How to Write a Gothic Tale

Ghosts, vampires, and werewolves are experiencing a resurgence in fiction nowadays. Vampire lit is back in fashion, as is the kind of bleak, gripping horror writing that first found popularity with Edgar Allen Poe almost two centuries ago. Gothic writing is masterful when it’s done right, and it’s important to know the rules in order to do this genre justice.

Mood and Terror

The first thing to remember about gothic writing is that it is all about crafting mood and terror. If you look back at the more famous Poe stories, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher”, you can see that Poe begins to create his mood from the first line, crafting a scene of gray clouds, creepy old houses, and an otherwise forboding landscape. To create mood, writers must exercise consistency, using every image and every word choice as an opportunity to build upon the feeling they want to get across. Sometimes by overdoing it, Poe makes no mistake that fear and gloom are his moods of choice.

Read and study the masters

When embarking on a genre work like a gothic story, it’s important to study the masters and understand how they do what they do. Start by reading some Poe, then study modern gothic masters such as Faulkner (particularly his short story “A Rose for Emily”) and Flannery O’Connor (“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is an iconic work of hers). Ask yourself how Poe frightens the reader by building suspense, by using silence, and by disgusting the reader with frightening imagery. Ask how O’Connor sets up scenes of explosive violence in her story by hinting at them earlier.

After the jump: understanding the rules of the gothic genre.

Understand the rules of gothic writing.

The unique and often disquieting aspect of gothic stories is that they create a whole world similar to our own but a bit off. In this world, an uncertain kind of justice operates, in which people pay for their sins with their bodies. While a modern realistic story might have someone feeling guilty about acting cowardly, more often than not in a gothic story, a person pays for being cowardly by losing his or her life. This justice is everywhere in Poe’s stories, and in a more perverted way it appears in Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s work as well. Our bodies are the battlefield, gothic stories tell us, and the struggles of the heart play out on that battlefield.

Remember this strong sense of justice when you try writing a gothic story. In a more conservative and limited way, even lousy horror tales rely on this sense of justice: you’ve probably seen how it’s the “slutty” girls who get killed in bad horror movies, or the kids acting like jerks who get their violent comeuppance. It’s disappointing to see how horror movies aren’t just cheesy fun; they’re often policing gender roles and enforcing stereotypes by punishing nonconforming characters. But good gothic tales remind us of the complexity of sin and corruption by making it unclear whether a character deserves what he gets.

It’s also a good idea to read these classic stories with a critical eye. As one professor of mine stated, Poe is America’s “best bad writer”; when he’s good, he’s very good, but he can be an absolutely terrible writer at times. Try and point out the places where Poe needs an editor!

8 comments

  1. mary brady says:

    I became a Poe fanatic when I was very young–just 11 or so. Someone gave our family an old set of “The Books of Knowledge,” or something like that. It complemented our pre-1900 Encyclopedia Britannica perfectly.

    I memorized Poe’s poems & I especially liked “The Bells.” That poem still makes me shudder.
    Talk about setting moods in quick, wicked succession–that poem is a great study in using word choice & cadence to evoke the most terrifying images ever out of everyday events.

    In the poem, Poe speaks of all the bells that used to mark events in people’s lives: baptism bells, Xmas sleigh bells, wedding bells, eventually ending, of course, with FUNERAL bells…

    You know you are being set up for that grim ending throughout the entire poem, and this makes all of the ‘happy’ bells utterly creepy and horrible in their own way. All is futile in the face of death.

    You will also increase your word power! For example, Poe points out the “tintinnabulation which so musically wells from the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells/ from the tinkling & the twinkling of the bells.”

    To use that big word regularly in your writing, you must be a fine smart speller.

    OK, now dare someone to say “fine smart speller” five times quickly. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

    The New Yorker wrote a brief biography of Poe a few years back, noting that he lived through about a dozen major economic downturns in the US economy. Each time he was about to see success, POW! Some big depression or recession or bizarre monetary quirk left him penniless. The article was as much about the vagaries of the US economy throughout history as it was about Poe.

    This may explain his vast output of crummy, as well as great, writing.

    L&K, MaryB

  2. Angela says:

    – I am trying to write a gothic tale… I started one paragraph, but I don’t know how to finish the rest… help please.

    This is how the story goes…

    Looking over the river as we stopped our horses, the massive ruins of an Ancient Castle came into view… Apparently it was willed to me from a distant uncle; if I wanted it… I’s heard about the strange occurances in the castle- were they true? I guess I’ll find out…

    That how much i got so far… still looking for ideas, help please.

    • vin says:

      Looking is a dead word. Try using glanced, or perhaps gazed. Also be more specific, try something like ” we drew our horses to a stop by the bank of the river the locals have come to call black body. The murky water did not cast a reflection; not.even the setting sun, in all its orang glory, seemed brave enough to paint its colours upon the stagnant pool. And the horses were restless, as if they too fears it’s depths.
      As the sun slacked lower behind the horizon, a ghastly image made itself known to.me, castle black crone. It’s jagged shape stood out against the darkening sky. Towers, like demon fangs, pieced the dusk drenched backdrop. Was this to be the place uncle left to me in his will, I thought? What cursed thing in my past life have I done to deserve such a terrible gift?
      And now, as my waking eyes gaze upon the lifeless structure of mere brick and mortor, I suddenly remember the tales told to me back at copper Smith inn. I see now way the locals fear her, and call her, the black crone.

      Not that it’s an amazing tale, but it’s less passive and more.colourful. also, your case and effect.are.off. if you are all ready stopped, how can the castle come into view. Reverse the sentence. The castle came into view so we stopped. Not because we stopped the castle came into view.

  3. Phoebe says:

    Your gothic tale is coming along very nice so far, using a rhetorical question is a good idea. To continues it further you should have them maybe venturing into the castle, maybe they sleep there, and come across a scary creature or beast. Think about frasnkenstein, you could have a monster like that that you’ve created yourself, or something like a vampire or ghosts, anything really, as long as it’s scary.

  4. i am a gothic story writer, specialied in short stories. I love Poe and i use him as my yardstick. i write like this;
    i start my gothic story in the middle, usually with a conversion between a group of people, after which they separate, i try to create the tension with what these people say and then leave each of these people to his own destiny and pestilence. i try not to make the work artificial by not superimposing the mood, the weather, of the characters. i make everything look like everyday, but i add a small ingredient which is metaphysical or alien and then i began playing with these characters around this theme and see how each of them react. i may decide to leave each of them to their doom or try and defend them with the way i present or fight with them using intrapersonal or interpersonal development.

  5. kate jills says:

    Thanks,

    I’m having trouble with my gothic horror at the mo, My book will be about a fourteen year old girl (first person) who dreams of a mysterious boy called Kit, but can never reach him because each time she dreams about him she suffers death bit can’t die.

    (Kit=werewolk and she gets bitten in sleep)

  6. Meh to you says:

    You (blog owner) appear to confuse horror (movies) with goth(ic novels)! Also, your misplaced comma usage makes you lose credibility! (There is no need for commas when two clauses in a sentence are linked by a conjunction of coordination [read: of linkage] such as before “and” {atrocious!} and “or”!) However, you tend to forget where commas ought to be!

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