Gothic Novels in the Modern Age

Image purchased from Adobe Stock

I’m excited to have the Halloween post for the first time in my Spellbound Scribes career! I’m not as into it as Shauna is, but for me it ushers in three very holy days: Samhain (Oct. 31), All Saints (Nov. 1) and All Souls (Nov. 2) I thought about talking about that but decided to go in a more literary direction instead.

Earlier this year I was on a panel about neo-gothic fiction at the Historical Novel Society Conference. I thought this was the perfect day to share some of my observations. I am planning a gothic novel, but it keeps getting pushed farther and farther down the priority list. But you will see it eventually.

(Full disclosure: My friend, fellow panelist and fellow author Kris Waldherr wrote this introduction, but I like it so much I’m stealing it. The rest of the post is all me.)

The birth of the Gothic novel occurred alongside and in reaction to the industrial and scientific revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the book considered to be the first Gothic novel, was published in 1764; in 1818 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein terrorized readers with its nightmare vision of science run amok. Over two hundred years later, the Gothic novel is enjoying a renewed popularity in historical fiction, aided in part by television shows and films such as “Penny Dreadful” and “Crimson Peak.”

What Makes a Novel “Gothic”
To me, Gothic always has—and always will—have its basis in death, as that is ultimate human fear. It is all about the “in-between:” life and death i.e. ghosts, automatons, even vampires and zombies; cursed and blessed: angels, demons, old churches and graveyards; fears, real and imagined: anxiety, hallucination and dreams.

But what sets it apart from similar genres like horror is a dark, haunted atmosphere. Gothic always takes place in the shadows. Whether it is a castle, a mansion or even a dark alleyway, it is a place where one’s sight is not clear and one’s mind is played with and preyed upon. If and author can’t build that kind of atmosphere, the rest of the novel will not succeed.

The author also must have the main character wrestle with a psychological torment of some kind, whether it comes in the form of an apparition or haunting or a question of sanity or something in between. That issue is usually related to the character’s life and/or political situation in some way. Class and politics were very big in classic Gothic novels, whereas neo-gothic tend to be more psychological and sometimes even spiritual.

What Makes Neo-gothic Novels Different from Traditional Gothic Novels
I touched on this a little above, but the biggest shift in my mind is the power of the heroine. She used to be a victim and passive, but in most neo-gothic books she is anything but. She may begin the story as subjugated, but finds her power through the course of the novel, which is very inspiring. I think feminism and a reaction to the current political climate has a lot to do with that.

I also think gothic novels have become subtler as their audience has grown more sophisticated. The Castle of Oronto was just bonkers in your face, to the point of seeming absurd to a modern reader. Now, gothic fiction preys so much more on our minds and subtle fears because we have been conditioned, both through the horrors we see on the news and the gore in horror films, not to react to the obvious as we once would have.

I also see neo-gothic as less overtly political, i.e. not so much about nobility and common man so much anymore as about the fears about and fighting against societal issues that go beyond class structure. I just read about a new sub-genre of Gothic literature called environmental Gothic or ecoGothic. Dates to about 2013 book called Ecogothic by William Hughes and Andrew Smith. It engages with the dark side of nature and our anxieties around climate change. Nature is an entity and a presence in and of itself, rather than just being a backdrop.

How Gothic Gives Women Writers and Their Female Protagonists a Voice
Spiritualism was one of the founding forces of gothic novels – more on that in the next section. It gave women a public voice for the first time, because it wasn’t them speaking; it was the “spirits” speaking through them.

Today we have much more freedom, but using the supernatural still gives us a chance to voice opinions and viewpoints we otherwise might not. For example, in the 60s and 70s, we had figures like Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter using their work to explore women’s issues for the first time. In the Haunting of Hill House, Elinor has always been a dutiful daughter and sister, but when she disobeys societal expectations to go to Hill House, she slowly loses her sanity and eventually, her life. Theo, on the other hand, who is the more subversive character, in that she never followed the rules – she is clearly a lesbian or bisexual – pays a bit through her pain of seeing what happens to Elinor, but emerges largely untouched. Because she never played by society’s rules, for her the price wasn’t as high.

How the Growth of Spiritualism in the Mid-nineteenth Century Ties into the Rise of the Gothic Novel
Gothic certainly existed before the rise of Spiritualism in the late 1860s and 1870s with Hawthorne, Poe and others, but I think Spiritualism took it out of the realm of fantasy for the average person and brought it much closer to home.

