The Gothic genre arose in the late 18th century, reflecting the dread and excitement of a Europe transitioning from an age of superstition to an era of science. In its pure form, Gothic has characteristics of Horror, Romance, and Melodrama, while being unique from any one of those genres. Gothic differs from pure Horror in its emphasis on love (whether true, lost, or twisted), from pure Romance in its emphasis on the grotesque and terrible, and from pure Melodrama in that evil may sometimes triumph. The Gothic story seeks excitement through the juxtaposition of opposites, such as virtue and vice, light and darkness, reason and faith, youth and age, ancient and modern. It does not generally attempt to instruct its audience in morality, but simply aims to entertain.
The Gothic genre focuses on the essential barbarism of existence. Often, it cloaks the terrors of life in the guise of supernatural creatures and situations. Just as often, the horrors suffered by the protagonists in Gothic tales are perpetrated by otherwise ordinary men and women, driven to evil by desperation and twisted desires. Decay, both physical and moral, is ever-present. Illusion and deception are endemic. Often, wickedness is overcome by heroism. Other times, wicked men are punished by the results of their own actions. Sometimes, however, wickedness wins.
The Gothic genre grew out of the medieval Romance, and retains an obsession with the medieval world. For that reason, the genre is also known as “Gothic Romance”. The name “Gothic”itself is a direct reference to medieval Gothic architecture, and also to the barbarian Goths that helped end the classical world by attacking the Roman Empire. The first Gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto”, is actually set in the Middle Ages. Gothic stories are filled with ancient abbeys, ruined castles, the Inquisition, worldly clergy, and superstitious customs. When not actually occurring in medieval times, a Gothic story will feature modern characters faced with locations, objects, ideas, and customs from a prior age.
Gothic stories propose a world of extremes. Slighted characters do not simply become angry, they are consumed with blind hate that propels them to commit atrocities. Likewise, love is never mild affection, but an intense passion that defines and controls lives. Shadows are deep and dark, while the light glares and burns. The focus of the action is seldom on the lives of the average and middle class, but on the travails of the very rich and desperately poor.
Many classic Gothic stories are written in a florid, formal style that borders on what is nowadays deemed “purple prose”. The spare “transparent prose” that characterizes modern genre fiction arose from the influence of journalists turned novelists such as Hemingway, and was enthusiastically championed by cost-conscious pulp magazine editors who didn’t want to pay writers for unnecessary adjectives. “Transparent prose” was also promoted by 20th Century critics as more appropriate for readers in a fast-paced modern world. The true Gothic tale, however, is as much about the moody atmosphere of its setting as the simple resolution of its plot.
Twenty Elements of a Gothic Story
Following is a list of twenty conventional characteristics of a proper Gothic tale. Not every Gothic story contains all of the elements, but most stories in the genre contain at least the majority of them.
The twenty elements of a classic Gothic story are: The Castle, Confinement, Crime, Curses, Dark Places, Desecration, The Despot, Fiends, The Fury of Nature, Hauntings, Innocents, Lovers, Madness, Monsters, Mysteries, Omens, Ruins, Strangers, Shocking Secrets, and Talismans.
The Castle refers to a large and imposing structure that is the center of the scenario. The Castle could be an actual stronghold from feudal times. Such places as ancestral mansions, lunatic asylums, prisons, monasteries, and universities can also be considered Castles, especially if they had once been military strongholds, or have been built to resemble them. The Castle in a Gothic story should have a suitably long and troubled history. A section of the Castle could be sealed off from the rest. The Castle is often a place of Confinement, home to a family under a Curse, encloses a Dark Place, is the site of a Haunting, shelters a Fiend or Monster, and contains an essential Mystery. If not an abandoned on account of being a Ruin, the Castle will be presided over by a Despot. The Castle is not just a place, but an actual character in the story. Its door may resemble a mouth, and its windows may stare like eyes. The Castle seems to have a will of its own, for good or ill.
Confinement means a situation where someone or something is restrained against their will. Sometimes, the person is confined to their bed due to a prolonged illness. Other times, an abducted Innocent is held by the Despot, a Fiend, or a Monster. Young women are often confined to corrupt and abusive religious institutions. Sometimes a Confinement is due to the Madness of its subject. Other times, a Fiend or a Monster must be confined to protect the population at large. A Curse can also lead to Confinement, trapping people (guilty or innocent) until some condition is met. The Confinement can be related to a Haunting, especially in cases where spirits are trapped on Earth. The Confinement usually occurs in either the Castle, or a Dark Place.
Crime refers to violations of the law, or transgressions of accepted morality. A Crime may be the central action of the scenario, or something that happened far in the past. A protagonist may witness a Crime, be the victim of one or more Crimes, be seeking vengeance for a Crime, or even be forced to commit one themselves. The truth about an old Crime is often a Shocking Secret. Those wronged sometimes pronounce Curses against the criminals and their descendants. An object used in a famous crime (such as a dagger) can become a dark Talisman. The Crime is all the more awful when it is committed against an Innocent, often by the story’s Despot. When a Crime is committed against (or by means of) a holy person, place, or thing, it is a Desecration. Unpunished Crimes often give rise to Hauntings.
