Ideas for Writing Gothic Short Stories
Weird Al Yankovich’s “UHF” had the wheel of fish. The Animaniacs had the wheel of morality. And now you can have the wheel of Gothic fiction short story ideas!
Seriously, though, while studying for my MA in Liberal Arts, I was lucky enough to take a great class in Gothic fiction and learn about its roots and its basic elements. You may be surprised to find that while it’s easy to come up with ideas, it’s hard to find enough time to write them all down.
A History of Gothic Fiction
The Castle of Otranto is what started it all. Published in 1764, it was a novel by Horace Walpole who was, at the time, a Whig Member of Parliament for Cornwall. The novel had many of the elements of Shakespeare’s writings—humorous servants, ghosts, usurpation to power, imprisonment, and tyranny. But Walpole took those things and changed them, starting a new genre, the Gothic genre.
While Walpole started it, he had many followers, including Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and H.P. Lovecraft, among others. It isn’t just fiction writers who enjoyed the Gothic genre. At the height of its popularity, poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Christina Rossetti wrote famous Gothic poems.
Elements of Gothic Fiction
There are at least six basic elements to keep in mind when writing Gothic short stories. Any of them can be a great starting point.
1. The Setting
Generally, Gothic fiction is set in a house or castle that’s more than what it seems. It is its own character altogether. In some cases, like “Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, the house is a character, one that seems to breathe, trick its inhabitants, and even kill them when it needs to. Need to find a creepy setting? Check out some of the truly excellent images on Urban Exploration Resources or any other urban exploration sites. You’ll find abandoned hospitals, psych wards, even schools that can inspire you to write the creepiest of “living” houses.
2. A Maiden (or Maidens) in Distress
It doesn’t just have to be a maiden. It can be children, like in Stephen King’s “’Salem’s Lot” or Jane Goldman’s “Woman in Black.” In other cases, it can even be a man, like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor is undoubted a “maiden in distress,” found as he is at the beginning of the book, “…limbs nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition.”
It’s not hard to create your own maiden (or child or man) and put them into danger. Remember to write what you know—anyone who has annoyed you lately can be great fodder for putting in danger.
3. Fear of the Unknown
This may be a ghost or some other type of mystical creature or even a darkened room. What’s there? And what isn’t there is just as valid a question. What was that noise that woke you up in the middle of the night? What can’t you see lurking around the corner in the alleyway? Stretch your imagination and pretend it wasn’t the cat jumping on you to wake you up or just a guy revving his motorcycle in the alley. What else could it be? Don’t let reality limit you.
4. The Question of Insanity and/or an Unreliable Narrator
In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it’s clear by the end that the narrator is not sane. But when did she cease to be sane? Or was she never sane to begin with? That questionable sanity, the fact that we can’t trust what she’s saying, helps to build the unknown in Gothic fiction. It’s also good to have a character who is sane but fears for his or her sanity.
In Walpole’s “Castle of Ontranto” and Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” the main characters appear to be sane, but they fear they are insane because of what they’ve experienced. Work with that insanity. Love the insanity. Learn about the insanity. If you’ve never taken a class in abnormal psychology, now’s your chance. Or just go pick up a textbook from the local used book store. Something in there will inspire you.
5. References to Myths and Legends
In some cases, Gothic fiction uses real and made up myths and legends. The important thing is to treat them if they’re real. H.P. Lovecraft uses biblical lore in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” but then turns to the “elder gods” in “The Dunwich Horror.” Check out your library or book store (or even just a simple Google search!) for mythology and fairy and folk tales. But don’t go with just the traditional Greek and Roman myths. Get more creative—check out Japanese or Irish folklore. What can you do with some of those myths?
6. Family History
While it’s not a necessary part of Gothic fiction, it can add to it. In Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Wall,” a man returns to his ancestral home only to find out exactly who his ancestors are. You may think you have a weird family, but what if it was even weirder? Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the sentence, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Not Gothic fiction by a long shot, but a good bit of advice. Weird families need to be weird in their own way. Cannibals? Vampires? Ghosts? What spawned them, and what is still sticking around?
Where to Sell Your Gothic Fiction
So you know all about writing Gothic fiction, but you still can’t get inspired. Sometimes checking out a market is more than just knowing where to sell what you’ve written; sometimes it’s about getting ideas for writing.
Two excellent places to find markets (and get ideas from their listings) are Ralan.com and Duotrope.com. You may find an anthology or contest that inspires you, or, even better, you may find some new magazine or book to read. To be a good writer, you need to be a good reader, so make sure to get reading!
Questions & Answers
What should happen in a gothic short story?
What do you want to happen? You have a lot of options. I suggest brainstorming on one of the major plot points - what kind of house is it? It has to have a "personality." Think of "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson. She does an amazing job of making a house alive. Do you want it to be character-driven? Is there a woman being haunted by a ghost? Is her past haunting her? Do you want to write it from the other side - is it a male who is attempting to gaslight the woman, and the house is working for her or against her? There are many, many options. As I said, I'd pick one of the major plot points and then just start writing. Don't worry about character names; that's what a rewrite is for. Don't worry about doing research on any actual houses; that's a job for the re-write too! Right now, work on what you love about gothic stories. You'll find the story coming together if you focus on what really interests you.Helpful 13
Can I write a gothic story from my head?
Definitely! Your imagination is the best place to start. When writing a gothic story, you need to keep in mind the general guidelines (family secrets, houses as characters, etc.), but take it wherever you want it to go.Helpful 10
How would you describe an abandoned building in gothic literature?
In Gothic fiction, the buildings are given human characteristics, such as traits, intentions, and emotions. This is called anthropomorphism. The characteristics you want to imbue the building with are negative or frightening. For example, you may describe a building as hulking or malicious.Helpful 2