The timing of the rise of Spiritualism was two-pronged issue:

  • The Civil War had left so many dead and the living were desperate to be in touch with them.
  • New inventions like telegraphs and unseen electric waves made people wonder if we could communicate invisibly on this plane, why not on another?

Between the emphasis on mourning and death from the war and this tantalizing new technology came a new religious movement where gifted individuals could communicate with the dead. It is very interesting to me that scientists were among the most fervent Spiritualists, whereas today we tend to think of science and faith as needing to be divorced from one another. James Prescott Joule, Michael Faraday, and William Thomson, whose research created scientific advancements such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, the creation of “electric current from a magnetic field,” and the “foundations of modern physics” respectively. What used to be considered superstition was now possibly scientific fact.

I think Spiritualism, in putting the otherworld within reach—all one needed was a medium or someone at least willing to hold a séance or work with a planchette—opened minds to Gothic fiction.  It also came at a time when organized religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church, was beginning to really feel a lost from the Enlightenment and the emergence of agnostics and atheists on a larger scale than ever before. Even these people could embrace Spiritualism if they so desired.

The Relationship Between Psychology and Gothic Novels
I think Gothic novels are highly psychological, especially from WWI on.

I actually HATE Freud, but I could talk about his theory of the Uncanny for hours. The Uncanny is anything that gives you that creepy feeling that something isn’t quite right, a type of anxiety and uncertainty. It arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary.

Freud believes that the feeling of the “Uncanny” has its origin in something that was once familiar and well-known that has long been forgotten. He basis it in primitive man’s feelings on God and death, feelings we have repressed in modern society.

There are two main ways the Uncanny manifests:

  1. The double or doppelganger. Freud believes this comes from when primitive man believed in an animistic form of religion in which everything had a spirit. He made images of himself (think Egyptian sarcophagi) as an attempt and immortality; but then those images became reminders of his of mortality, and thus engendered fear. Examples:
    • In Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, the main character is often seen playing the piano under a portrait of St. Cecilia who also plays the piano, and was a martyr, which seems to be the death the main character is heading toward.
    • Twins in every horror movie. Ever.
    • Mirror images, shadows, ghosts and guardian spirits—even our own conscience.
    • Things that are not quite living, but not quite inanimate either, such as dolls, automations, and wax figures.
  1. Repetition. Freud believes this comes from an infantile compulsion to repeat, which dominates the unconscious mind. We are helpless to stop it and therefore it creates anxiety. One example is seeing the same number everywhere and taking it as an omen. This is also why The Raven’s “tap, tap, tapping” and “rap, rap, rapping” gives us the chills.

Freud also mentions severed limbs (which he says come from a castration complex, especially the eyes), wish-fulfillment, the evil eye, and madness as forms of the Uncanny.

Freud says the uncanny can’t happen in fairy tales or other forms of fantasy because we already know anything can happen in them. He believes that the uncanny happens the most often in stories where reality is interrupted by some form of fantasy and where the reader highly identifies with the place and point of view character. In that way, the reader can feel the uncanny event as though it is happening to them.

Why All Things Gothic Endure
I think humans will always have an attachment to the Gothic because we are always going to need a safe space in which to work out our fears, especially the deepest and darkest of them. It is part of human nature to want to question and explore the “unexplainable.” It’s also human nature to like to be scared; it’s a way to have a brush with danger and death without the consequences.

The Best Gothic Authors Today

  • Carol Goodman (aka Juliet Dark)
  • Ruth Ware
  • Diane Setterfield
  • Kate Morton
  • Libbra Bray

Happy Halloween, everyone! And Blessed Samhain, All Saints and All Souls, if you celebrate any of those holy days.

Take Back the Night

Black clouds scud across the moon, nearly full. The chill breeze has a little…bite to it. A tap-tapping on the window startles you out of your slumber. Perhaps it is only a tree branch, shaking in the wind. Or perhaps it is something else? Someone else? What are they saying, as they lurk outside?