Curses are negative conditions of apparently supernatural nature, inflicted upon people, places, or things. A Curse may be just, or cruelly arbitrary. It could even be unintentional. Talismans often have Curses placed upon them, even (and especially) when they also confer great powers upon their possessors. Family Curses are often the result of Crimes committed by ancestors. A Haunting can be the result of a Curse, as can a Confinement. Curses can create Monsters, inflict Madness, or unleash the Fury of Nature. Mysterious Strangers are often under Curses. The Despot of a Castle is often afflicted with a Curse. Trying to learn the truth about a Curse can bring a Shocking Secret to light.
Dark Places are locations, usually confining, where little or no natural light ever reaches. Common Dark Places might include labyrinthine dungeons underneath fortresses, crypts and catacombs underneath religious sites, walled up rooms in sprawling manors, and overgrown forests where the trees obscure the sun. Dark secret passages are common in the Gothic genre. The Dark Place may be within or near the Castle, may be the location for a Haunting, may be the resting place of a Talisman that communicates a Shocking Secret, or may constitute the Confinement of someone inflicted with Madness.
Desecration is the act of profaning holy things. A formerly sacred place may now be used as a family home, or may even host obscene rites. A religious figure may be engaged in outrageous sins. A holy relic may languish in the hands of unbelievers, or be turned to a blasphemous use. Chaste clergy may be violated by evil people. Religious institutions or rituals meant to comfort and aid people may be turned into means of oppression. Desecration leads to Curses and Hauntings, and attracts the attention of Fiends.
The Despot is an autocrat who is usually the ruler or primary influence in the story’s Castle. Just as the Castle is not necessarily an actual military fortress, the Despot is not necessarily a nobleman. The Warden of an Asylum could be the Despot of a story, as could the Mother Superior of a Convent. The Patriarch of an ancient and inbred family is a perfect example of a Despot. The Despot could even be a grand lady who holds a salon frequented by artists, writers, and dilettantes. Despots are usually heartless, corrupt and depraved, but a few Despots attempt to hold on to some shreds of decency. The Despot frequently threatens the virtue of an Innocent, and may be responsible for the Confinement of that hapless damsel in the Castle. If the Despot is a usurper, or the descendant of one, he will probably be subject to a Curse, or at least experience a Haunting.
Fiends are people or creatures with actual or apparent connections to supernatural evil. A Fiend could be a sorcerer who sold his soul for power, or an actual infernal being. A Fiend is sometimes the Despot, or the subject of Confinement. The Fiend might haunt a Dark Place, or walk unsuspected in the light. Sometimes the Fiend is the cause of a Curse or a Haunting. The Fiend is often the cause of Ruin, especially if the ruin is moral or mental. The presence of a Fiend is often announced by the Fury of Nature. Often a Talisman relates to a Fiend, whether it is the weapon that will destroy him, or an object that he possesses (or wishes to regain). Vampires are Fiends inflicted with the Curse of restless death. Sometimes the Fiend is not really evil at all, but the victim of unfortunate circumstances.
The Fury of Nature refers to storms, earthquakes, bolt of lightnings, forest fires, floods, or other terrible natural events. Perhaps the wolves of the forest grow hungry, and begin attacking babies. Sometimes the Fury of Nature reveals a Shocking Secret, as when a storm blows open a tower in the Castle and reveals the corpses walled up within. The Fury of Nature is often an Omen, perhaps of the tempestuous fate that awaits a pair of Lovers. The Fury of Nature could be the result of a Haunting, or a Curse. A Gothic scenario often begins with an example of the Fury of Nature, on a dark and stormy night.
Hauntings are strange, and often repetitive events associated with some deceased person, injustice, crime, or catastrophe. A Haunting might be confined to a place, but objects and people can also be haunted. The Haunting could consist of visual, auditory, thermal, olfactory and tactile elements. Objects could mysteriously appear or disappear, or move without any obvious means of locomotion. Hauntings can be the result of such things as Curses, Desecrations, Crimes, and Shocking Secrets. A Dark Place may be haunted, as may a Talisman. The Despot, especially if not the rightful owner of his Castle, is often the intended target of a Haunting. Visits from vampires are a species of Haunting.
Innocents are virtuous and kind people destined to be persecuted by the wicked. Typically, an Innocent is abducted, experiencing Confinement and torment at the hands of the Despot. Sometimes, the Innocent is desired by a Monster or a Fiend. Often the Innocent is a virgin stolen from her desired Lover, perhaps on their wedding day. The virtue of the Innocent is usually imperiled. Sometimes, the Innocent learns a Shocking Secret that drives her to Madness, such as finding out her current Lover is actually her long-lost brother.
Lovers are, of course, two or more people who share a romantic attraction to each other. The affair may actually be a love triangle, with one member torn between two equally worthy lovers. If the Lovers are deceased, they may be the cause of a Haunting or a Curse. Similarly, a Curse may be keeping Lovers apart. The importance of Lovers is a key separation between the Gothic genre and pure Horror. All Gothic stories should include Lovers of some form, although their love might be degraded and perverse.
