Halloween is here and in the spirit of the spooky season, we’ve been thinking about gothic literature and how we can write gothic fiction that sends shivers down our readers’ spines. After all, inspiring the reader’s imagination to make them feel terror using only words is practically a superpower of gothic writers.
Many gothic elements have become part and parcel of all that we consider creepy, with gothic traditions creeping into every aspect of pop culture, from music videos to Instagram filters. That being said, there isn’t only one gothic tradition; just think of the southern gothic and the Russian gothic, and the reams of romantic literature that draws on gothic conventions!
So how can you create a story that will strike fear into the heart of a modern reader, using gothic tropes in new and exciting ways and casting gothic characters that today’s reader can relate to?
Anna Mazzola is here to help. Anna is the award-winning author of three historical crime novels and her debut, The Unseeing, was awarded an Edgar Allan Poe award. Her forthcoming book is a haunting ghost story set in Fascist Italy with a strong gothic influence.
If you plan to write gothic literature or are curious about what makes a gothic novel so powerful, read on...
Ten tips for writing gothic fiction and ghostly tales
Humans have always loved creepy stories. Evil spirits and monsters formed the basis of much folklore and mythology, far before gothic horror came to the fore, and ghosts wafted about the works of Homer and Shakespeare.
The gothic novel seeped on to the page in the eighteenth century, with poor Conrad being crushed to death by a gigantic helmet at the gothic Castle of Otranto. From then on, a growing army of ghost nuns, werewolves and vampires would be employed to satiate the demands of the reading public hungry for gothic literature.
In fact, the eighteenth century bred many great examples of gothic literature, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which used the explained supernatural to explore the darker side of the human mind, to the creepy tales Henry James was spinning at the end of the Victorian era – and of course, we must thank Bram Stoker for the undying influence of Dracula. Plus, gothic romance gave us the immortal Byronic hero which even modern romcoms continue to cast!
And scary stories are still going strong. Indeed, they seem to bloom like corpse lilies in times of trouble. As Stephen King says:
We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools – to dismantle themselves.
— Stephen King, Danse Macabre
There is clearly an appetite for terror and gothic fiction, but how do you write a good gothic story?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are a few writing tips I’ve picked up along the dark and winding way through the forest. If you’re working on a gothic novel or are curious about the key elements of gothic fiction, I hope these tips might be interesting!
1. Use your own fears and fascinations for your gothic story
When you’re writing gothic fiction, always write what scares you. Try to identify the things that make you uneasy, anxious, afraid.
Shirley Jackson, one of the very best writers of gothic fiction, said:
I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.
— Shirley Jackson
That’s why my third novel, The Clockwork Girl, is about automata and the uncanny and my next is about poltergeists and the rise of fascism. They had to be subjects that haunted me.
So don’t just fall back on a common theme of gothic horror. Instead, work out what makes you uneasy and communicate that to the reader. That way, you’ll frighten them senseless.
2. Choose a setting that can become its own world
The setting in gothic fiction needs to somewhere that has the capacity to become its own frightening world.
That doesn’t mean it has to be a dilapidated haunted house, spooky castle or gothic mansion (although of course it is, to great effect, in plenty of gothic novels, like The Haunting of Hill House, Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger and Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions). It could be the daunting Himalayas as in Michelle Paver’s Thin Air, or the frozen wastelands of the Arctic as it was in her novel Dark Matter, and in the book that became a successful TV series: The Terror by Dan Simmons. It could be the barren and hostile landscapes of Andrew Michael Hurley’s Starve Acre. It can also be a New York high-rise apartment as it is in Rosemary’s Baby.
The secret, I think, is to make that place its own world, removed from reality and somehow ‘other’. Islands in fact are particularly good settings and it is no coincidence that they recur in many ghost and gothic tales: Shutter Island, Duma Key, Summerisle in The Wicker Man, Eel Island in The Woman in Black and the Isle of Skye in my own novel, The Story Keeper.
The secret, I think, is to make that place its own world, removed from reality and somehow ‘other’.
3. Spend time with your haunted landscape when writing gothic fiction
You then need to cultivate that setting to make it your own world, in which terrifying things can happen and not be stopped.
Andrew Michael Hurley says:
Place has been the starting point of all my novels so far and I always try to make landscape a living element in the story – another character, as it is in Wuthering Heights and in much of Thomas Hardy’s work too.
—Andrew Michael Hurley
He advises: ‘You have to spend time with the landscape in order to get to know it that well.’ I agree with that – I spent much time on the Isle of Skye when writing Story Keeper, breathing in the air, walking the hills my characters would have walked, listening to the trill of the birds, the wash of the waves in the bay.
Michelle Paver does the same, going on a research trip once the first draft is complete. For Thin Air she went mountaineering in the Himalayas and experienced for herself the strange, creaking noises a tent makes in the night, and how confusing outside sounds become when you’re under canvas.
If you can’t actually visit your setting, read as much as you can about it, pore over maps, watch YouTube videos. Stef Penney wrote The Tenderness of Wolves without ever leaving her house. She said she did almost all the research for her novel in the British Library and, being agoraphobic, had not set foot in Canada at all. Rather she created the landscape in her mind.
4. Drip unease throughout your writing
Gothic and ghost writing is very much about atmosphere: the mood, the quality of the air, the sounds, scents and tense awareness that here is a place where anything could happen.
One of the ways to create unease is to insert key details which will make the reader feel the chill, sense the danger, keep one step ahead of your protagonist and fear what’s coming next.