Although pop culture seems to have something of an on-again, off-again relationship with vampires, I’m a steadfast fan. If there’s a vampire movie, I’ve probably seen it, and I’ve definitely made a dent in the books about them. Some authors *ahemStephenieMeyerahem* tried to make vampires into sexy, brooding vegetarians, but that trend can’t last forever. From the reported reboot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Renee Ahdieh’s new The Beautiful, to Jay Kristoff’s forthcoming Empire of the Vampire, I predict pop culture is swinging back toward our long-time fascination and obsession with the dark, immortal creatures of the night.

Halloween reminds us that while vampires might be fangtastic, and know how to have a bloody good time, they are ultimately denizens of the night who enjoy violence and murder. So let’s sink out teeth into some of my favorite creepy vampires…

That's what friends are for!
That’s what friends are for!


Beautiful, languid, and mysterious, Carmilla insinuates herself into the lives of innocent young women, one at a time. Her mercurial moods and unsettling sexual advances distract her prey from her exotic tastes: the catlike monster that visits them in their nightmares and drinks of their blood is really her. Eventually, each girl wastes away and dies, leaving Carmilla free to find a new female companion. Best friends forever…or until you die.

Edward Cullen, Twilight

One of the most insidious vampires in literature, Edward lures Bella–his teenaged prey–with his brooding demeanor and ascetic lifestyle, then utilizes psychological tactics such as stalking, threat of violence, and abandonment to confuse her and alienate her from her species. Finally, Bella succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome and marries Edward, who is then able to complete his goal: impregnate his human wife with his unnatural half-vampire spawn.

Claudia, Interview with a Vampire

After being sired as a child by her adoptive fathers, Louis and Lestat, Claudia matures into a ruthless, murderous vampire with the face of a doll, who “appears to her victims as a little angel” before luring them to their bloody deaths. In cold blood, Claudia attempts to destroy Lestat by feeding him the poisoned blood of a young boy, and she manipulates Louis into doing various dastardly deeds, including siring an innocent woman so Claudia could have a “mother.” Sugar and spice and everything nice…

80’s vamps slay

Miriam Blaylock, The Hunger

Once every few hundred years Miriam, a vampire whose life began in ancient Egypt, assuages her loneliness by siring a human to be her half-vampire companion and lover. (This century, it’s David Bowie. Swoon.) Together they hunt, feed, and slaughter. But eventually these companions wither away into dusty, bloodless corpses, unable to die yet still conscious and aware. Unable to put her lovers out of their misery, Miriam instead encases the half-living corpses in coffins and keeps them with her for eternity. Talk about skeletons in the closet!

Kurt Barlow, Salem’s Lot

In Stephen King’s classic novel, Barlow is an ancient, master vampire who terrorizes the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot when he invades and quickly begins slaughtering and turning the citizenry. He causes some bad blood by performing human sacrifice before moving on to blood-letting, hostage-taking, murder of the elderly, and finally subversion of religious figures. This vampire really goes for the throat.

"I don't drink...vine."
“I don’t drink…vine.”

Count Dracula, Dracula

Ah yes, Dracula–a vampire who really sucks. After luring Jonathan Harker to his decaying castle in the Carpathian Mountains and subjecting the young man to unnatural penetration by his three vampiric brides, Dracula infiltrates London and begins menacing the beautiful Lucy Westenra and her companion, Mina Murray. He feasts upon Lucy’s blood until she dies and resurrects as a violent vampire herself; then, with so much at stake, Mina falls under the Count’s thrall, betraying her fiance and friends for Dracula’s sake. With his potent combination of sexuality, violence, and aristocratic charm, Dracula rains a dark terror upon London, and imparts a lasting and toothsome legacy to Western Literature.

Do you have any favorite vamps? Take a bite out of our comment section, fang you!

Happy HallowSamhaiNaNoWriMo!

photo 3 (2)Happy Halloween or Samhain and NaNoWriMo Eve!

Kind of a crazy day really. Little monsters will be coming to the door, begging for candy. Jack-o-lanterns will burn into the night to keep the evil wandering spirits away. And tomorrow NaNoWriMo begins (with a bang or with a whimper?).

I’ve been partially dreading the start of NaNo for about a week now because the outline of the book I’m working on has been fighting me for every chapter. Probably something to do with Mercury not knowing which direction it should be going.

I thought I’d talk to you all about why I’m doing NaNo even though this book will be my ninth complete novel.

