Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.
When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance.
A Short History Of Gothic Horror
Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman.
The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).
The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.
When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.
Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.
These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.
Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.
Everyday Usage of The Word ‘Gothic’
Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as referring to any story that uses an elaborate setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent protagonist. The contemporary understanding is similar, but has widened to include a variety of genres, such as “paranormal” and “horror.”
See my post: What’s a Goth?
Raison d’être Of Gothic Stories
Classically Gothic settings (falsely) reassure us that ‘monsters’ are inhuman, and can be recognised quite easily.
You don’t find [monsters] in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us. But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated, because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognised by the naked eye.
— Gavin de Becker, The Gift Of Fear
The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in the 19th century.
Gothic stories are more popular in some eras than in others. Patricia Murphy has said that, “A truism of critical commentary holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.”
The Gothic releases forces usually repressed. Mere anarchy is loosed and contained at the same time. In Gothic, we have the return of the repressed. Our enjoyment is visceral. We enjoy the cracking of bone and the nsapping of backs and the spilling of blood. The appeal has something to do with unrestraint, transgression, the overturning of normalcy. Taboos are broken. In this respect, the Gothic is closely related to the carnivalesque.
The Gothic is a form which examines our fear of desire.
Common Features Of Gothic Stories
There is lots of parody within this genre — of authors sending up other work by writing a supernatural gothic romance, and then people accidentally take it seriously, and subsequent authors make parodies of that ‘original’ parody.
The Gothic is basically ‘paranoid‘. But only if you immerse yourself too much in it, succumbing to its fears. The modern media itself might be accused of being Gothic, with its emphasis on the macabre.
It is also often described as ‘sublime‘, which you may realise means something slightly different when it comes to literature. In everyday English sublime might mean ‘really wonderful’ but in literature it refers to work which provokes terror and pain in the audience. These two emotions are considered the most powerful. Unlike the terror and pain of the real world, however, when experienced via story the audience enjoys it very much. The sublime is a feature of romantic work.
‘Uncanny’ is another word you’ll hear in reference to the Gothic. The uncanny is a psychological concept which refers to something that is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. The emotions evoked in a work of Gothic fiction will be familiar to you. You may not have seen a ghost, but you know horripilation — that feeling of hair standing on end.
Typical Character Archetypes
Here is the basic cast of characters for those original Gothic stories:
- Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. These heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (As you can see, modern stories such as Harry Potter borrows from the genre. We don’t think of the Grimm fairytales as Gothic, but a lot of them follow this exact plot.)
- Older, foolish woman — or the Madwoman, or the Old Wife. Interestingly, British culture consistently associated ghosts and children with the oral tradition in storytelling. These stories were delivered by a greatly misunderstood figure: The Old Wife. The Old Wife was the woman in your community who dished out advice and help to do with childbirth, herbal remedies and so on. She lost a lot of respect, as well as her place in her community, with the emergence of modern day science. This coincided with a growing distaste for people who believed in ghosts. Shakespeare himself poked fun at the Old Wife who believed in ghosts. You can see him doing just that in Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Women, ghost stories and oral stories were linked. When one lost status, so did the others. Even in the gothic stories themselves, the Old Wife character (who told these very tales) was made fun of.
- Hero — innocent, plunged into a weird situation.
- Tyrant/villain — With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women. This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader’s pathos. Even today, crime fiction focuses heavily on victims which are young, attractive, female (and white). We seem more interested in their deaths than in deaths of different demographics.
- Bandits/ruffians — less powerful opposition than the main tyrant/villain.
- Clergy – always weak, usually evil. In Medieval times, Monks often were pretty evil. They were rich, pampered, sequestered funds for themselves (while amazingly often managing to bankrupt the abbey by doing stupid things with money), and sometimes even harboured criminals. They were supposed to live simple lives, but found ways around every rule, including the invention of a sort of sign language to get around the rule of no communication over mealtimes. It’s easy to see how the clergy became figures of fun. By early modern times, people had learned to put far more faith in nuns, who were more likely to behave properly according to the church.
American Gothic in particular tends to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters. An early example is the novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. Two characters slowly become more and more deranged.
