Monday, July 15, 2013

DM's Field Guide to Dark Fiction - Gothic

Posted by LD Keach on Monday, July 15, 2013

species name: Gothic Fiction
genus: euro ghastliarus castleum
order: Terror
also called: Gothic Horror, Gothic Romance, British Gothic, European Gothic

Common traits – Generally set in large, medieval-style castles or manors with Gothic embellishments (hence the name), Gothic fiction is largely considered to be the Grandmamma of all modern things dark and spooky. It is heavy on darkness and dust, prone to wails and lamentations, and fundamentally obsessed with architecture. Gothic fiction also often employs supernatural elements, innocent heroines being threatened sexually by villainous nobles, Vincent Price-style interior decorating, and secrets that have lain hidden for centuries.

Two subspecies of Gothic fiction are Gothic Horror and Gothic Romance, which are sometimes hard to distinguish in the wild and easily mistaken for one another. Gothic Romance, of course, is largely considered to be the Grandmamma of modern Romance fiction, meaning Horror and Romance are so closely related as genres that they might as well be incestuous aristocratic twins skulking about a dusty old mansion. Which might make for a cool Gothic Horror story.

Historical sightings – Horace Walpole is credited with starting the whole Gothic ball rolling with his novel The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. At the time, Romanesque and Classical architecture were popular, so Walpole drew attention to himself by setting his book in a backward, dusty, spooky ol' medieval castle. Also at the time, cold reason and materialism were much in vogue, so to most readers the Middle Ages symbolized naught but dire, superstitious darkness, which drove the kids wild.

While the originators of the species (Otranto and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho) were written for a wealthy elite, cheaper publications like Penny Dreadfuls soon brought shorter knock-off Gothic fiction to the masses, hence cementing the style's popularity for decades to come. Shorter versions ripped off the stories of their more intellectual cousins; upped the gore content (hence the dreadful); and clipped the word length, stuffing many a 400 page novel into thin bloody leaflet. Thus began Horror's glorious tradition of cheap, tawdry entertainment for the masses, snubbed by the intellectual elite.

Modern habitats – Without Gothic Horror, there would be no Dark Fiction as we know it today. While many forms of fiction throughout the ages have included horror, terror and dark elements, it was Gothic fiction that hooked generations of readers and writers on the stuff. Gothic fiction has evolved into this undercurrent of style that today infuses everything from Psychological Horror to Crime Fiction to Splatterpunk—so this stuff is technically everywhere. And yet it is nowhere.

The term Gothic has most recently evolved to describe a post-punk subculture borne in the 1980's; in modern publishing, Goth and Gothic are often used interchangeably, especially by small presses. Both Goth and Gothic fiction have similar stylistic features (doom, gloom, lacy sleeves, the occasional plastic skull on the mantleplace), but Goth gothic fiction usually involves elements that rebel against its origins. Droves of young, underfed discontents wander the streets in Goth fiction, doing copious amounts of drugs and generally picking fights with supernatural entities. (See also Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite.)

However, some holdovers from the classic Gothic Horror tradition remain, such as small presses Burial Day Books and The Red Penny Papers, and scholarly journals like Zittaw Press. Ultimately, it's easy to spot modern publishers proclaiming an interest in Gothic fiction—ton of markets say they're game for a little of the ol' haunted castle, from Weird Tales to The Future Fire—but it's a more rare occurrence to see actual Gothic Horror story published in the wild.

Related: American Gothic, Supernatural Horror, Psychological Horror, Soft Horror, Ghost Story

See also: Introduction