Most people join NaNo because they need the extra push, the added pressure, the camaraderie of other writers to start writing and (hopefully) finish a book – though finishing is not necessarily the end result, the goal is to write 50k words and often, that does not make a whole novel. But getting that much done will get you into the habit of writing and realizing you can find the time. Or, maybe you’ve started a book but you just can’t seem to get it finished, maybe it’s been languishing at 20-40k words, well an extra 50k would finish that.

So, if I’ve already completed eight novels, why do I need to do NaNo? For all the same reasons a brand new writer would. I want the pressure, I want the push, but especially the camaraderie. Writing is a solitary and often lonely vocation, but having friends writing with you at the same time, all working toward the same goal can do wonders for your motivation.

I did NaNo for the first time last year and I was lucky enough that a large group of my writer friends were all doing it too. Because I did NaNo I learned about writing sprints, writing as fast as you can for small chunks of time. Usually I would only ask of myself to write 1-2k words a day, it was a slow but steady pace and I would turn out a book in about 3-4 months. Not bad, not bad at all. But with writing sprints, writing for just 20-30 mins at a time (even just 15 if someone was in a jam to squeeze out just a few words), I found that I could easily write 3.5-5k words in a day. Yes, easily. In just 2-3 hours no less. It was incredible.

Since then, that is the only way I write anymore. I no longer sit and stare at my document and write until I finally see the word count creep up. Now I call out to my writing group, see who is on line and ready to do some sprinting, and we’ll go for an hour or two, breaking up the time into 20-30 mins chunks and before I know it, I’ve written a whole week’s worth of words and I can turn out a book in 1-2 months. And the more amazing part? I’m not burned out or drained by the end of it. Instead I feel like I’ve been carried away by my story or characters’ momentum and I was just along to catch the words as they came.

So, this year, I’m joining NaNo again. I started a book the first week of Oct, but only managed to outline through chapter 9 and I wrote the end of chapter 8 last Friday and crossed the 30k mark. I’ve spent this week, and will spend the rest of it, outlining the rest of the book and on Friday I’ll start up again. If I only get the required 50k words for November, I’ll crank my book up to 80k and be just a week or two away from finishing it. But, and this is my hope, there’s always the chance I’ll write more than 50k in November and I’ll actually finish the book. Fingers crossed!

So if you’ve ever been afraid to join in on NaNo, don’t be. Everyone has been where you are and knowing you’re not alone, that you’re writing with thousands of other writers, will help you. Remember, there are thousands of reasons why you can’t finish a book, NaNo will take those reasons away and at the end of it, you’ll see that it is possible. photo 1

Enjoy the festivities tonight, have your Samhain feast, pass out the candy, hide under the covers, because NaNo is coming!

Samhain and the Spirits of the Season

So, we’ve talked about Halloween. We’ve talked about Dia de los Muertos. I thought I’d continue Jen’s unintended theme from the last post and bring up yet another late October, early November holiday in celebration of spirits, ghosts, and things we don’t understand.

Photo by Holly Leighanne

Samhain (pronounced SOW-an or SAH-wan) is a Celtic fire festival, one that was (arguably) celebrated by Iron Age pagan societies in territories from Ireland and Scotland, down through Wales and England and into northern France. Often known as the Celtic New Year, Samhain marks the transition from the light half of the year into the dark half of the year, and honors the spirits of the dead.

In Ireland, Samhain was a time for gathering together and feasting to celebrate the completion of the year’s harvest. The fires from those feasts and ashes of Samhain hearth fires were often used for divination or even spread out over the fields to provide protection against ghosties and ghoulies and beasties.

They say the veil is thin at Samhain and its springtime counterpart, Beltane. They say the dead walk closer, that they can hear us or even touch us. Fairies and spirits lurk in the shadows, peering through the gateway that for most of the year is locked and nigh-on impenetrable.

Photo by Avia Venefica

I’m playing up the spooky aspects, of course. These days, pagans celebrate Samhain on the night of October 31 and/or the day of November 1, typically with fires, feasting, and altars set up in honor of their ancestors. While there’s an element of caution and wild magic—who knows what could come through those gates!—the focus of the celebration is on remembrance and love for those who have passed beyond our reach.

The similarities between Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, and Halloween are of course fairly obvious—but it’s fascinating that across the world, people choose this time to contemplate one of life’s great mysteries and let themselves acknowledge their fears. At Halloween, we consider the things that frighten us and the beings we can’t understand. For Dia de los Muertos, we let go of the fear and honor those who have gone before us. And for Samhain, bridging the gap between the two, we honor the dead and ward ourselves against entities that might pose a threat.