Likewise, the modern antihero (or hero-villain if you prefer) comes from the Gothic tradition. However, in gothic stories morality is clear. Good is good, evil is evil, even if it is attractive. Evil is not simply misunderstood, it is inherent. Evil cannot be assimilated into everyday society and must be expelled. That’s not how modern stories about anti-heroes typically play out. Viewers were encouraged to understand Walter White and Tony Soprano. Thinking individuals are much more yin-yang about people these days. Less nature, more nurture — even if you’re a nature over nurture sort of person, you probably admit that Tony Soprano’s life would have panned out differently had he not grown up in the mafia.
Other Stories About a Descent Into Madness:
- Sunset Boulevard — Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. Boulevard subtextually warns that a woman’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfillment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing.
- Fatal Attraction — While Norma of Sunset Boulevard is an artist, the madwoman of Fatal Attraction is a professional.
- Black Swan
- Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews
- Apocalypse Now
- The Shining by Stephen King — Isolation is used as a vehicle for madness. (Used again more recently in Shut In.) The main character is Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. With his family he looks after an empty hotel one winter, partly to concentrate on writing his novel. But he is haunted by visions and descends into murderous madness.
- Carrie by Stephen King, which promotes anxiety and thereby encourages conformity. A good example of ‘suburban Gothic’, making use of Gothic features such as witch-hunting.
- Misery by Stephen King
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself diagnosed with hysteria and commanded never to touch pencil and paper again.
- Shut In — Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house. Click through to read more about the psychological reasons for why we think we see ghosts and phantoms.
As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favorite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.
And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.
— from Davey Davis writing at The Millions
Davis is writing about the gendered nature of craziness:
- Humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded
- This ‘madwoman archetype’, or the idea that a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalised, silenced, or worse — is deep in the bedrock of our culture.
- Even now, the two attributes of women most feared (by the dominant culture and by women ourselves) are ugliness and craziness. (Infertility is linked to ugliness, which is linked to old age.)
Storyworlds Of Gothic Horror
The setting of the Gothic novel is a character in itself. The setting not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths. It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.
The building might be:
- a castle
- an abbey
- a monastery
- crumbling battlements
- ruined dwellings
- a prison
- an abandoned hospital
- or some other, usually religious, edifice
This building will have secrets of its own, and can therefore almost be considered a character in its own right (with weakness/needs/desires).
Other settings may include caves or the wilderness.
Plot Structure Of A Straight-up Gothic Story
WEAKNESS: A female character is an innocent, unwitting victim with no particular moral weakness but she is weak in general owing to her position/station in life.
DESIRE: She (perhaps subconsciously) wants to be saved from her ordinary life. This is the same wish-fulfilment as modern dark, paranormal romances, and is easy to mock until you understand that this desire is borne of a need to escape, because adolescence is terrifying for a girl whose body is suddenly attracting the attention of much larger, stronger men, some of whom will not leave her alone.
OPPONENT: She is the victim of some sort of external malevolence.
ALLY: A rescuer arrives from outside.
BATTLE: There is a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good.
NEW EQUILIBRIUM: The evil is now expelled completely.
Symbol Web Of Gothic Horror
Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people.
Evil characters are also seen in Gothic literature and especially American Gothic. Depending on the time period that the work is written about, the evil characters could be characters like Native Americans, trappers, gold miners etc.
Omens – or portents, visions, etc.—often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.
Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise.
An element of fear is another characteristic of American Gothic literature. This is typically connected to the unknown and is generally seen throughout the course of the entire novel. This can also be connected to the feeling of despair that characters within the novel are overcome by. This element can lead characters to commit heinous crimes. In the case of Brown’s character Edgar Huntly, he experiences this element when he contemplates eating himself, eats an uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat.
Psychological overlay is an element that is connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. An example of this would be if a character was in a maze-like area and a connection was made to the maze that their minds represented.
Revelation & Gothic’s Relationship To Mystery
Revelation is the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery—and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. Much gothic fiction is founded on a central mystery. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something that’s been true for some time, the story’s narrative drive comes from the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. More similar to a ‘whydunnit’ mystery than a ‘whodunnit’, in other words.
Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.
The Woman In The Attic Trope
Jane Eyre —Mr. Edward Rochester keeps his violently insane wife Bertha locked in the attic of Thornfield. All the while, Rochester is romancing Jane. The story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Except for the secret — the mystery — the story would be quite static.
Likewise, Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her. Rebecca is a more modern Bluebeard story.
