If you like atmospheric descriptions, then Gothic literature is for you! Castles, dungeons, vaults, ruins – they all provide a rich setting for tales of blood and imprisonment, horror and fear.
The language used to describe these typically Gothic settings is always vivid, appealing to our senses and drawing us in to an unknown world. We see the dark ruins and the jagged battlements; we smell the dank rooms; we hear the distant groans.
Looking at examples, we can begin to explore more closely just how the writers create that strong sense of place. The extracts below are all taken from well-known Gothic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The notes that follow them show how close reading reveals their linguistic secrets.
… though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object … the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity … The gateway … leading into the courts was of gigantic size, and was defended by two round towers, crowned by over-hanging turrets, embattled, where, instead of banners, now waved long grass and wild plants … The towers were united by a curtain, pierced and embattled also, below which appeared the pointed arch of an huge portcullis, surmounting the gates: from these, the walls of the ramparts extended to other towers, overlooking the precipice, whose shattered outline … told of the ravages of war.
The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794)
The great castle is presented to readers as an austere hulk that dominates the landscape.
- references to ‘light’ are typical:
- the noun phrase the setting sun marks the atmospheric transition between day and night
- the clauses the light died … the rays soon faded … use negative verbs to suggest the movement towards night
- the pre- and post-modified noun phrase the solemn darkness of evening at the end of the sentence is emphatic
- the location is always at a distance: the building is in an austere and inhospitable spot (overlooking the precipice)
- the natural world is dominant – humanity is insignificant in this environment and cannot impose order :
- the banners (symbolic of people) have been replaced by nature’s blazons (grass, plants)
- the adjectives linked to the natural world reflect its supremacy (long, wild)
- concrete nouns define the physical elements of the castle (battlements, gateway, courts, towers, turrets, curtain, arch, portcullis, ramparts) – they are subject specific and very much linked to a by-gone age
- colours tend to be dull:
- dark grey is typical of the austere mood created
- brighter colours (purple) will often be modified by a negative adjective (melancholy)
- words relating to size suggest the scale: greatness (noun), gigantic, huge (adjectives)
- adjectives have negative connotations to set the tone: mouldering, gloomy, melancholy, more awful
- words associated with battle remind us of the dark, violent nature of Gothic fiction: embattled, pierced and embattled, shattered (verb modifiers), the ravages of war (noun phrase)
- the repetition of the adjective sublime is an important element of the physical description – it combines a sense of grandeur with a feeling of awe and terror
- the extended metaphor of the castle as a ruler is dramatic:
- the tripling of adjectives in the initial position (Silent, lonely, sublime …) set the tone
- there is a semantic field of kingship (the sovereign of the scene, its solitary reign, crowned)
- the personification brings the castle to life – the tone is negative and menacing (to frown defiance on all)
St Clare’s Sepulchre
We stopped before the principal shrine of St. Clare. The Statue was removed from its Pedestal, though how I knew not. The Nuns afterwards raised an iron grate till then concealed by the Image, and let it fall on the other side with a loud crash. The awful sound, repeated by the vaults above, and Caverns below me, rouzed me from the despondent apathy in which I had been plunged. I looked before me: An abyss presented itself to my affrighted eyes, and a steep and narrow Staircase, whither my Conductors were leading me. … I was hurried down the Staircase, and forced into one of the Cells which lined the Cavern’s sides.
My blood ran cold, as I gazed upon this melancholy abode. The cold vapours hovering in the air, the walls green with damp, the bed of Straw so forlorn and comfortless, the Chain destined to bind me for ever to my prison, and the Reptiles of every description which as the torches advanced towards them, I descried hurrying to their retreats, struck my heart with terrors almost too exquisite for nature to bear. … A Lamp glimmering with dull, melancholy rays through my dungeon, permitted my distinguishing all its horrors.
The Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)
Agnes is dragged by the Nuns to the ghastly sepulchre concealed beneath the statue of a saint.
- the first person point of view is emotive: Agnes is presented as a helpless victim through the passive verbs (I was hurried … and forced) and the indirect description of what she first sees (An abyss presented itself to me; A Lamp … permitted my distinguishing …)
- the sounds are immediately threatening:
- the negative pre-modification in the noun phrases (a loud crash. The awful sound …)
- the haunting echo indicated by the verb repeated
- the concrete nouns give us visual points of reference: grate, vaults, Caverns, Staircase, walls
- synonyms linked to entrapment draw attention to Agnes’ predicament (Cells, prison, dungeon)
- modifiers are negative
- linked to Agnes’ mood: despondent, affrighted
- linked to the location: melancholy, cold, forlorn, comfortless,
- adverb intensifiers heighten the tone of desolation: so forlorn and comfortless, almost too exquisite
- the figurative My blood ran cold is a literary trope – a figure of speech which represents an extreme state of emotion
- the list of five long complex noun phrases (The cold vapours …, the walls green with damp, the bed of Straw … the Chain … , and the Reptiles …) forces us to wait for the dynamic verb struck
- the plural abstract nouns (terrors, horrors) emphasise the inexplicable and indescribable nature of Agnes’ experience
- the light from the lamp (described with the modifiers dull, melancholy) brings no comfort since it reveals the nightmarish world of the vault
I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone. I could see in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather. … The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! … Looking out … I felt that I was indeed in prison … The castle was built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable, and great windows were placed here where sling or bow, or culverin could not reach …
Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
Jonathan Harker’s first impressions of Dracula’s castle are dominated by references to its scale and location.
