check out these astonishing films for yourself.

Firstly, I’ll list the films. Then I’ll discuss what links them and what we can learn.

In no particular order:

CALVARY (2014)

Dir: John Michael McDonagh

A “good priest”, Father James, is told, in the confession box, that he will be killed in seven days. This astonishing Irish drama follows Father James’ journey he faces his own calvary.

THE FALL (2006)

Dir: Tarsem Singh

Set in 1915, stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) lies paralysed in a hospital bed. Awaiting an uncertain future, he meets another patient, a little girl called Alexandria, and offers to tell her a story in exchange for her fetching him more painkillers… Roy’s intoxicating tale comes to life in Alexandria’s imagination, and the act of storytelling itself becomes transformative for them both.

SILENCE (2016)

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, Silence tells the story of two seventeenth century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in order to locate their mentor and friend, Father Ferreira, as well as spread the Christian message. However, the Japanese inquisitor, Inigo-Sama, wishes for Christianity to be utterly stamped out from Japanese soil…

KILL BILL VOL 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

The Bride sets out on a quest for revenge against Bill, her master and former lover, after he shoots her through the head on her wedding day whilst she is still pregnant with his child.

V FOR VENDETTA (2005)

Dir: James McTeigue

Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, V For Vendetta is set in a dystopian, totalitarian Britain. But a vigilante, identified only by the codename “V”, has made it his mission to destroy the government.

On the surface, these five films may appear wildly dispirit. We have historical dramas, comicbook adaptations, bloody revenge stories, and fantastical meta-narrative. But in truth, all of these films share three things. I’ll begin with the broadest similarity and progress towards the detail.

1) Astonishing Endings

Not just good endings, nor even great endings, but astonishing endings. You may argue that this is entirely subjective, and to a degree it is, but all five of these films have Act 4 revelations that punch your gut so hard you forget which way is up, and then follow that up with an Act 5 catharsis that feels like spiritual healing.

For example, in Calvary, the final shot of the film is the daughter of Father James, our heroic priest, visiting his killer in prison. The killer looks with astonishment, even terror, through the glass window as she picks up the phone in order to speak with him, a single tear rolling down her face. We know, from an earlier, foreshadowing conversation Father James had with his daughter, that she is going to forgive his killer. This is the ultimate and unexpected triumph of good over evil—borderline shocking in its implications. Yet, isn’t that the quintessence of the Christian spiritual method, to triumph and overcome through mercy, to subjugate through submission?

Similarly, in V for Vendetta, the mysterious V is finally slain after heroically defeating Creedy and Sutler, but his ultimate objective is achieved when—in a sublime moment—his body laid upon a bier of explosives and sent hurtling into the tunnels beneath parliament. To the sound of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent 1812 Overture, V brings parliament to the ground from beyond the grave. This would be brilliant cinematically in and of itself, but it is made more brilliant by V’s earlier speech: “The building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it.” We understand the full, symbolic implications of V’s victory over totalitarianism, and therefore feel the weight of the catharsis all the more heavily.

By emphasising the symbolic action of the story, rather than simply the literal, V for Vendetta, Calvary, and indeed the other films on this list, achieve endings which are not simply “resolutions” to the plot, but go one step further to impart thematic wisdom and psychological healing.

So, what is the lesson here? The lesson is “do not be afraid”, in the words of the biblical angels. It is better to reach for something grand, something magnificent, something life-changing than it is to settle for mediocrity. The endings of these films testify that the attempt will be remembered forever after—in some ways, even if you fail. And whilst you may not please everyone, you are going to touch a good many more souls than you would if you just resigned yourself to a “standard” or “genre-trope” ending. Go for broke. Go all out with your ending. Don’t hold back.

2) The Power of “Slow”

Modern films—especially Marvel—unfold at a frenetic pace. Most scenes are barely two minutes long. Wham bam—on to the next thing. This gives us no time to unpack emotional content, or to process what we have just seen. If ever we are left in any ambiguity or doubt about what just happened, normally someone quickly explains it with some expositional dialogue or “witty” remark.

But the directors of these five films I’ve chosen all understand the power of slowing down. Perhaps the best example of this is to be found in Kill Bill. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for his long scenes, which can feel drawn out to the point of excruciation, but that is why his dramatic moments: his surprises, his violent explosions, and his revelations, feel so powerful and so earned. In the final confrontation of Kill Bill Vol. 1, where The Bride faces down her ultimate rival (save perhaps Bill himself) O-ren Ishii, rather than leaping into a fight, Tarantino suddenly slows the pace to a crawl. The Bride and O-ren circle one another, measuring the defences of the other. The majestic Spanish guitar of Santa Esmeralda’s cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood kicks up. This is not only highly stylistic, it’s also highly realistic. Truly great fighters don’t just launch themselves at each other. They size each other up. If Kung Fu is not your thing, watch two boxers in the ring. Not even Tyson Fury, with all his weight and power, just runs headlong at his opponent. He circles, he measures distance, he takes his time to figure out his opponent’s strength and weaknesses.

