Mention the word “Gothic” to any bookophile and you’ll get responses like Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, and Bram Stoker. Open books by these authors and you’ll find decadent, mist-shrouded mansions, gloomy weather, morose, self-indulgent characters, and probably a ghost or two. Gothic, as understood in American and English literature, is heavy on atmosphere, delves deep into the darker recesses of the human personality, and pays particular attention to death and its various manifestations.
But what does it mean for a book to be Gothic in the 21st century, in this age of tablets, energy-efficient buildings, and miracle diet pills? It seems as our society has moved further away from the romantic ideal of a brooding Victorian mansion standing sentry in a fearsome thunderstorm, bookshelves have become choked with stories about vampires, werewolves, especially in the “urban fantasy” genre. These books are usually quite dark, violent, and often contain dungeons or crypts hidden beneath modern monolithic skyscrapers, giving a nod to the roots of Gothic storytelling. But is that enough to make a book truly Gothic?
Like all artistic and stylistic debates, there’s no clear answer that will suit everyone’s tastes. In my humble and poorly educated opinion, I would contend that Gothic is more of an attitude than an appearance. You can’t simply inject a graveyard or crumbling cathedral into a novel and declare it to be Gothic. The idea of Gothic isn’t paint-by-numbers or a recipe for the macabre. “Gothic” is a feeling, a vibe. A sense of gloom, of menace, of dread must hover over the proceedings, infusing every scene with a heaviness that is not explicitly mentioned in the story but is undeniable nevertheless.
I consider my THE AGE OF APOLLYON TRILOGY to be Gothic, and not just because there are cathedrals and graveyards in abundance. The ominous sense of dread and doom is present on every page, and while this can be overbearing at times, it sustains a feeling of tension that never lets the reader relax. Another author who wields this weapon is SKN Hammerstone with her VESSEL OF SOULS series. Her books fall under the Young Adult Urban Paranormal Fantasy, with angels and demons at war for the souls of mankind. Yet these stories are different from their peers in that Hammerstone takes special care to develop the looming sense of impending doom and despair, rather than focusing primarily on the tortured progtagonist’s feelings for her angelic guardian, as most YA books would. The romance aspect is present, of course, but one does not get the feeling that everything will turn out to be sunshine and roses. In fact, at the end of the first book in the series, THE RIFT, it is quite apparent that a happy ending is going to be elusive for any of the characters.
The second book in the series, THE DECEIVED, releases on July 31st, and I'm looking forward to see where this twisted ride will take me. So if you’re a fan of Gothic in all forms, take heart: you don’t need to simply dine on the classics. There are plenty of delectable goodies out there, often by undiscovered authors. You just have to know which cavern to explore.