I think I finally understood the complexity and depth that some writers can go to in order to create alternative worlds and new experiences when I read Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" in my 11th grade AP English class.
Prior to reading this, I had been entertained, taught, even brought to tears by books and stories, but I never really got that tingly feeling through my toes and been unable to tear my eyes away from the story developing before me. I don't know what it was that caught me, but I think it was the Poe's use of words and descriptions, his vague references of crazy family relations and the supernatural, and the dichotomy between sanity and insanity.
I was hooked...to the creepy, the macabre, the dark themes that Poe explored and I wanted to know more about it. Unfortunately, it wasn't until I was a teacher that I could spend time on the Gothic authors, researching the time period, the origin, other Gothic authors, and read more in this genre. I read Stoker's Dracula, almost all of Poe's collected works, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, and of course, Ms. Shelley's Frankenstein. As I was reading, I kept noticing elements and details that were found in each of these stories and it seemed to me that these authors relied so much on the setting to help them create the mood and tone of the entire story. I also noticed that some of places or locations were similar, the characters were similar, and even some of the more creeptastic descriptions were similar.
After looking for some information on teaching Gothic literature as a sub-category of the Romantic era, I was able to track down some lists that explained the origin and common elements found in most Gothic Literature. First of all, Horace Walpole started the genre of the Gothic novel with his story, The Castle of Otranto set in a castle similar to his own, Strawberry Hill. If you've ever read this story and if you are anything like me, you'll spend most of the time looking incredulously at the story and mentally repeating "WTF!!" because the story is crazy weird and completely unnerving. However, he set a precedent that was followed and upheld by authors who followed down his dark and demented path.
Common Gothic Elements:
Ancient Prophecy- Many of the stories have an underlying reason for the events that happen to the characters or family. This is usually because the character who owns the house or castle or the main character of the story is a part of prophecy that either needs to be fulfilled. It could also be that there is a link in the chain of events that must take place for peace to come to the family and the house.
Metonymy- First of all, this is a very strange word. I can't seem to remember it or connect it with what it actually means. See, metonymy means a metaphor or comparison that is created between the audible characteristic and what it evokes in the reader. For instance, have your ever seen a graveyard or a funeral portrayed in the movies and it is a beautiful, bright sunny day? When you are watching a freaky ghost movie, do you ever see entities in the bright sunshine with rainbows shown behind them? No? This is because authors depend on the connection between the action in the environment and the reader's reaction. The creaking door, the howling wind, the rain beating against the window are all examples of metonymy because it conveys a sense of darkness, sorrow, and ominous foreboding that helps create a unique, menacing mood. I try to teach my kids that looking for examples of metonymy is not necessarily about the similes and metaphors, but an exercise in evaluating their personal reactions to what they are reading. If the hairs start go up on the back of their neck, or they find themselves feeling a little frightened, chances are the author is using metonymy.
There are other elements that can be found in the Gothic novel, such as necromancy, visions, the doppelganger, and the pursued protagonist, and I go through each those as well as the elements discussed here in my Gothic Novel PowerPoint. Students can also use this Elements of the Gothic Novel worksheet to find and analyze Gothic elements in any piece of literature written in the Gothic time period or style.
I also have some fun activities that encourage students to write a poem in the style of Edgar Allan Poe or create a murder short story. Each of these activities use graphics that encourage participation and visual interest and are excellent for students who aren't very interested in school or learning. (**Please be aware that these activities do include graphics such as blood splatter or bloody drips and hand prints so use caution for younger students) By using visuals and powerful images that demand attention, students become interested not only in the subject matter but in creating something pretty amazing.
It seems all of us have a specific genre or time period that we are particular to- Gothic Literature and Transcendentalism are two of my favorite time periods, what is yours?