Stranger Things, the Netflix TV show, also features a ‘girl in the attic’ trope in Eleven. Stranger Things is indeed a gothic story:
One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.
A Short List Of Well-known Classic Gothic Tales For Adult Readers
- Bluebeard — the ur-Castle story
- Gormenghast series— three novels by Mervyn Peake, originally published between 1946 and 1959. Follows the life of Titus Groan, left to fend for himself in a crumbling kingdom he will one day inherit. He is surrounded by bizarre family memebrs. He survives his neglectful childhood, grows up, survives attempted murder. The ending is thought to be pretty poor. Peake never bothered finishing it himself — it’s supposedly finished off by his family, which explains a lot.
- Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald — these stories influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
- The horror classic film Freaks
- The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is probably the most famous example of pure gothic fiction. The combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre. This story was already a pastiche and self-consciously parodic send-up of the genre that it itself established.
- The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe — a good example of a paranormal scheme against a helpless young woman. Bourgeois heroine Emily St. Aubert endures all kinds of struggles. She loses her father to supernatural experiences in an old castle. Jane Austen was influenced by this book. The heroine continuously disavows her own foolish predisposition towards superstition by projecting it onto her servant girl, Annette.
- Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) is actually a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Jane Austen parodied the genre but also seemed to really enjoy reading it herself. She continued to read gothic romance for years, even after parodying it.
- The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
- The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis — Lewis was 19 when he wrote this novel of ecclesiastical debasement. It is stuffed full of love, murder and immorality.
- Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley — Don’t forget that Frankenstein is the doctor (not the monster). Dr Frankenstein creates a creature from body parts culled from graves at the local cemetery.
- Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
- Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
- The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
- Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
- The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker — Vampires, haunted kingdoms, blood.
- Jane Eyre
- The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — a philosophical work about getting old and indulgence. The main character becomes so obsessed with stayng beautiful that he sells his soul. He occasionally goes up to the attic to watch his portrait grow old.
- The Woman In Black (1983) by Susan Hill — A best-seller from the 1980s. A spooky visitor haunts a small town in England, warning that children are going to die. It’s been adapted for stage and is a hit in West End.
- Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice — Written as an interview between a reporter and a vampire called Louis de Pointe du Lac, who recounts the last 200 years of his life. He is full of regret.
- The Tell Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe — the murderous main character is haunted by the sound of the beating heart of his victim, hidden in pieces under the floorboards.
- Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte — Set on the moors, this story is about class, survival, prejudice and is highly atmospheric.
- The Tale Of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf
- 10 Gothic historical stories and novels that interrogate history but aren’t subject to it
Gothic Children’s Literature
A Brief History Of Gothic Children’s Literature
Gothic children’s literature emerged in response to the adult Gothic romance. However, even children in the 18th century probably preferred the scary tales over the didactic ones they were supposed to read, which were heavily didactic. There was an effort by the gatekeepers of this time to keep Gothic stories away from children. This fear has never subsided. There are always cultural critics worried about the effect Gothic stories have on the tabula rasa of children. In earlier eras children were thought to be entirely innocent. Rousseau was partly responsible for that. These days stories tend to play with the idea that children are somewhat complicit in getting themselves into trouble. This is why children’s stories, too, quite often give a moral weakness to the main character. This affords children more agency, in fact.
Maryrose Wood uses this historical attitude in her gothic parody The Mysterious Howling when she writes:
[Penelope the governess] had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realised too late that the Inferno’s tale of sinners being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded “More, more!” each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop […]
Penelope had begun reading poetry to the children in the belief that it would improve their English faster than lists of spelling words ever could. Besides, she personally found poetry very interesting, and since her students [literally raised by wolves] were more or less blank slates when it came to literature, she felt she might as well do what she liked. (As you may already know, the Latin term for “blank slate” is tabula rasa, a phrase the Incorrigibles would no doubt be exposed to a little further on in their educations.)
— The Mysterious Howling, book one of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place
Recently we have those fears directed towards the Twilight series, in which the passive heroine basically waits around to be saved by a creepy, much older male monster. The fear is that girls in real life will hope to emulate this as a script for their own romantic lives. (I admit, I have some sympathy for this view myself, if girls are reading dark, paranormal fiction widely but not critically. Then again, who’s to say they’re not critical of the very stories they enjoy?)