We have waited two hours, or thereabouts, for this fight between O-ren and The Bride, yet Tarantino knows we will wait just a little longer, making us feel every footstep, every movement of the eyes, every adjustment of the sword grip, to the point where when the two epic warriors finally explode into action it is –let’s use the word we’ve been dancing around here—orgasmic.

Similarly, in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the film spends two hours building us up to the moment where Father Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) must face the ultimate test of his faith, morality, and human dignity (designed with horrifying ingenuity by the inquisitor, Inigo-Sama). Will he allow others to suffer due to his refusal to step on an image of Christ? As Father Rodrigues contemplates stepping on the image, the sounds of his fellow man suffering a constant background, time slows to a crawl. The world falls into deafening silence. We feel we are frozen in a moment, within the very “point of power”, the eternal now. This suspension and slowing down allows us to feel the full epiphanic weight of what is about to happen next, which is a revelation so powerful I will leave it as a surprise for those of you who have not seen the film.

So, what can we learn from this? Slow down. Waaaay down. Most storytellers, whether film-makers or novelists or poets, rush. In my recent interview with Grady Hendrix, which you can find here, he talks about how the aspect of writing he finds hardest is sufficiently slowing a scene down for it to be felt at a deep level by the reader, populating the narrative with enough detail that it comes alive. He concludes by saying, “When I edit, and find a scene that isn’t working, I know either it needs more, or it has to come out.” This is contrary to common ideas about editing I see being spread around, that the ultimate end-goal is to simply shave off word-count. As Scorsese and Tarantino show us, sometimes more is more, but only if you’re prepared to slow the audience down, to force us to stand still and observe with all of our focus and attention. As Thomas Aquinas observed, “Beauty arrests motion.”

3) A Relationship With God and the Divine

This one may prove controversial for some readers, but it’s impossible to ignore it. All of these films both implicitly and explicitly make their spirituality known. And it should be noted, when I say “spirituality”, I don’t mean simply propaganda for a specific religion or preaching any kind of dogma. However, these works explore what it is like to have a relationship with the Divine, how challenging, harrowing, but also transcendent that is.

In Kill Bill, we are told, “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other that not only does God exist, you’re doing his will.” This has to be one of my favourite quotes of all time, for it hints at the deep mystery of God, not the romanticised image that we so often see portrayed in an attempt to make Him more palatable. Similarly, in V For Vendetta, we are told “God is in the rain”—as Evey Hammond raises her arms to the thunderstorm raging over the city, and finds that in truth the thunderstorm is raging within, that she has discovered her inner power as a result of V’s esoteric and cruel teachings.

In The Fall, the relationship between the Divine and man is more subtly conveyed, but that does not lessen its impact. It is the little girl, Alexandria, with her innocence and fecund imagination that represents both the Divine and the Divine spark within human beings. As a jaded, cynical, and depressed adult, Roy Walker abuses his creative gift, manipulating Alexandria into getting him pills which he uses to attempt suicide. Even after he is exposed by the failure of his suicide attempt, Roy continues to abuse his gift—and Alexandria’s impressionable mind—by corrupting the wonderful adventure story he was previously telling her with darkness and despair. However, Alexandria’s purity proves Roy’s salvation (“the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it”, to quote St. John), for she demands he change the narrative, and finally she breaks him, forcing him to the point of self-revelation, catharsis, and healing. Changing the narrative changes him as a person. The Divine imagination illuminates the darkness of the human condition—and Roy’s paralysis is healed.

All of these stories, to greater and lesser degrees, using different imagery and metaphors, address the nature of the Divine and man’s relationship to it (plus, we might say, the Divine in man). And I would argue—again risking controversy—that there is really no more important theme one could explore. A relationship with the Divine is about far more than faith, in one sense. Critics and cynics often forget that faith is more than merely a “belief”, but also a responsibility, a commitment to uphold tenets (not always successfully, but that is where the human part comes in). Therefore, to believe in the Divine, to work towards a relationship with the Divine, is to improve oneself, not in a snobby, arrogant way (though some fall prey to hubris), but rather as earnest embodiment. These five films all motivate and inspire us to find our own Divine connection and therefore to become better, richer, more loving and awakened human beings (awakened, that is, to the Mystery of Life). This is is Art fulfilling its highest purpose!

So, what’s the lesson? In short, consider how your work might explore a relationship with the Divine. And if you don’t believe there is a Divine, consider what the next best thing might be: Beauty, perhaps. Or Love. The important thing is that it’s transcendent, rather than something that can be described by numbers and facts.

I’ll leave you to meditate on these lessons with a quote from Calvary that I think summarises my approach to storytelling and editing, “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues...”

