Gothic horror shares many elements in common with traditional horror and old-fashioned ghost stories, but it’s definitely it’s own specific sub-genre. Instead of utilizing lots of gore and a more modern, straight-forward writing approach, Gothic horror concerns itself more with emotions, symbolism, and setting a creepy ambiance.
Examples of classic Gothic horror range from Frankenstein and Dracula to The Haunting of Hill House and The Woman in Black. Edgar Allan Poe’s work also typically falls under the Gothic horror label. If you examine what these titles have in common, it becomes immediately clear that there’s a strong reliance on literary prose that strikes a more lyrical tone than today’s shortened, purposefully simplistic writing style.
The Basic Elements of Gothic Horror
Gothic horror seeks to suck the reader in with highly descriptive passages. If you get the sensation of being able to see, feel, touch, smell, and hear the story within the words, then the odds are good that you’re reading a Gothic work of fiction. It’s also common for there to be at least some romantic elements, but these are often found within a main character who is mourning the loss of their spouse/partner.
Gothic horror tends to utilize a central antagonist (usually in the form of a ghost or other supernatural entity) attached to one building, region, or person. This antagonist is often very old and repeats the same pattern with anyone who is unlucky enough to encounter it. The unleashing of this antagonist tends to be a very slow process filled with slight teases and an overall eerie mood. The reader might not directly encounter the antagonist until the end of the book.
Another standard template that’s been used in countless Gothic horror books is the mental and emotional decline of the main protagonist(s). Many of these stories are symbolic of mental illness and the negative impact that doubt can have on our minds, bodies, and souls. This is often reflected through the character experiencing something that’s no longer there a minute later. For example, a book seemingly flying across the room before somehow returning to its previous resting spot or a knock on the front door when no one is actually there.
The main character in my modern Gothic horror novel, The Haunting of Cabin Green, experiences numerous things that make no sense just a few minutes later. I then took this a step further by having him quickly forget that many of these creepy experiences had even happened. Ultimately, this formula causes the character to begin questioning his own mental stability, which is easier – at least initially – for most Gothic characters than accepting the idea that ghosts are real.
Mike Flanagan’s take on The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix) showcases that the ghosts are merely a vehicle for each character to examine their own issues and fractured take on reality. The family drama within Flanagan’s excellent interpretation is what’s truly compelling about the TV show, although the ghosts are a nice bonus. Not every Gothic horror goes this exact route, but the overall impact of horrific experiences on each character’s mind is one of the basic tenets of this sub-genre.
Expectations of Modern Horror Readers
It’s not uncommon to find negative reviews about classic and modern Gothic horror novels from horror readers who are unfamiliar with the Gothic formula. Comments such as “too slow,” “boring,” “hard to read,” “depressing,” “confusing,” and even “too many big words” have been mentioned in modern reviews of some of the genre’s most revered classics. It’s also common for recently released Gothic books (and movies that use a similar formula) to become very polarizing.
This doesn’t mean that there’s suddenly something wrong with works such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Nor does it mean that there’s something wrong with readers who want and expect a horror formula that’s filled with more gore, action, and an easier writing style. What it does mean, though, is that readers would be best served by educating themselves about the differences between horror’s many sub-genres. I’ll use two modern ghost stories below as an example (full disclosure – I’ve read both books and wrote the second one).
1. Craven Manor by Darcy Coates – If you’re looking for a more straight-forward ghost story that provides an easy, quick read but doesn’t concern itself with delving too deeply into descriptive words or the main character’s inner psychology, you can’t go wrong with Darcy Coates. Her books are very popular and follow a formula that’s easy to digest and enjoyable to read. They’re ghost stories as opposed to Gothic horror, and the ending is usually easy to guess. Craven Manor is one of her biggest recent releases, and I thought it was a lot of fun. It doesn’t require a lot of deep thought, nor does it beg to be re-read, but I would be more than willing to read another book by Coates in the future.
2. The Haunting of Cabin Green by April A. Taylor – This modern Gothic horror novel is geared toward readers who want to unravel several layers of symbolism. The usage of descriptive language and a few uncommon words is a throwback to the classics of Gothic fiction. At the same time, this book is set in the present day and does give readers an almost grueling number of scary encounters. Each of these encounters is called into question by the main character’s family history of mental illness. Nothing is ever exactly as it seems, which is an intentional way of confusing readers and keeping them off-balance until the twist ending. Like most Gothic novels, this book also has a bit of romance, social commentary, and a progressive viewpoint on the world.
Is Gothic Horror Right for Me?
If both of the books above sound appealing to you, then you probably have a diverse reading style that leaves you open to everything from deep-thinking Gothic novels to fun beach reads. This is a very well-rounded – but often uncommon – approach to reading. On the other hand, if only one of the books appeals to you (or if neither appeals to you), that means you have a style you prefer to stick with, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!
As an author, I can attest to the simple fact that not every book is for everyone. The important thing is to find books that you’ll enjoy; not only does this provide you with a better value but it also gives authors reviews/feedback from the people that their books were written for. After all, you wouldn’t watch a romance movie if you hate the romance genre, right? Or if you did, you’d almost certainly dislike it, no matter how well it was done. Therefore, life is far too short to spend it reading books (and watching movies) that aren’t right for you!
If you’re unsure if Gothic horror is right for you, you can dip your toe into the Gothic pool with many great works of fiction. I recommend Frankenstein and The Haunting of Hill House. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t toss a recommendation out there for my book, The Haunting of Cabin Green.
Enjoy whatever you choose to read and stay spooky!