Genre talk: Gothic Literature

I feel like a lot of writing blogs focus on the author’s process. The actual act of sitting down and putting pen to paper (metaphorically). What it’s like to churn out the perfect sentence, word for word. You’re probably not interested in that from me – I have a very “sit down and write and don’t give a fuck” mentality about it all. It’s a first draft, I can stress over the exact wording of things in the editing stages. When I think about putting down that first draft, I just tell myself, write crap.

Having said that, the more interesting side of writing (to me) would have to be the process of worldbuilding and exploring genres. And I suppose one thing you should know is that I love playing with dark/Gothic fantasy. But there have been a few challenges I’ve run into while doing it.

I’m a big fan of exploring other settings, ones that haven’t become the “default” or “standard” fantasy setting (looking at you, Victorian England and Medieval Western Europe). There’s a certain appeal that comes with those settings, however. They’re long-established as being settings where fantasy can easily take place. High fantasy and Gothic fantasy fit well into Medieval Western Europe and Victorian England respectively. Tolkien’s probably responsible for the former, and I blame the boom of Gothic literature in the Victorian Era for the latter. But I’m not here to discuss whether this is a bad thing or not. I want to talk about translating Gothic literature into new settings.

Traditional Gothic fiction is deeply rooted in the Victorian Era. A lot of the mannerisms of Gothic characters and the overall atmosphere of the setting are heavily Western European. Translating it into other settings will require us to look into the core elements of Gothic literature.

So I went looking for a good overview of what makes Gothic literature, and came across Elements of Gothic Fiction by Robert Harris, cited 13 times according to Google. It has a few problems, however – as I mentioned before, it’s heavily rooted in Western Europe. Let’s look at the list:

  1. Setting in a castle
  2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense
  3. An ancient prophecy
  4. Omens, portents, visions
  5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events
  6. High, even overwrought emotion
  7. Women in distress
  8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male
  9. Metonymy of gloom and horror
  10. Vocabulary of the Gothic

I’ll let you check out his post for the actual definitions of these elements. I want to talk about what they have in common, as a sort of generalization. Because looking at this list, it’s obvious that most of it is very much rooted in Western Europe (and a lot of old fashioned Victorian Era sexism) and some of it is a bit too specific (castles, ancient prophecy).

What should be mentioned about Gothic literature is that it’s not a broad genre. In fact, I consider it more of an atmosphere or an aesthetic that can be applied to other genres. Gothic literature, as seen by the characteristics that Harris outlined, lends itself to a specific feeling which I feel makes it a subgenre of several different kinds of genres, like horror or fantasy or even sci-fi. Consider the points that Harris makes that can all be summed up by  a specific tone or atmosphere:

  • a fascination or exaggeration of the supernatural or the psyche

But wait, where did he say that?

There is, in a sense, a lot of repetition in the points Harris made. Omens, visions, prophecies, and mystery can all be rolled into “the supernatural”. The Victorians were absolutely obsessed with the supernatural, the occult, and death. It’s no wonder they “created” Gothic fiction. Beyond the supernatural, Harris also points out high emotions, where characters have an over-the-top feeling of horror or despair. This would be an exaggeration of the psyche, and although I’m sure most of it stemmed from the Victorian Era fascination (and stigma) of mental illness, it’s rampant in Gothic literature. Buildings with elaborate decorations and a labyrinthine layout lend itself to a feeling of claustrophobia and anxiety, while foreign settings add to the sensation of loneliness and isolation and forbidden knowledge brings on insanity. After all, there are other forms of Gothic fiction that don’t take place in European settings with castles and ancient mysteries. Take American Gothic for example. Small towns that are suffocatingly small, with an emphasis on loneliness and anxiety.

These are the aspects that translates over to Gothic literature in other settings. Forget the misogynistic and Western European roots of Victorian Gothic literature, we should focus on the atmosphere of the genre (or subgenre, whatever you want to call it). I’ll do a recap (for those of you who like to skim posts):

Aspects of Gothic literature:

  • Mental illness (this is a discussion I’m willing to have in another post because oh boy) such as an exaggeration of anxiety, depression, or phobias
  • Isolation/loneliness
  • Superstition or the supernatural
  • Forbidden or lost knowledge
  • Fascination with the past/obsession with the unknown
  • Obsession with the darker side of human nature

I’m sure that list can get condensed down more, too. But those are the ones that I use to keep in mind when I write. Many of them lend itself to characterization, but others for setting. My struggles came when I started wondering how to adapt the Gothic atmosphere into my pseudo-Eastern Europe and pseudo-Persia settings. I had to address it by generalizing Gothic literature – how can I make Persian architecture claustrophobic or labyrinthine? What kinds of superstitions would they have? It’s important to think about these generalizations rather than trying to impose Gothic Victorian England onto other settings (that’s a whole other debacle to tackle ohgod it rhymed).

Let me know if you’ve come across non-standard Gothic settings! I’ve seen a few floating around tumblr which were an honestly very interesting take on it. I’d love to see if there are more.

Also, because I’m also an artist at heart, my posts will try to showcase some artists I’ve found. It’ll be the very last segments of my posts:

Who’s the artist?

Nicola Samori is an Italian painter who likes to explore the darker side of Baroque and Classical paintings. He recreates and purposefully deconstructs paintings to make it into something darker. Traditional? No, not at all. Gothic? Oh, most certainly.


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