This can be imagery that fits with the dark theme of your novel, or hints of the danger ahead that lodge in the reader’s mind.
It was only when I re-read Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests that I realised she’d shown us the murder weapon not just in the first half, but in the very first chapter and forewarned us of what was to happen.
In horror fiction there tend to be even bigger clues that something terrifying is coming. In Stephen King’s The Shining, Danny can see certain elements in the future: the word Redrum, the mallet. We know, just as he does, that terrible things are coming. In Donna Tartt’s brilliant The Secret History we know right from the word go how this is going to end. The question is how we get there.
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.
— Donna Tartt, The Secret History
5. Create suspense
You need to build not just unease, but suspense. The ghost or the monster or the danger needs to stalk slowly closer to us, growing more frightening as the story reaches its climax.
As with a thriller, you need to keep the reader asking questions and you need to keep withholding information from your readers, to dangle them on the hook and maintain that sense of unease. I always find that it takes me several drafts to work out how much information to provide and how much to hold back.
Peter Straub, author of Ghost Story, says:
It is very important to me to keep building up a gathering head of steam so the reader does really wonder, “What will happen next?” There is very little difference between the way that feels in the basic crime or spooky context. It’s the same sense of anxiety, uncertainty, facing the unknown, being puzzled – in short, a layer of suspense.
— Peter Straub
6. Dissect the best gothic fiction
In terms of how you master all these techniques, the answer really is to read as many ghost stories, gothic fiction, horror fiction and literary fiction as you can.
With your favourites, go back and carry out an autopsy, dissecting them to work out why and how they work.
I have read the likes of Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson and Sarah Waters again and again and again, trying to ascertain how they did it so well.
When you re-read, you will pick up the first clues and hints of danger that you might have missed on the initial read, and you can identify how the writer has dripped mystery and menace into the text until the fear is a terrible flood. You’ll understand the secrets to writing gothic fiction intimately and intuitively.
7. Keep the monster in the cupboard
Perhaps the most powerful weapon in a writer’s arsenal is the unknown – using the reader’s own darkest imaginings. Only you know what really scares you, so only if you are left to your own devices can you begin to summon it.
I think that, in the most effective ghost stories and gothic fiction, terrors are glimpsed or imagined in the cracks, rather than leaping out of the shadows to grab you by the throat. Let your reader guess at what lurks behind the door, but don’t paint it for them, or at least don’t complete the picture.
In The Turn of the Screw, we never see Peter Quint up close. He is always at one remove: behind glass, or in the distance on a tower, just as his companion Miss Jessel is glimpsed on the other side of a lake. We never know quite what they are.
In the most effective ghost stories and gothic fiction, terrors are glimpsed or imagined in the cracks, rather than leaping out of the shadows to grab you by the throat.
Similarly, in Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, we hear the figure, we smell it, we fear it, but we never fully see it. Uncertainty is the black heart of terror and if you paint the full picture you take that away.
‘Where there is no imagination there is no horror’ said some bloke called Arthur Conan Doyle.
8. Experiment with point of view
Take time to work out where to situate your reader. The most effective stories tend to have a close narratorial viewpoint: we are in the eyes of the narrator. We see what they see, hear what they hear, and consequently fear what they fear.
In Du Maurier’s Rebecca, we never even know the name of the narrator because we are there – we walk about the halls and staircases, Manderley, we quake in the wake of Mrs Danvers.
In Sarah Waters’s Little Stranger, the impact of the ending is all the more awful because we are Faraday, or at least we are almost Faraday, when he looks in the mirror and sees his own face. But we understand what Faraday does not.
9. Focus on the psychology
It is not just seeing through the narrator’s eyes but being inside their head.
For me, the most masterful ghost and gothic novels have a strong psychological element, novels in which what is real and what is not is a battle within the mind of the protagonist.
Years after it was written, people continue to argue over whether the ghosts in James’s The Turn of the Screw were merely the product of the Governess’s imagination. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper continues to terrify because we go steadily mad with the imprisoned protagonist. Rebecca remains a bestseller because the dead Rebecca skews the narrator’s mind and our own perception of events as powerfully as if she were still walking about Manderley.
The most masterful ghost and gothic novels have a strong psychological element, novels in which what is real and what is not is a battle within the mind of the protagonist.
10. Give us main characters to care for
Of course none of this will work unless, at the centre of it all, you have characters we care about.
We’re invested in the outcome of a story only if we have some emotional stake in its context. ‘You have got to love the people,’ Stephen King says. ‘There has got to be love involved, because the more you love – kids like Tad Trenton in Cujo or Danny Torrance in The Shining – then that allows horror to be possible.’
And it’s not only the protagonists who have to seem real, but the monsters themselves.
The most terrifying villains and ogres are those who are not so far removed from the normal. They are almost human, almost us, but with deformities, often of mind, that make them truly terrifying. Just think of vampires, like the erudite antagonist of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Or, indeed, the startlingly intelligent protagonist Mary Shelley created (not to mention his monster...).
The most terrifying villains and ogres are those who are not so far removed from the normal.
And for a bonus tip...
11. Ambiguity and endings
For me, the most satisfying ghost and gothic stories leave a window open for the possibility of an as-yet-unknown reality. There is no neat tying up of ends, but an ambiguity that leaves us to question what has really happened and what is really real.
Again, it leaves us, the reader, to think for ourselves and imagine our own ending. We’re unlikely to sleep well afterwards.