If you’re reading this, there’s a healthy chance that you’ve seen Guillermo del Toro’s newest film, Crimson Peak, and now you’re itching to dip your chalice into the dark waters of the Gothic genre.  But perhaps you have pause about writing Gothic. You may be thinking, My work is more like John Green’s than Mary Shelley’s! Can I write Gothic? Or even, Isn’t Gothic an antiquated genre? Is there a way to make such an old genre fresh and interesting and, most importantly, not thematically problematic?
Settings that “work” as truly Gothic settings feel overgrown, wild, crumbling. Think of vines trailing up the sides of brick buildings, cloudy, broken windows, soot-covered windowsills. Perhaps an adjacent graveyard that is falling apart from lack of care. Beauty amongst decay is a central theme to most Gothic novels, and the decaying setting usually represents the heroine’s view of the stability of the world around her, her crumbling fantasies, or her sanity threatening to fall away.
- Ways to subvert or develop this trope: Manor houses are fun, but this setting could be anything! Ruins in the rainforest, a former Soviet space station, a theatrical set, an office building. If it can decay or become overgrown, it can totally work as a Gothic novel setting.
More often than not, (almost exclusively, in fact) the heroine is the true focal character of the Gothic novel. Everything centers around her. Her relationships are of utmost importance, and even her smallest, most insignificant of interests can serve as her salvation. She often explores the crumbling manor at night, wearing nightgowns and holding candelabrum and running into apparitions or stumbling into secret staircases. And, historically, readers have loved it. She has a need that the manor house can fulfill—or so she thinks.
- Ways to subvert or develop this trope: Though she’s presented as a sort of “every-woman,” the heroine is nearly always white, nearly always straight, nearly always from money and privilege or there in the setting to do something domestic. Could she, perhaps, have a skilled trade? Could she be a Japanese astronaut exploring the ruins of a decaying satellite? Absolutely! An African-American real estate agent? A Hispanic homeless girl in the wrong place at the wrong time? A plumber there to fix the pipes in the Crumbling Manor House? PLEASE!
A Byronic hero who captures the fascination of the heroine (to some degree or other.) Sometimes (as in Wuthering Heights) he figures more largely than not (as in The Turn of the Screw.) He is, among other things, a symbol of the attractive unknown. He often figures as or presents the reason for the heroine’s presence in the crumbling manor.
- Ways to subvert or develop this trope: I’d really love to see some female “mysterious hosts” in the Gothic world. Or if you’re sold on the idea of a male mysterious host, perhaps he isn’t a lord, for once. Perhaps he’s a scientist in a lab, or a music producer, or a lead astronaut (sorry, I’m really into the idea of a Space Gothic right now.) As long as he is able to embody a sense of dignity, mystery and decadence, you’re doing it right.
Sometimes he’s an overbearing father, a former lover, a cantankerous caretaker, etc. He’s usually there to contrast the mysterious host—though sometimes, the mysterious host has a sort of alternate, Jekyll-Hyde personality, and he is both the Byronic hero and the angry, controlling male.
- Ways to subvert or develop this trope: Perhaps instead of a father figure, a workplace-related figure, like a boss or a captain of a police force, or a crime-related figure, like a pimp or a kingpin. Or a former lover. Or a woman who is unrelated to the heroine! Or do away with it all together! I often find that the relationship between the angry controlling male and the heroine can be a particularly antiquated-feeling, anti-feminist one if done incorrectly, and, depending on your story, his presence may not be necessary at all.
See: dead former wife of the mysterious host, dead former governess, etc. A figure meant to serve as a tragic and beautiful warning as to what could befall the heroine.
- Ways to subvert or develop this trope: Perhaps she’s not a woman at all. This is not to say that she must be a man, but perhaps she’s an animal, a child, a mysterious garden that seems to appear only when the heroine needs it to.
Much the same as a woman in white, with an added element of madness or anger. Instead of a neutral or beneficial figure, she’s usually a negative figure and is certainly always perceived as such.
- Ways to subvert or develop this trope: There are several ways to subvert this trope (for example, she could be a beneficial figure—and sometimes, recently, she has been.) Or she could be an animal, etc. But to subvert her, one must first understand her purpose. She’s scary in that women are not supposed to be angry or threatening or dangerous, even after they become ghosts. She’s also there to contrast the heroine. But if the heroine is not a paragon of goodness, what does that leave the Woman in Black? This trope is a rather demonizing one for women (figuratively and, to an extent, literally) and should be used carefully for modern readers.
The mysterious host has to have something to be mysterious about, and more often than not, it’s something extremely shady that his family had gotten up to in the past. Murders, incest, dabbling with spirits, insane wives hidden away in towers, you name it.
- Ways to subvert or develop this trope: Perhaps the mysterious host IS the family secret and there’s a crazy twist coming. Perhaps just the appearance of a family secret is enough—a rumor that has done more damage than the truth of the matter.
Gothic novels arguably rely on that wavering line between reality and nightmare, and since the protagonist is most often female, Gothic novels often have a tendency toward treating “madness” in a way that almost romanticizes it. Pages of Gothic novels are rife with descriptions of half-mad heroines’ “haunted eyes” and “translucent skin,” offering almost a heroin-chic, spectral sort of glamour that is as problematic as Kate Moss’s BMI was to the fashion industry. Also, characters such as the depressed ward who committed suicide, or the mad first wife who lies locked in a tower, or the governess who died tragically, leaving a beautiful corpse, are extremely pervasive in Gothic fiction (with several of these characters recurring as either a Woman in White or a Woman in Black.) But the glamorization of madness and suicide is extremely problematic, and is finally being seen as such. There are, after all, women all over the world who live with mental illness, and this doesn't make them automatically glamorous or beautiful, or even tragic. There are also women who have been lost to mental illness, and we a writers cannot do them the disservice of glamorizing their experiences and objectifying their bodies. But how do we buck this seeming institution of Gothic fiction? By doing what we can to create a dreamlike sense of troubled reality without dipping into the “beautiful corpse” or the “heroin-chic” images. You’re better than that, and you’re smarter than that.
- A great way to subvert this trope is to take beauty and genderized ideas out of it. Read up on the Uncanny and the motifs that Freud recognized as unfailingly disturbing without being attached to gender. These include recurring numbers (think Jim Carrey’s The Number 23), mirrors, doubles, eye trauma, and, of course, mysticism. If your heroine begins to show symptoms of madness glamorization, even through the uncanny, focus on unattractive aspects of it, aspects that don’t leave her giving the impression of a 1990s runway waif. Your readers (and I) will thank you.
Kate Pentecost is a writer of YA fantasy, horror, alternate history, Southern gothic, and weird west. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has spoken at several international conferences. She is represented by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. and her first novel is currently under consideration of two major publishers.
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