Children’s stories have always been gothic. In fact, gothic stories belonged to children all along. The Gothic romances for adults actually came out of fairytales told while these adult readers were still children.
There was a lot of playing with Gothic conventions in the latter half of the 19th century, especially by woman writers, who were presumably reading gothic romance/horror themselves for pleasure.
Another three 18th century woman writers started writing partly in order to combat what they considered worrying trends in contemporary children’s fiction. These women were Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. Bear in mind that each of these women used Gothic features in their writing for children but it wasn’t actually Gothic because they didn’t want to expose children to ghosts. Also, each and every one of them wrote Gothic stories for adults in a different part of her writing career, exposing a double standard. We love the Gothic and find it entertaining, but not for children, whose minds are easily corrupted.
Influential male writers have said they loved to read Gothic chapbooks as children. These men include: Boswell, Johnson, Carlyle, Goethe, Lamb, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet chapbooks were never culturally approved. (Chapbooks were magazine type products sold door-to-door — an important means of cultural dissemination before people could afford books.) Chap books were considered trash fiction.
A very easy definition of Gothic children’s literature: Gothic stories are everything ‘quality’ children’s literature is not, in any given era. When a literature emerged for the middle class white child, ghosts were firmly erased.
Fear (or the pretence of fear) is very popular right now in children’s literature. This is the modern take on ‘gothic’.
Examples Of Early Gothic Children’s Literature
- Mary Louisa Molesworth (A Christmas Child, A Christmas Posy, An Enchanted Garden and so on)took the gothic tradition and domesticated it.
- A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T. Meade is a vivid and detailed description of college life among a perfect bevy of young misses in the old English university town of Kingsdene. It follows the fortunes of a young Devonshire lass who goes away to college and finds herself among entirely different conditions of life and points of view than those that prevail in her own narrow village. L.T. Meade was perhaps the first to transform the school into a gothic place.
- The Secret Garden has the madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a little boy, not a mad-woman. There’s also the haunted house and grounds. The Secret Garden is the most obvious example of Gothic children’s literature.
- C.S. Lewis used The Woman In The Attic trope in his Narnia Chronicles — The Magician’s Nephew to be exact. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe begins in a big old scary mansion and a scary, remote owner who is basically a hermit, probably with secrets of his own.
- The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, who writes macabre rhymes. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”
In response to being called gothic, [Gorey] stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.”
— Wikipedia entry on Edward Gorey
- Emily series by L.M. Montgomery — Montgomery plays with Gothic conventions, as well as in some of her stand-alone novels and short stories.
If you’re wondering about Alice In Wonderland, Alice is not gothic literature. There are plenty of Gothic features without it adding up to actually Gothic. Alice is absurdist instead.
Features Of Gothic Children’s Literature
What does the Gothic look like in children’s literature? Gothic motifs in general are very well-suited to exploring adolescence, and the way identity seems to change from day to day. With the menarche, girls face blood — another Gothic motif (wayward fluids, murder). Elements include:
- Hobgoblins, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves, vampires and other folkloric creatures
- Bugaboos such as chimney sweeps, Wee Willy Winkies and other creatures from urban folklore. (Bugaboos come in the night.)
- Ghouls — The ghoul is the classic Gothic monster. They frighten us and transform the familiar into the strange and threatening.
- Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, apparitions and general hauntings
- Schools are often the proxy for haunted mansions and castles.
- The schoolyard is the forest.
- Irony and parody is very gothic, so anything meta in the style of Lemony Snicket borrows from the Gothic tradition. There’s a lot of parody of Victorian settings.
- The Gothic is to do with transgression, lack of restraint and the overturning of normality. For example, Gothic villains break taboos, as do young children, by not doing as they’re told. See again The Carnivalesque, which is a tradition with a long history in children’s literature. No wonder Gothic features so heavily in stories for the young.
- A lot of Gothic stories have a ‘jump’ ending. Take the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, in which the storyteller grabs the listener as if she is about to get eaten by the wolf. A number of modern stories for young children are also designed to be performed as much as read.
- The Gothic warns readers of the dangers mysteriously close to even the most familiar places. The Gothic tells us that the world is not safe. How many children’s stories teach that? Quite a number. Pretty much any story that’s not pastoral is teaching children that same lesson: Be vigilant, be smart, stick with your friends, know friends from enemies.
