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!