***

Thank you so, so much for reading this far.

For more exclusive articles like this, as well as behind the scenes videos and interactive polls, you can subscribe to the mindflayer’s Patreon https://www.patreon.com/themindflayer.

You can also purchase my book on creativity, The Divine, for 99c on Amazon.

Blog

Now Editing Poetry

Hello everyone. In the light of publishing Virtue’s End, and my renewed interest in poetry, I am now offering editing to aspiring poets out there. Poetry is very dear to my heart and I believe there should be more real poetry out there in the world. So, for those sincerely looking to improve their poetic craft, whether writing free-verse or more formal poetry, please consider signing up to work with me.

Work edited by me has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, National Indie Excellence, and Splatterpunk Awards. My own poetry, in the form of Virtue’s End, has been described as “an astounding and daring piece poetry, offered with the utmost openness and sincerity, a rare, meticulously crafted gem in an age of rapid mass consumption” (Christa Wojciechowski), and as “[Sale’s] Magnum Opus. An intricate, multilayered epic poem” (Steve Stred).

The main editing criteria for poetry will be:

  • form

  • diction

  • theme

  • style

  • narrative (if relevant)

The pricing for editing is £50 ($70) for up to 50 lines. If you're interested, please don't hesitate to get in touch using the contact form on this website, or by emailing me directly!

Alternatively, if you don’t have something specific you want editing, but you want to find out more about how great narrative is shaped—about poetic form, writing style, and more—consider signing up to Joseph Sale’s Patreon The Mind-Vault, where you can get access monthly videos (including the Magical Writing podcast and interviews with authors), articles, and digital downloads:

Blog

Epic Bootcamp Is Here!

Time to kick Monday’s ass! It’s here! It’s finally here! A year in the making: THE EPIC BOOTCAMP. How to get your story from ‘eh’ to ‘epic’ with a little help from me and my friends! 

Phew. That was a little bit dramatic! Let’s take a step back! So, what is the Epic Bootcamp and how did it come about? 

As many of you know, I am an editor and ghost-writer, as well as a novelist and fiction-author. I help writers get their novels polished, identify structural weaknesses, and sharpen their prose. My aim is always to teach writers techniques so that they can, in the future, go forward without my help.

However, editing manuscripts is VERY time-consuming. Especially 90-120,000 word epics (which are the kind of books I like to read). Because of how long it takes to fully master-edit a book like this, it therefore becomes really expensive for the writer to invest in editing (and I’m on the cheap side!). As I said, I try to teach them techniques so that they don’t need me in the future – to add as much value as possible. With each edit, I try to impart a few more of my tricks and techniques to help them reach a level where they have their own voice, and they feel they can handle narratives without that guidance.

However, many people, and especially us creatives it seems, don’t have access to financial resources for master-edits on their novel. As someone who knows what it’s like for the energy company to turn off the power, I knew I had to address this imbalance and help out the millions of low-income creatives out there, who have just as much of a right to upgrade their writing. So, I wracked my brains as to how I could best address this. How could I explain some of my techniques and narrative strategies, but not bankrupt myself in the process?

The answer is the Epic Bootcamp.

The Epic Bootcamp is my attempt to create something affordable for writers who want to improve their craft but can’t afford to work with me one-to-one. Although I would also highly recommend it for anyone looking to level-up their storytelling, even those who have worked with me before. It is an online training course divided into seven modules. Each module covers a different aspect of storytelling from creating epic protagonists, learning from the past to help us write our stories now, to structure, endings, and more. Not only does each module have a 30-60 minute audio file of pre-scripted content,  but also another 70 – 120 minute audio with a special guest interview (transcripts are available on request too for those who are hard of hearing). These include interviews with indie filmmakers, novelists, poets, psychologists, and more!

Specifically, the Epic Bootcamp is designed to help you tell “epic” stories. Not just your run-of-the-mill tale, but something that shakes your reader to the core and leaves your indelible mark on their soul forever. Am I qualified to help you do that? Well, I’ve studied epics for more than 14 years, but not only that, I’ve written 20+ books, many of which are considered epic in scale, scope, and feeling.

That reminds me, you’ll also get a FREE digital copy of my epic novel Nekyia as a proof-of-concept for the principles I teach! 

Furthermore, anyone who signs up to my Epic Bootcamp will also get a free 1-month trial membership to Let’s Get Published, a writer’s mastermind group run by the awesome Christa Wojciechowski.

So, if you want to take your stories for ‘eh’ to ‘epic’, head on over to the Epic Bootcamp! 

Blog

The Cathedral of the Deep Part 1: What Gothic Is

INTRODUCTION

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.

MOOD

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?

ARCHITECTURE

This works in two ways:

Literal

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.

Structural

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.

RELIGION

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.

LYRICISM

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.

SUMMATION

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.

Exercise 1.

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.

X

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!