- Gothic children’s literature often takes the form of fantasy. If the Gothic is about fear of desire, fantasy is a great genre to explore that because fantasy teaches the reader to desire.
- A lot of children’s stories use the trope of the Explained Ghost. Basically, there’s some sort of supernatural happenings in the world of the story which is later revealed to have been just the over-workings of a foolish mind. This trope is used to teach the reader that there is no such thing as ghosts and whatnot, and to always dig deeper for the truth behind our fancies. Nevertheless, even the Explained Ghost tropes themselves rely upon Gothic motifs and traditions. That’s not to say traditional Gothic stories themselves didn’t make use of the Explained Ghost. Ann Radcliffe herself used it, though perhaps to a different end (to show up rational thinking by later subverting it).
- There are a lot of orphans in children’s literature. Absent maternity is a feature of the Gothic.
Tips For Writing Gothic Stories For Children
Unlike in Gothic romance for adults, child heroes are mostly given something to fight back with. They don’t wait around to be rescued, except in the odd parody. This is in line with the general advice when writing for children: heroes must be proactive and basically get themselves out of their own predicaments. They may ask for help from a mentor, but no one’s coming to save them.
The writer must be familiar with gothic motifs and tropes and settings — familiar enough to parody them, and to manage whether readers will find something scary or funny (or both).
Writers can take gothic motifs and transplant them to a new setting. This creates a kind of neo-Gothic (to borrow from the term neo-Western). For example, writers may take the labyrinthine qualities of a castle and reuse them in a dystopian city or in a setting inspired by cyberspace.
Gothic stories tend to do one of two things:
- They can either suggest subversive possibilities to readers
- They can scare children into submission and ensure conformity.
Be clear with yourself: Are you achieving the former? If not, you’re writing didactic, 19th century work.
Examples Of Modern Gothic Literature For Children
- Flowers In The Attic was the Twilight of my generation (teenagers of the 1990s). It features children locked in the attic of a big, mean castle of a house and a wicked grandmother. Also incest.
- Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl — This is the first of The Caster Chronicles. It is YA fiction about a main character called Ethan, who has lost his mother and feels trapped in a tiny town.
- Roald Dahl — Preserves the innocence of the child and retains the level of evil of the villain, but gives the child the means to save themselves. Daniel Handler has continued this tradition.
- Anything Gothic for children these days tends to be compared to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, even if there’s not much else really in common.
- An example often compared to Lemony Snicket is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, set in the mid 1850s.
- J.K. Rowling uses the madwoman in the attic trope in Harry Potter, more than once, and many other elements from Gothic fiction, being the master borrower and remixer of tropes.
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — chronicles the life of Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. The story is a series of loosely connected stories about Bod’s life and what he learns about life/death.
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another middle grade novel from the gothic tradition, with its large house, bizarre characters and supernatural goings-on.
- Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman is a picture book, with a title reminiscent of The Rats In The Walls, and is similarly gothic in tone.
- Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson — a picture book about a ghost called Leo who lives alone in a deserted house.
- The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen — a picture book set in a big, scary, empty, dark house. In reality the house is probably an ordinary one, replete with a mother/father, but the representation of the house on the page is how the boy feels about it.
- Ghostlight by Sonia Gensler — An American Gothic tale including an abandoned haunted mansion, spooky movies, imaginary games, film-making (a popular device in ghost stories).
- Doll Bones by Holly Black — A coming of age novel about a boy called Zach who plays with dolls. His father throws his creepy porcelain dolls away but this isn’t the last we see of them.
- The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
- The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
- Gothic Hospital by Gary Crew
- The Devil Latch by Sonya Hartnett
- The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix
- Thirsty by M.T. Anderson — the main character can’t join in his culture’s hatred of the monstrous because he has discovered it within himself. He has to find a way of living which is neither killing himself nor accepting his fate.
- Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz — As Kate de Goldi said in her RNZ interview review, the author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy. This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.
- Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz — The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.) This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts. Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor. While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London. Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.
Then there are books which are not obviously Gothic, but influenced by the tradition. The labyrinthine computer game stories set in cyberspace calling to mind the structures of Gothic castles, are one example. Themes in common: double consciousness, metafiction, moral disintegration. In this way, 19th century Gothic fiction has a lot in common with ultra-contemporary speculative work.
With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30.
— Dr Phillip Serrato