Having been accused of writing contemporary Gothic fiction (MATEGUAS ISLAND, RETURN TO MATEGUAS ISLAND, and GHOSTS OF MATEGUAS), I thought I’d take a moment to discuss the genre and some common elements that make a novel Gothic.
However, before I begin, let me first state that this is by no means meant to be a scholarly treatise on the genre. No, I will leave that to those more schooled in literature than I. This is merely a blog post. It is meant to be slightly informative and, hopefully, fun.
Gothic fiction has been around since medieval times. Sir Horace Walpole’s THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO, published in 1764, is often credited as being the first English gothic horror novel.
But what makes a novel gothic? There are numerous subtleties that go into creating a novel of this genre and even more when you consider all of its sub-genres (horror, mystery, romance, etc.). However, I’m just going to touch on some of the most common elements of gothic fiction here.
All right, let’s begin. First of all, we must consider the setting. Gothic fiction is usually played out in a place that is dark and gloomy, conjuring up an atmosphere of horror and dread. For example, in THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Poe calls the estate ‘melancholy’ and a ‘mansion of gloom’. In Shirley Jackson’s classic novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, the house is described as ‘holding darkness within’. In my novel, MATEGUAS ISLAND, when seeing the island for the first time, Bill remarks that while it is beautiful, it looks ‘cold’. And, then there’s The Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s THE SHINING and the ruined castle where Jonathan Harkness first meets the Count in Bram Stoker’s classic DRACULA. Need I say more?
All right, we have our setting, what next? Most gothic novels involve the appearance of supernatural beings – ghosts, specters, vampires, zombies, and other things that go ‘bump in the night’. In THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, it is the house itself that is suspect, whereas in MATEGUAS ISLAND it is a malevolent Native American spirit that plagues the Andersens in their new home. In Henry James’ classic, THE TURN OF THE SCREW, the governess sees the ghost of Peter Quint and in THE SHINING there are numerous ghosts, most notably those of former caretaker, Delbert Grady, and his murdered daughters.
Okay, we now have a dark and gloomy setting that is the home to some ghosts or specters. What do we need next to move the plot along? How about some dark curses or prophesies? In Walpole’s THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO, there is an ancient prophesy that Manfred, the lord of the castle, seeks to avert by marrying his dead son’s betrothed. In THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Roderick believes his family to be cursed by incurable madness. And in REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier, the unnamed heroine must come to grips with a dark and terrible secret being kept by her husband.
So, now we have a dark and dismal setting haunted by ghosts and subject to a terrible curse or prophesy. But what about the human characters? Often we find the pivotal character in a gothic novel to be a woman in jeopardy. For example, in MATEGUAS ISLAND, it is Karen who finds herself strangely transported to a dark and dangerous trail leading deep into the woods. Wendy Torrance in THE SHINING, Lucy and Mina in DRACULA, and the governess in THE TURN OF THE SCREW all find themselves facing mortal peril at the hands of supernatural beings. In THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, it is Eleanor who tends to experience dark phenomena to which others in the house are oblivious. And, in REBECCA, the narrator finds herself living in the shadow and mystery of her husband’s former wife.
But is gothic fiction only peopled by damsels in distress? No! To counterbalance the ladies, the gothic genre often employs characters who can be seen as heroes or antiheroes. In the final chapters of THE SHINING, the clairvoyant cook, Hallorann, comes charging through a blizzard on a snowmobile to try to rescue Wendy and Danny. Dex Pierce in MATEGUAS ISLAND sees himself as Karen’s knight errant and rushes to her side when she collapses in the backyard. In Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Heathcliff enacts the role of both a Byronic and demonic hero. In DRACULA, it is Van Helsing who eventually saves the day.
Okay, now we have a beautiful woman transported to a dark and dismal setting haunted by ghosts and subject to a terrible curse or prophesy who may, or may not, be saved by a dashing or not-so-dashing hero. So, what comes next?
Romance, of course! In gothic novels, romance can take many forms. It can be a powerful love, heart-stirring, and intense. Or, it could be an unrequited or illicit love. Basically, anything goes! An example of a powerful love can be found MATEGUAS ISLAND when Dex realizes he has fallen deeply in love with Karen and vows to do anything necessary to protect her. In WUTHERING HEIGHTS, we have both powerful and unrequited love in Heathcliff’s desire for Cathy. In Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE, the heroine falls head over heels for the brooding and moody, Mr. Rochester.
So what have we put together with all these elements? We have a story of beautiful woman living in a dark and dismal place, haunted by ghosts, and subject to a terrible curse or prophesy who meets and, may fall in love with, a dashing or mysterious man who may, or may not, save her! And with that, my friends, we have laid the groundwork for a gothic novel!
Now, for some fun and amusement, check out the first and last lines from some classic, and, not-so-classic, novels in the genre.
REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier:
First Line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Last Line: “And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.“
First Line: “3 May, Bistritz – Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.”
Last Line: “Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.”
INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by Anne Rice:
First Line: “I see…” said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.”
Last Line: “And then, stuffing the notebook quickly in his pocket, he gathered the tapes into his brief case, along with the small recorder, and hurried down the long hallway and down the stairs to the street, …”
First Line: “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”
Last Line: “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
MATEGUAS ISLAND by Linda Watkins:
First Line: “She rolled over to check the clock.”
Last Line: “Oh, so very afraid….”
WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte
First Line: “1801. – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”
Last Line: “I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how ….”
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER by Edgar Allan Poe:
First Line: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
Last Line: “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened–there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind–the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight–my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder–there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters–and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
RETURN TO MATEGUAS ISLAND by Linda Watkins :
First Line: “She stood in the middle of the lawn, arms outstretched, her face turned toward the sea.”
Last Line: “For what seemed an eternity, he stood that way, silent, his eyes wide open in wonder until the owl, in all its majesty, disappeared back into the fog.”
THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson:
First Line: “Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.”
Last Line: “Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”
THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield:
First Line: “It was November.”
Last Line: “He opened a cool green eye, regarded me for a moment, then closed it again.”
GHOSTS OF MATEGUAS by Linda Watkins:
First Line: “The fog embraced the coast like a desperate lover, clinging, refusing to let go.”
Last Line: “Oh Mateguas, grand pere de la mort, entend my priere….”
Thank you for stopping by! If you find you would like more information of my MATEGUAS ISLAND SERIES, please feel free to stop by my website at www.mateguasisland.com