Madness refers to apparent insanity in a person, group, or social practice. Madness can be caused by a Curse, the revelation of a Shocking Secret, torment inflicted by a Fiend, or even be the result of a relentless Haunting. Religion often degrades into Madness in the Gothic genre. Somebody should be insane (or nearly so) in almost every Gothic story.
Monsters are grotesque and distorted creatures. A Monster may be physically deformed, or may be morally and spiritually monstrous instead. Most Monsters are things of evil and destruction, but some are misunderstood creatures who intend to do good, but are rebuffed. A Monster may be the subject of Confinement, often within the Castle or the Dark Place. Sometimes a Monster is also the story’s Despot, or else the rightful but dispossessed heir to the Castle. Perhaps the Monster’s current state is the result of a Curse that caused the Ruin of his flesh. The origin of a Monster is often a Shocking Secret. Slaying the Monster may require the use of a Talisman.
Mysteries are events whose causes are unknown, but whose effects are obvious. Perhaps a door perpetually opens and closes by itself, fire will not burn in one room of the Castle, or a person is found dead in a locked room. A Mystery can be at the heart of the overall story, but many smaller Mysteries can also be sprinkled throughout a scenario. Mysteries provide challenges to protagonists, and often lead to the revelation of Shocking Secrets. Uncovering the cause of a Curse means unraveling a Mystery, perhaps necessitating the use of such Talismans as secret journals and forbidden books. Often, apparently supernatural events turn out to have perfectly mundane explanations. Mysteries will not be present in all stories, since many Gothic tales are simply catalogs of the various ways a protagonist can suffer.
Omens are situations that foreshadow encounters with other story elements. Often, an Omen takes the form of a fortune told by a old Gypsy, or a prognostication delivered by a mad astrologer. Perhaps a pair of dogs fighting presages a later fight between a protagonist and a bandit. The Fury of Nature is often an Omen, as is the appearance of a mysterious Stranger. Scenarios with many Omens reenforce the idea of irresistible fate, an important idea for the Gothic genre.
Ruins are things that have fallen from formerly splendid states into decay. Ruins evoke the melancholy atmosphere and consciousness of history that are stylistic hallmarks of the Gothic genre. Curses often cause things to become ruined. The Castle of the story could be a Ruin, fallen wholly or partially into disrepair. Noble families often fall from greatness into states of financial and/or moral Ruin. Perhaps a Talisman, such as the sword of an ancient hero, lies rusted and ruined (reflecting the fortunes of the hero’s descendants). Ruin‘s cause can be a Shocking Secret. Ruined buildings often feature Hauntings. In Gothic stories, those who approach ruined buildings may be assaulted by the Fury of Nature.
Strangers are unknown, unidentified, misidentified, or foreign people. Strangers may have exotic manners, and unusual appearances. Perhaps the Stranger just refuses to identify himself. Often, he suddenly knock at the door, unexpected and unannounced. Sometimes, he is simply seeking shelter from the Fury of Nature. No one can be truly sure of what the the Stranger wants, even when he claims to desire something specific. Often the Stranger is under a Curse, such as lycanthropy. Strangers often carry or sell Talismans, and keep Shocking Secrets. The Stranger may even be a Fiend, eager to purchase souls. Groups such as Gypsies can be considered Strangers, even when they are common to an area.
Shocking Secrets are facts which are guarded and withheld, and once revealed cause fear, or the questioning of previously held beliefs. Sometimes the Shocking Secret needs to be remain hidden, lest it inflict people with Madness. The location or contents of the Dark Place are often the subject of the Shocking Secret. A Shocking Secret may be communicated by a Talisman, in the form of an old book or painting. An Innocent may learn the Shocking Secret of her true parentage, of her relationship with a Monster, or of her kinship to the Despot. The Shocking Secret learned by Lovers may be that they are actually close relatives. Sometimes the Shocking Secret is also an Omen, perhaps related by an old witch or Gypsy fortuneteller. Sometimes, the Shocking Secret is completely unsought. Often, the solution to some vexing Mystery is a terrible Shocking Secret.
Talismans are objects, perhaps with strange qualities, that are vitally important to the protagonists of the story. Characters in Gothic stories don’t just interact with their environment – they obsess over it, transforming sometimes mundane things into objects of fetishistic devotion and unreasonable fear. Missing Talismans are apt to loom larger in conversation than ones possessed, as characters weep over such things as the lost jewelry of a dead and buried lover. A Talisman may be actually enchanted, but need not be. Sometimes, the Talisman is a birthmark or tattoo that positively identifies someone as a member of a family or secret society. Paintings, old weapons, lockets, and wedding dresses can all be Talismans, if they are inordinately valuable to the story’s characters. Often, a Talisman is required to slay a Fiend or Monster. The location of a lost Talisman may be a Mystery, only solved by learning a Shocking Secret. Talismans are often possessed by mysterious Strangers, buried in the Ruins of a Castle, or hidden in a Dark Place. Talismans are often the anchors around which Hauntings occur. Finding a Talisman is often presaged by an Omen.