Not so different after all, huh? Then again, we all love a good feast and a party!

Do you celebrate Samhain? How do these themes work into your own seasonal celebrations?

Dia De Los Muertos

With all the talk of Halloween, I thought I’d look at another celebration that takes place around the same time. Which of course led to me researching sugar skulls for possible tattoo ideas…but that’s a whole different post!

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. The most significant difference between this time and Halloween, in my opinion at least, is that Dia de los Muertos celebrates the dead. It’s not a day to be scared of. There’s no contest to see who can make the scariest costume. I think that’s what is so intriguing to me.

Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican originated holiday. Started by the Aztecs and overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. There are parades, decorations placed at graveyards, and parties. Sometimes altars will be built out of honor and they’ll have artifacts that represent the deceased.

The creative side of  me loves all of the bright colors that are used. The detailed and intricate paintings, carvings, and designs are breathtaking. I’m in awe at the imagination necessary to come up with some of the items that they do.

Here are just a few things you might see during a Dia de los Muertos celebration:

Calacas…the masks worn during celebrations

Sugar skulls may be placed on altars


What about you? Do you celebrate Halloween? Day of the Dead? Another holiday around this time of year?

AZ Central

The Difference Between Horror and Fright

When Halloween rolls around, and I start sifting through my collection of scary movies and stories, I start realizing that most of our so-called scary works today fall into the secondary definition of horror, “intense aversion or repugnance,” rather than truly inducing fright.

What on earth do I mean?

Well, specifically I’m thinking of the “torture porn” movies that pervade our cinema today, and the True Blood school of horror, in which filmmakers must constantly up the ante in order to make us gasp with, well, horror.

Truly scary movies need to make me jump at small noises, not jump up to run to the toilet so that I can vomit after witnessing fountains of blood. Truly scary books need to make me so frightened I can’t close the book because the real world could be even scarier.

It’s the difference between this:

Nothing like ripping out a newscaster’s spine on live TV. 

And this:

This scene was removed from the original version of The Exorcist. Seriously.

One inspires shock and a shudder, the other inspires shock and a shiver. I didn’t stay up worrying that Russell Edgington was going to come into my home and rip out my spine. Nope, I stayed up having visions of a grotesque Regan MacNeil sitting at the foot of my bed.

The Exorcist is, I think, scarier because it happens in a quiet, suburban setting. Any kid could get possessed, but I don’t think the Vampire King of Louisiana is likely to exist any time soon. That’s the trick to truly frightening people: making them fear for themselves as well as for your main characters.

What are some works of film and fiction that have truly frightened you? 

Happy Halloween, everyone!

On Writing Creepy Stuff

I love writing the dark stuff. Some writers say it’s too much, that writing brooding, deep, dark stories makes their moods correspondingly brooding, deep, and dark. I live for the macabre, and have since I was little.

That doesn’t mean my stories are unrelenting pages of creepiness or woe, though. (It just means all the other little girls thought I was a wee bit…strange. Anyway.) There has to be balance. I like to think of my stories like the rhyme about the little girl with the curl on her forehead:

“When she was good she was very, very good

And when she was bad, she was horrid.”

If you’re going to write in the paranormal genre, I think you should give it your all. If you want to venture into creepy territory, do it with abandon.

Enlightened, my urban fantasy which will be out in February 2013, deals with demons. I’d never written about demons before, so I broke out many a research tome (including ye olde standby, Google) to learn all I could about them.

Subsequently, I came to love them so much that I had a couple of ideas for prequels and side stories for major characters in the novels. This meant more research and more demon-creation.

People, let me tell you, I had fun. Maybe a little too much fun, because I began to have nightmares about my bad guy. In my head, he looks a bit like this:

Via aaronsimscompany

Needless to say, sweat-soaked pajamas had to be changed. And yes, that’s the demon from Constantine. (Which, by the way, is one of my all-time favorite movies. Watch it if you’re a horror fan like me—your life will be enriched.)

If you want to write scary stuff, you have my full support. Even if you’ve never done it before, I recommend jumping in with both feet. Read some of the masters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Shirley Jackson, but don’t be afraid to take risks and really make the ghouls your own. Once you set foot into el creepo territory, you’ll never look back.

Happy writing, and Happy Halloween!