Setting in the Gothic Novel
Gothic novels are characterised by an atmosphere of mystery and suspense. The mood is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Characters catch only a glimpse of something—-was that a person drifting past the window or only the wind blowing a curtain? Is that creaking sound coming from someone’s step on the squeaky floor, or only the sounds of the night? Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. People disappear or show up dead inexplicably.
A typical gothic story is set in and around a castle, graveyard, cave, convent, monastery, church, cathedral, chapel or dungeon. The setting is key to the success of the story.
‘The building possesses the occupants or holds them in bondage’
Marshall Tymn, Fantasy Literature
The locations are in remote, uninhabited places such as mountain ranges, wild forests, or cliff tops.
There are key conventions for developing a gothic atmosphere. Architectural features such as towers, trapdoors, mysterious corridors, rusty hinges, tunnels, and lightless niches all serve to entrap their helpless victims. Flickering candles, burial vaults, tolling bells, hidden manuscripts, curses and prophecies, suits of armour, ghosts, clanking chains, animated portraits, lamps, evil potions and spells, fluttering bats, storms, lightening, and howling winds add to the aura of terror and mystery that define the gothic genre. A wide range of elements that create a sense of terror, decay, despair, or death are needed to contribute to a gothic setting.
Gothic place settings such as the polar ice glacier or the old man’s cottage were cleverly used in Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel Frankenstein. While ice glaciers and cliff side cottages are not traditional Gothic settings such as castles and ruins, Shelley’s use of them creates a gothic mood because of the images of isolation and loneliness that they create.
Elements that enhance the gothic mood:
Lights going on and off
Doors slamming shut
Distant baying or howling