- the description of the light as dim sets the tone
- the location is extreme:
- the adverb intensifier very in the prepositional phrase on the very edge of a terrible precipice amplifies the life-threatening nature of the spot
- the negative connotations of the modifier terrible create an appropriate atmosphere and prepare readers for what is to come
- the prepositional phrase on the corner of a great rock reinforces our sense of distance – the inaccessibility of the castle is important
- the reference to the effect of the elements (much worn by … weather) draws attention to the exposed position of the castle
- the scale is vast:
- the semantic field of adjectives linked to size draws attention to the castle’s immensity (great – repeated three times; large; massive)
- the adverb massively contributes to this – even the carvings are on a larger-than-life scale
- the reference to height in the noun phrase a thousand feet reinforces the sense of distance and the castle’s imposing proportions
- references to the age of the castle (old; much worn by time …) give it a permanence that can be linked to the immortality of its inhabitant
- the language of warfare enhances the negative tone
- the adjective phrase in parenthesis (studded with large iron nails) establishes the defensive nature of the castle
- the adjective phrase quite impregnable is in an emphatic position after the verb (predicative) to draw attention to the castle’s impenetrability
- the syndetic list of weapons with repeated conjunctions (sling or bow, or culverin – a forerunner of the musket) suggests the impossibility of storming the defences
- the connotations of the noun prison make explicit the danger in which Jonathan Harker finds himself
At Purfleet, on a byroad, I came across just such a place as seemed to be required, and where was displayed a dilapidated notice that the place was for sale. It was surrounded by a high wall, of ancient structure, built of heavy stones, and has not been repaired for a large number of years. The closed gates are of heavy old oak and iron, all eaten with rust. … It contains in all some twenty acres, quite surrounded by the solid stone wall … There are many trees … which make it in places gloomy, and there is a deep dark-holed pond or small lake … The house is very large and of all periods back, I should say, to medieval times, for one part is of stone immensely thick, with only a few windows high up and heavily barred with iron. It looks like part of a keep … There are but few houses close at hand, one being a very large house only recently added to and formed into a private lunatic asylum …
Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
The house that Jonathan Harker finds for Count Dracula in England is suitably gothic.
- the light is again dim – the adjective gloomy sets the tone
- the location is distant from other houses:
- the quantative noun phrase some twenty acres emphasises its isolation
- the repeated reference to the perimeter stone wall and the modifying adjectives high, heavy, solid mirror the impregnability of Castle Dracula perched on its precipice
- the scale of the house is grand:
- the adjective phrase very large is in a stressed position after the copular verb is
- linking it to the medieval times reinforces our sense of its size and its castle-like nature
- the references to its defensive qualities reminds us of Castle Dracula
- the modifiers closed, heavy, oak and iron describing the gates reinforce our sense that this place is inhospitable
- modifiers describing the walls (immensely thick) and the windows (high up and heavily barred) have negative connotations
- the parallel drawn between the house and a keep (a fortified tower built within a castle) make the association with conflict more explicit
- the lunatic asylum is symbolic of the social outsider – people will stay away from Carfax just as they stay away from the asylum
And now one for you to try! Read the extract below and try to work out how the writer has used language to describe this Gothic setting.
The ruins covered a considerable extent, of ground, but the only part which seemed successfully to have resisted the encroaches of time, at least to a considerable extent, was a long, hall … Adjoining to this hall, were the walls of other parts of the building, and at several places there were small, low, mysterious-looking doors that led, heaven knows where, into some intricacies and labyrinths beneath the building, which no one had, within the memory of man, been content to run the risk of losing himself in. It was related that among these subterranean passages and arches there were pitfalls and pools of water … The place is as silent as the tomb …
There is a dungeon—damp and full of the most unwholesome exhalations—deep under ground it seems, and, in its excavations, it would appear as if some small land springs had been liberated, for the earthen floor was one continued extent of moisture.
From the roof, too, came perpetually the dripping of water, which fell with sullen, startling splashes in the pool below. … That dreadful abode is tenanted. In one corner, on a heap of straw, which appears freshly to have been cast into the place, lies a hopeless prisoner.
Varney, the Vampyre, James Malcolm Rymer (1847)
A challenge …
See if you can create your own Gothic building set in a dramatic landscape in no more than 250 words using the techniques explored in this post. You will need to think about:
- the light and colour
- the location
- the scale
You will have to use:
- concrete nouns to develop the physical detail
- negative adjectives to create the appropriate tone
- adverb intensifiers to heighten the descriptive detail
You can enhance the effect by adding layers of meaning:
- personify the building or the landscape
- develop a semantic field of warfare or conflict
- create a contrast between the human world of order and the disorder of the natural
Remember to appeal to the senses in order to draw your reader into the place you are creating.
If you send your Gothic descriptions to me (use the ‘Contact’ tab for details), I’ll create a page for the best examples – with analysis of the language features which have made them successful.
3 responses to “‘Come into my castle,’ said the spider to the fly: describing buildings in Gothic fiction”
Cool! I’ll have to find a reason to use this!
I mean, a more modern YA fiction which this reminds me of in regards to the description is the Institute in the Infernal Devices – you might be interested in that.
Great idea – I’ll have to look at that. I’ve been tied up with a lot of other work recently so my blog has been neglected, but you’ve given me a good lead there!