When you think of gothic literature, what comes to mind?
Probably giant castles dripping with cobwebs, likely haunted by somebody’s long-lost lover. You might think of something like Dracula or Edgar Allen Poe, classic examples of gothic writers.
You might also think of Southern gothic aesthetics on Pinterest or TikTok–run-down churches with broken crosses out front, murky bayous cast in a grayscale filter, stories of hauntings in abandoned houses.
Gothic literature makes up more of our current cultural landscape than people realize, and although the name evokes literature from days of old, there’s still a place for gothic lit in the contemporary sphere!
Read on to learn more about gothic literature and how to write it for a modern-day audience.
What is gothic literature?
Gothic literature is a genre of literature that combines dark elements, spooky settings, conflicted and disturbed characters into a whimsically horrific, often romantic, story. It’s the darkest portion of Dark Romanticism, emerging soon after the Romantic literary era.
Brief history lesson for gothic literature: Romanticism deals heavily with individualism, transcendentalism, and emotion. Romantics were all about internal struggles and ego. Gothic literature takes this movement and focuses on the macabre, the unsettling, and dials the dramatics up to a ten.
So in short: gothic literature takes the flair from Romantic literature and adds horror and thrill. Fun!
Examples of Gothic Literature Authors and Novels
You’re probably familiar with many pieces that fit into the gothic literature genre. Here are some examples of authors and stories you’ve probably come across:
When I think of gothic literature, Dracula is the very first thing that pops into my head.
It ticks all the gothic literature boxes:
- we’ve got a deep air of mystery
- a spooky castle lodged deep in the forest
- a terrifying vampire
- and a lot of emotion.
Stoker’s Dracula has, obviously, inspired countless vampire stories in its wake. Most significant in the past couple of decades has been Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allen Poe is the second thing after Dracula that comes to mind for me. Let’s consider some of the overarching themes of Poe’s work: we’ve got lots of unsettling plot devices and imagery, constant mystery and intrigue, and consistently melodramatic narrators.
For example: The Tell-Tale Heart leads with a mystery. Suspense and drama builds significantly throughout the story. We see the narrator descend into a literal madness trying to conceal the beating heart beneath his floorboards. We’ve got an icky beating heart, a man out on his own, high emotion, some madness for good measure–this is gothic literature to a T.
Wuthering Heights, another direct inspiration for Twilight (I’m getting you ready to talk about it later so you won’t be mad, brace yourself), is also an absolute masterclass in gothic fiction. Let’s side aside some of the, uh, iffy aspects–by which I do mean the incest–and look at the novel’s components.
We’ve got a secluded manor deep in the woods (check), a family riddled with mystery and intrigue (check), supernatural elements (check), and above all, romantic tension dialed up to a hundred million.
You might find with Wuthering Heights, specifically, that people will either love or hate it–I’ve personally never met someone who felt neutrally about it. When people love it, it’s usually because of how capital R Romantic it is. You’ve got the devastatingly beautiful foggy landscape, the heightened emotion, and spooky ghosts–what more could you want?
People who hate it, interestingly, will say the same thing. They’ll say there’s too much description of the stupid fog, the emotion is way too over-the-top, and the romance is overcooked.
Keep that dichotomy in mind–we’re going to talk about how to write gothic literature for a contemporary audience next.
How to Write Gothic Literature
So! Maybe these kinds of stories are the ones you love the most, and you’re thinking there’s no way anyone could publish something like Wuthering Heights today and have any success at a publisher.
And you’d be right–sort of.
In contemporary publishing, we still have the components of gothic literature floating around in the form of thrillers, ghost stories, and, above all (in my opinion), supernatural teen romance. If you’re looking to write a novel, there is absolutely still a market for high-drama, eerie fiction with a focus on romance and suspense!
Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about Twilight!
Twilight takes place in a spooky, eerie forest. It follows a teenage girl who is a stranger to this location, and we watch her deal with a very intense first love with a creepy vampire boyfriend who is also kind of hot. This is textbook gothic literature, all the way down to the melodrama and maybe-a-little-too-intense love story.
I’m not here to argue for Twilight as a great piece of literature, but I bring it up to point out that this kind of thing absolutely still sells.
