The gothic genre is in love with literary ephemera. It glories in old letters tucked into books, handwritten accounts hidden in secret drawers, and yellowed newspaper clippings detailing shocking events. Many gothic protagonists are ardent letter writers and dedicated diarists. Some of the most famous gothic novels, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), are epistolary; others are “found manuscript” tales in which the main character discovers an old manuscript, diary, or trove of letters from generations past.
Gothic protagonists use their journals and letters as a record of the perplexing or terrifying events they witness, and there are few reading experiences more delicious than enjoying a gothic plot unfolding over a series of letters or diary entries. On a dark night, with the lights low, it’s easy to feel like the book in your hands really is the protagonist’s diary, yellowed with age and written in an elegant hand.
Of these prolific scribblers, one of the most iconic must be Mina Murray, whose journal, letters, and notes are woven through the pages of Dracula. Another resourceful heroine is Marian Halcombe, from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), who unravels deceptions, stands up to the novel’s imposing gothic villains, and records it all in her beloved diary, which is rarely far from her side.
I suppose that I’m particularly susceptible to the fascination of a found manuscript, a forgotten diary left to molder under the floorboards of an abandoned house or an old collection of correspondence between intimate friends. As a Victorianist, I often find myself digging through collections of 150-year-old letters, newspapers, and other ephemera for my research. I myself have kept a journal since I was thirteen; I never know how the passing of time might cast my current observations in a different light, and I can’t predict the narrative arc of my own life in advance.
A journal can give every person an opportunity to be the scribe of their own story. So, whether you’re writing in your diary from a castle by the sea, quill in hand, or by the warm glow of your laptop screen, here are eight ways to channel your inner gothic heroine:
• Narrate your life through gothic lenses. I have a special journal that I keep for this purpose. Within it, every slighting comment becomes a duel at dawn, every party is transformed into a masquerade ball, and every work nemesis is cast as a gothic villain. My gothic self and her antics keep me endlessly entertained and help me process some of the genuinely difficult parts of life. What romance or adventure has beckoned your gothic self lately?
• Paste in newspaper clippings about the strange and unusual. Bram Stoker’s Mina pastes into her journal the sensational newspaper account of Dracula’s bloody arrival on the shores of England. It’s through Mina’s close attention to the mysterious events unfolding around her that the reader can understand the full scope of Dracula’s power. If there’s nothing in the news currently that you particularly want included in your journal, then don’t forget that you can find old newspapers online. Much of my work entails combing through old newspapers, and it’s like venturing into a different world. I once printed out a replica of a 100-year-old newspaper and pasted it on the cover of my journal. Sometimes very old news is the most enthralling news.
• Wake at the witching hour and record strange, possibly ghostly details. Between midnight and 3:00 a.m., the world is a different place. Rise in the darkest part of the night and record what you hear, see, think, and feel. An important feature of the gothic is its use of the supernatural: mysterious lights that burn in the windows of empty houses, a child’s laughter in a home with no children, or a mysterious knocking from inside the wall. My favorite midnight sound is the hooting of owls. What does the night sound like where you live?
• Keep your journal in a secret place. Gothic heroines must keep their writing concealed from those who would plot against them. They send their letters in secret and keep their diaries and most intimate writing hidden. Sometimes, an air of secrecy and stealth can restore a sense of excitement to your journaling practice. Keeping your writing hidden can also encourage you to be more honest and vulnerable within the pages of your diary.
• Indulge in an epigraph. Open each journal entry with a meaningful quote. Ann Radcliffe, one of the greatest gothic novelists ever to live, began her novels’ chapters with haunting, dramatic, or melancholy quotes to set the mood. Radcliffe was partial to Shakespeare, but you can create epigraphs from any poetry, books, essays, or song lyrics that strike you as particularly powerful.
• Experiment with your handwriting. If you’ve ever seen the lovely penmanship practiced by Victorian and Edwardian letter writers, or envied a page of elegant calligraphy, then this is your chance to modify your own handwriting. Indulge in the elegant flourishes of the Italic script, or the graceful swirls of copperplate calligraphy. Even just adding a dramatic flourish here and there can lend an air of intrigue and romance to your words.
• Luxuriate in description. The gothic is all about rich sensory description. Sometimes we can get so caught up in journaling about what we are doing, thinking, and experiencing that we forget to record our surroundings. Gothic protagonists busily record the events they live through, but they never forget to include vivid, evocative descriptions of the places and people that surround them. No matter how ordinary your home might seem, how unremarkable, you can always find the shadows (and the magic in the shadows). Every creak could be an uneasy spirit. Every gust of wind could bring a strange traveler from afar.
• Also … Write letters to a secret correspondent. You don’t need to send them; there’s nothing more sensationally gothic than a letter that was never sent. If you know that you’ll never send these letters, then you can write them directly into your diary. Your correspondent could be a real person, but they could also be a figment of your imagination, the perfect gothic confidant conjured out of mist and ether.