Are you about to pen a gothic horror novel and need some inspiration? We’re here to help! Read on to learn how to write a good horror gothic horror story.
1. Create an isolated location
There is always something both intriguing and frightening about an isolated setting, like a mansion where the closest neighbor is at least a mile away or a lone island out in the ocean accessible only by a ferry at certain times of day, or even certain days in the week. This type of setting immediately lets the readers know that if something happens to the protagonist and they need help, they will not be able to get it quickly.
The most common type of dwelling is a mansion, or a big house, and the actual locations can vary. You can have the house situated on top of a cliff by the sea, deep in the woods, up high in the mountains, and even in the desert, if you are so inclined, as long as the location itself is remote from the rest of the world.
2. Use architecture
Gothic architecture is widely used in writing gothic horror stories. Primarily, the often terrifying shapes and contours of the architecture help to build tension and add an unsettling feeling. There is the presence of grotesque shapes like gargoyles which serve to only enhance the feeling of a monster lurking in the shadows.
Additionally, the setting being a big mansion with many rooms, some of which can be locked, the presence of many hallways and hidden nooks, also add to the feeling of uncertainty – what can possibly be lurking in these rooms in the dead of night?
3. Add a feeling of age to the location
Beyond the gothic architecture, you need to invoke a feeling of age when creating the main location for your story. There are two different ways to do this. The first method is to have a mansion creaking with age, with visible dilapidation, old stains on the walls that might or might not be blood, rusted utensils and kitchen tools, windowpanes and mirrors that are dusty or creak, and a lack of amenities like electricity and running water.
Another method, which creates an even further feeling of horror, is to have an old mansion (or house, or another building your story is set in, like a castle), still look brand new. The protagonist, and by that, the readers, know the mansion should be dilapidated and crumbling due to age, but the fact that it’s not makes us think that something is wrong, that some form of evil is keeping the place intact.
4. Create a sympathetic protagonist
A sympathetic protagonist is not just a likeable one or a relatable one. It’s a protagonist whose main situation is primarily very sad. The protagonist does not need to be perfect, they need to have flaws like any other person, but the main cards that life has dealt them have been so bad that it’s easy for the readers to not only empathize with them, but sympathize as well.
The reason why a sympathetic protagonist is needed is because you want the make readers care (and even love) the protagonist, in order to follow them through to the conclusion of the story and root for their survival.
5. Use fear of the unknown and the uncanny
Fear of the unknown and fear of the uncanny are two types of fears that you can use when writing gothic horror. Fear of the unknown is when a person has no preconception or any kind of knowledge about what they might be facing. For example, the protagonist is on an isolated island. They see a strange, big shape in the fog, that indicates a huge monster beyond the veil of mist. The lack of preconceived knowledge of the creature invokes the fear of the unknown.
Fear of the uncanny is more psychological in nature. It’s the fear of something that looks just a shade different of how it should look. It’s looking in your reflection in the mirror in the dark and seeing your own reflection move – while you are standing still. It’s the fear of a human being walking on four legs as if they are an animal or a demon.
6. Create indirect danger
The location, the setting, and even the weather can be used to invoke a feeling of indirect danger. For example, in a mansion deep in the woods, during a stormy night, the trees around the house would cast dark, moving shadows on the walls that might not be moving naturally in tune with the storm. Or, despite a sunny day outside, it is gloomy inside the house as if the sun is not shining at all.
Moreover, the perceived danger should always be just out of sight – making the protagonist (and the reader) uncertain whether the danger was there in the first place. For example, the strange shape in the fog we described earlier might turn out to not be present at all once the protagonist gathers the courage to take a closer look and confront the potential monster. There is a lot of fear-inducing power in doors that open and close by themselves, but only when the protagonist is not in view to witness this, but is far enough away to only hear said opening and closing of doors.
7. Make the protagonist unreliable
An unreliable protagonist enables you to play around in the narration until the reader is unsure of what the protagonist is really facing. Usually, this is achieved through a protagonist whose mental state is already fragile to begin with.
For example, let’s take the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The protagonist, a woman already suffering from post-natal depression, recounts briefly the trappings of her existence and how her husband has, in essence, imprisoned her in the nursery room of the dilapidated mansion they have rented for the summer. However, in the narration, she recounts mostly how the bars on the windows, the bed that has been bolted, and the rings and metal things on the walls, are a result of the room’s previous use as a nursery or a boy’s gym, and never outright states that she has been, in essence, imprisoned.
8. Add paranormal elements
You can add paranormal elements to your story – from huge monsters lurking in dark bays of isolated, misty islands, to ghosts haunting the old mansion, or the presence of a demon lurking in the basement or crawling through the walls of the house. Perhaps a murder happened in the house and a poltergeist (a ghost that can actually move things in most iterations) is haunting the place.
The paranormal can be real, in the sense that it exists in the world you’ve created, but it can also be the unreal, and the viewings of ghosts and poltergeists and demons can be the workings of the unreliable, already fragile mind of your protagonist.
9. Have a core mystery
Your story should have a core mystery that the protagonist is trying to unravel within the course of the story. Perhaps they are trying to figure out what makes such an old mansion look pristine and neat. Perhaps they keep hearing noises from the upper levels, noises that always disappear when they get on those floors, and they want to find out what causes them. Perhaps they want to discover why a certain white figure appears in the fog at night but seems to evade them whenever they draw near.
Another type of mystery that you can give the protagonist is the search for something – an old artefact perhaps, or to discover what happened to the previous owner or dweller in the house. Maybe they had a family member (a mother, a brother, a sister) or a friend that came to the place and subsequently disappeared. Or, they could have inherited the mansion from an uncle whom they did not know about and would be discovering a plethora of family secrets.
10. Place the protagonist in mortal danger
Your gothic horror story would not be complete unless the protagonist gets put in absolute mortal danger within the course of the story. Of course, you should not place the protagonist in mortal danger immediately, or in the beginning of the story. If your protagonist nearly dies during the first night at the haunted mansion, then the readers will wonder why that person simply does not leave the property the next day.
The mortal danger should not be apparent from the start. You need to work gradually towards it. Perhaps the protagonist will have strange dreams about drowning in the beginning, and then near the end of the novel, strangely fall asleep while bathing in an old tub and wake up before it’s too late.
There is also the danger of the protagonist losing their sanity as the story progresses. Their thoughts and rationale in the narration can be clearer in the beginning, but more and more disjointed near the end, making the readers fear for both the protagonist’s life and their sanity as well. At the end of the day, there is only so much horror that the human mind can take before it starts to break.