That said, it’s important to write it for a modern-day audience. Books are different now than they were during Poe’s day, and we have to adjust accordingly.
Here are 4 tips and tricks to write a gothic novel that modern-day readers will love:
1. Avoid Melodrama
Okay, remember what we said about Wuthering Heights and how people loved and hated it for kind of the same reasons? The chief complaint is that it’s way too melodramatic and drawn-out, whereas the chief praise is that it’s got such a dramatic flair.
You’ll also hear this complaint about Twilight. People will say it’s too dramatic and worn-out, and in my opinion, they’re kind of right.
To some extent, this is going to be a matter of preference. I personally love the dramatic flair gothic literature brings to the table, and I consider the super-intense romance and emotional roller coasters to be a convention of the genre.
However, modern-day audiences are used to more realistic stuff. It’s easier to get away with in YA because teenagers are going through super heightened emotions–melodrama generally makes sense to kids who are experiencing the absolute highs and lows of the human experience every day before noon.
For an adult audience, though, you might want to keep the melodrama to a minimum. Keep the scenes believable, keep your character’s motives believable and clear, and temper your more over-the-top plot elements with a healthy amount of skepticism.
2. Keep Emotions High for Writing Gothic Literature
That being said–emotion is at the core of gothic literature, so you don’t want to lose it altogether!
High drama and high emotion are vital.
Relying on extended metaphor can help you out here. In Twilight, for example, we’ve got a teenage romance where the girl feels like she’s literally going to die, and the boy also feels like he’s literally going to die, and everyone is freaking out all of the time.
If they were just two regular kids, this might be way too much. But Meyer’s gone in and made Edward a vampire. Now, Bella literally might die! Edward literally might get her killed! The constant fret over dying feels more appropriate now, and all Meyer has to do is enhance the existing high stakes to really drive home that drama.
Lean into high-stakes drama in your gothic novel. Mortal peril, terrifying monsters, and supernatural threats are all welcome! Make it genuinely concerning and frightening to your audience, and they’ll be on-board for some dramatic reactions from your characters.
3. Location, Location, Location!
Another way to lean into a high-drama vibe is to really hone your location. Since Gothic literature is a subtype of Romantic literature, it often deals heavily with nature–you get a lot of nature vs. man, man alone in the vast forest, that kind of thing.
This is why the giant spooky manor in the middle of a forest is so effective.
Original gothic literature often dealt with medieval settings and drew on medieval Europe for much of its inspiration. Lean into old buildings, decaying infrastructure–if it’s a Southern piece, let’s see some churches from the 1700’s. If it takes place in Europe, let’s see a castle or an old, decrepit manor.
It could also be as simple as a run-down house in the woods, an old apartment complex in an eerie neighborhood, or a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. We’re looking for something creepy, dramatic, and preferably isolated. And extra bonus points if our protagonist is a newcomer to this location!
4. Make it Sensational
It’s easy for people to scoff at gothic literature because it’s so high-drama and high-emotion. But there’s absolutely no question that it’s immensely successful, so something about it has to be working, right?
Well, it’s that drama. People love drama. When we gossip with our friends, we don’t make a point to make the subject of gossip as uninteresting as possible. We throw in hyperbole, we get into it. The phrase isn’t “the tea is lukewarm,” it’s “the tea is scalding.”
Gothic literature appeals to that part of us that wants the most. So write it that way!
As I mentioned earlier, you want to keep everything in check and make sure the plot checks out and still feels believable. But you want to make it a fantastic sensory experience for your reader.
In part, this will mean delicious descriptions, especially of the macabre. It means that when something is suspenseful, it should be super suspenseful. When something is romantic, we should be swooning. Gothic literature should be a sensational experience which takes us to the emotional limit–anything less is just unacceptable.
Long (Gothic Literature) Story Short…
When you’re writing a gothic literature novel, lean into scary elements, spooky settings, and heightened emotion. At the same time, make the stakes clear and keep them high so that the heightened emotion feels appropriate.
And the golden rule for all writing goes here, too: if you’re not sure you’ve struck a good balance, get some friends who loved Twilight to read it for you.
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Do you have any contemporary gothic novels to recommend? Let us know in the comments!
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