Gothic Horror Primer

I was asked the other day by a friend what my reading recommendations would be for someone looking to create a tabletop game in a Gothic horror setting.  I put together the following, and thought that it might be useful for others out there so I’m going to re-post it here.  It’s by no means a definitive list, but it will more than get you in the right headspace to ensure you hit all the right notes.  Enjoy!

So rather than give you some lengthy novels to read, I’m going to focus on my favorite short stories done in the classic Victorian Gothic style, from the period.  And fortunately for you they are all going to be in the public domain, so I’ll dig up some links for them 🙂

If it’s helpful, here is what I would keep in mind building a Gothic tabletop game:

The Byronic Hero:

“a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” – Byron

Gothic tropes:

  • Gloomy villain
  • foreboding locations
  • Persecuted heroines 
  • Juxtaposition of wealth and order next to barbarism and poverty 
  • Obsession with mourning rituals, mementos, and the degradation of morality 
  • Extreme curiosity of what lies beyond the veil.  Often roped together with the growing spiritualist movement at the time. 

Recommendations:

  1. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – The lengthiest one on the list, but one of the best.  It hits all of the hallmarks of the genera and is an absolute classic.  You may have already read this one so I’ll not carry on about how great it is.  Stevenson does not use purple prose, so this shit moves fast. 
  2. Dracula’s Guest – For those of you who don’t have time for Dracula (which is an awesome read and probably the first thing everyone thinks of when they think about Gothic fiction) we have this little short story.  First written as part of Dracula, then cast off as its own short story, its a lot of fun and uses great language the way only Stoker can.  
  3. Casting the Runes – MR James is the father of the modern ghost story.  He has some great work in the realm of weird fiction, but if your looking for a more Gothic piece I remember really liking this one.   
  4. Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar – Perhaps one of Poe’s most gory pieces (I think he must have written it with an anatomy book open next to him).  An easier Poe work to get through (sometimes his language can be a bit thick) that like many of his shorts is benefited from the author’s obsession with death.  
  5. The Striding Place – Gertrude Atherton (a female writer in a time dominated by men) I think captured the Gothic contemplation of the spirit/soul and the morbid thoughts of it lingering on after death.  If you are looking to build a tabletop game around the ideas of death and the soul (classic tropes of the genera) then I think this would give you a good primer for what the zeitgeist was at the time. 
  6. The Phantom ‘Rickshaw – A straightforward little tale about a man being driven mad by a ghost.  I liked the language used by the narrator to reveal the increasing madness and desperation.  

Steer clear of:

  1. The Mummy’s Foot – Ugh, just terrible.  You’d think it would be cool with a mummy and all, but alas it really lets you down.  I want to be enchanted by an Egyptian Princess as much as the next guy but sheesh.  
  2. The Vampyre – It might be sacrilege for me to say so, but I think that the Vampyre by Paolidori is really only interesting if you are want to read it for historical reasons.  Or if you really want to see a Vampire Lord be a total dick.  Not worth the time it would take you to get through. 
  3. The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Dicken’s does not deliver.  There is a bit of hype around this one since he died before it could be completed.  Read only if you are interested in the author IMO. 

If you’ve got any additions or subtractions to this list, by all means feel free to comment below 🙂

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