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4 Tips for Writing Gothic Horror

Gothic horror and its many subgenres continues to increase in popularity. Here, author Ava Reid shares 4 tips on writing gothic horror.
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2015 gave us Crimson Peak. 2018 gave us back-to-back Shirley Jackson adaptations: Netflix’s series The Haunting of Hill House and the film iteration of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. On the literature side, 2020 gave us Mexican Gothic, Catherine House and Plain Bad Heroines. 2021, The Death of Jane Lawrence and A Dowry of Blood. With even more chilling, atmospheric releases slated for 2022 and beyond, it’s undeniable that gothic horror is having its moment. But what sets these books apart from their other speculative brethren—and how does one approach writing a macabre tale of one’s own?

(Ava Reid: On Literary Traditions and Family History)

Here are four ideas to ruminate on as you get started:

Fear vs. horror

Plenty of books are gruesome and frightening—but not all of them are horror. Fear is a spike of adrenaline, a pounding heartbeat, an immediate threat to your life. Horror, though, is something that upends your worldview, something that fundamentally shifts your understanding of reality. If fear is staring down a man with a knife, then horror is staring down a monster made of knives. Both are terrifying, but one is incomprehensible.

For this reason, horror novels need not always be bloodbaths. The gothic subgenre in particular is famous for its slow-build, creeping dread. Speculative elements are carefully placed to ensure that, when it arrives, the moment of total disillusionment hits the audience hard.

It is also important to note that the horror is not always supernatural—there are no ghosts or demons, for example, in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Nevertheless, the audience is forced to face things which seem to violate the natural order of the world. Incest is a recurring motif in gothic fiction because it is almost universally considered to be an act of unnaturalness and violation. In Crimson Peak, Edith discovering her husband’s incest provokes the same horror as seeing a ghost.

Location, location, location

There’s nothing more quintessentially gothic than the mist-shrouded mansion with narrow corridors, strange noises, and shadows around every corner. But the horror is not only in the house itself—it’s in the knowledge that you are trapped there. This oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere is also a necessary trait of the gothic.

You may be physically prevented from leaving, by dangerous weather conditions or by the mysterious, Bluebeard-esque master of the house, or you may be compelled to stay by force of psychological manipulation, a fear of the outside world or a dire need to solve the mystery within the house’s walls. Either way, the location is a character in and of itself: One that is by turns foreboding, repressive, compelling, or even perversely comforting.

4 Tips for Writing Gothic Horror

This is the duality of the house—it serves as a refuge from the swiftly changing world, a place mired in the past, stuck in time. But accepting the sanctuary the house offers also means accepting its chains. In Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, the titular protagonist, who has been trapped for years in an intricate, labyrinthine prison, extols the virtues of his confinement: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

The power of an unreliable narrator

The most powerful fear is fear of the unknown, or the incomprehensible. For this reason, many gothic horror novels feature an unreliable narrator, one who the audience cannot fully trust. The protagonist is the way the audience enters the world; we know the world only through our narrator’s eyes. But if their vision is warped or blinkered, the reader will never feel fully at ease. There will always be something out of reach, unclear, and therefore dangerous.

At every turn, it feels like the floor could fall out from under your feet. This sense of unease and dread is often accomplished by a deep, immersive point of view, one where there is no difference between the story itself and the protagonist’s perception. Piranesi is such a narrator—he proclaims in the first chapter of the book, “Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people.” We know that this is wrong, but we have no way to question him. His World is our World.

Merricat Blackwood (of We Have Always Lived in the Castle) is another iconic unreliable narrator. She opens the book by saying, “I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” We do not fully trust her. We may even be afraid of her. But we have no choice except to follow her.

4 Tips for Writing Gothic Horror

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Prose style pulls it all together

A book’s prose style is always idiosyncratic, and across the gothic horror genre, it is incredibly varied. We may see the deep point of view of Piranesi or Merricat, or we may see the omniscient narration of The Haunting of Hill House. Both can be equally chilling—is there any more shiver-inducing opening than “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”? But ultimately, your chosen style of prose should create an atmosphere of dread, oppression, and bewilderment.

This can be achieved through repetition, which is particularly effective in deep point of view. Both Piranesi and Merricat recycle whole phrases and figures of speech throughout their books (Tell us one more time that the Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite). This can add to the nauseating claustrophobia, or create a feeling of simmering frustration. Heavy use of metaphor and simile can also be used to make the audience question their sanity, blurring the lines between what is “real” and what exists only in the narrator’s—and therefore the reader’s—imagination.

In Carmen Maria Machado’s metamorphic work of creative nonfiction, In the Dream House, she maps the history of her abusive relationship through a rotating series of genres and literary styles: a gothic novel, a romance, even a choose-your-own adventure. This lurching journey is disorienting, almost hallucinatory, and it can often feel as if Machado is intentionally skirting the truth. What actually happened, we want to know. The fact that we do not know is horrifying. And the horror is the point.

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