How to craft Gothic Atmosphere: Lessons from C.J. Cooke

Hello writers, and welcome to episode 8 in The Reading Room podcast. I’m very excited to share today’s episode with you. As a lover of lighthouses across the world and the gothic genre, The Lighthouse Witches is a story that called to me long before it reached the bookstores! I wanted to re-read and consume the story almost as soon as I’d turned the final page. It was a joy to read the first time, and even more so the second time with my notebook (as I didn’t want to add notes in the margin of so beautiful a hardback!)
 
Reviews in abundance praise C.J. Cooke’s atmospheric and compelling story of Liv Stay and her three daughters at The Longing Lighthouse in Scotland, and the mysterious history of the witch hunts that took place centuries before. The plot is intricate, with magical themes, time-lapses, and multiple voices heard.
 
Today, we’ll be looking at the prose style and the use of the atmosphere as a literary device to craft and deliver this gothic thriller. When we talk of Atmosphere, we refer to the emotions readers feel from a narrative that is delivered through details like setting, background, specific objects, and foreshadowing.
 
As you listen to the reading, I’d like you to think about the descriptive language used in the following passages and how this contributes to the setting. Consider also the chosen point of view and what impact this makes.
 
Are you ready? Then, let’s begin…
Close Reading
 
Oh, my goodness, where should I start? Let’s start at the beginning, with the quotes by William Shakespeare and Voltaire. These are not random. Each quote from history provides insight into the cultures and philosophies of the past. Not only does the theme of magic and folklore tie them together, but also a sense of fear; cautionary folklore fears of sprites and goblins in the first, and a superstitious fear of the ‘other’ which drives a community towards unforgivable acts. Both quotes serve as a prologue for the novel and provide forewarning for what is to come and sets that underlying current of unease that readers will subconsciously prepare themselves for.
Then we are cast into a graphic scene or vignette that we quickly identify as a witch trial. A vignette is a short evocative description, account, or episode – and this account definitively evokes emotion. There is no date at the top of the page, we are simply transported. The prose is raw, brutal, harassing, and unsettling – characteristics familiar to the gothic genre. The descriptive language is visceral and intended to draw those emotions out of us. Listen to some of the words again:
– “I gag on blood and broken molars.”
– They are “hacking off [Amy’s] locks so close to the skin that blood oozes darkly from her pale scalp.”
Twice, Amy is likened to a frightened, wounded animal – we don’t know her age, but we assume she is young, ‘like a new lamb’ and this imbues a sense of tragedy into the writing.
 
Two names are revealed in this passage – Amy and Stevens – and this provides the identity for each in this context – the hunted and the hunter. Our narrator knows them both and this adds an additional current of shock to the passage. Why else do you think the author decided to name Amy and Stevens in this passage?
 
Consider also the impact of the first-person narrative in this passage, this character’s voice could be yours, it could be mine. The use of the pronoun, ‘I’, absorbs you into the story and you become part of the collective, ‘our’, suffering at the hands of the witch hunters. ‘They’ do not hold back in their treatment of the women but neither will ‘I’, the voice of the passage, hold back in telling her story. This is a powerful connection between the author and the reader and it is tied together through the first person point of view. The passage is also delivered in the present tense, giving it currency – it could be today – and addressing the motif of time that runs through the novel. The final line, “Wait for me, Amy. Wait.” carries a chill with it – a sense of strength and hope – but not a finality and so, we too, will wait.
 
Still reeling, we are then transported to another time, 1998 with Liv and her daughters for the first chapter. We know that timelines play a crucial role in the plot and structure of the novel and so are compelled to pay attention.
 
Before the paragraph even opens, the location is marked by The Black Isle, followed by descriptions of a bleak landscape and stirring up a sense of cold and darkness. While only a short passage, it is bursting with descriptive language and haunting detail that creates that gothic atmosphere.
 
Can we also take a moment to appreciate the sorrowful but on-point name for the lighthouse – The Longing, “lovely in its decrepitude” and “hauntingly familiar.” Think of the associations we can draw from this – open to interpretation depending on what a lighthouse symbolises for you. I sense a yearning and hope that is aligned with the beacon which is set against the bleakness of Black Isle’s ‘tessellations of rock’ and ‘thrashing waves’ – the harsh and bitter landscape may ‘gnaw’ at the paint and the ‘white bolt’ structure of the lighthouse but, for centuries, it has continued to ‘[needle] upwards, spine straight’ – it is resilient and seems to mirror the strength of our nameless woman in the witch trials as if binding her spirit to the structure.
 
Let’s next look at the penultimate paragraph detailing Liv’s arrival at Lon Haven with her daughters. When we meet them, it is at the end of a long and difficult journey “over mountains, through villages, and along winding roads,” but we are not given the why – not just yet; the exposition is just enough to provide a sense of place, time, and state of mind and so we will keep reading to reveal more of their backstory.
 
Then we have the final paragraph where we have a family of four females staring out at an unwelcoming ‘raw scene’ of the bay against a full moon and a thrashing ocean. All the signs are there with a sense of foreboding. The oppressive image of the trees which ‘[stand] like pitchforks,’ harnesses our association with witch-hunters, personified in their watchfulness as they hem the island and provide a sinister, unsettling close to the chapter.
 
The atmosphere presented in these passages is relentless, hazardous, and ominous, and so readers will anticipate emotions of the same from the images portrayed within the narrative. Do you think chapter 1 would have delivered the same atmospheric impact without the earlier quotes and the harrowing vignette? Maybe listen to the passages again and make notes on which triggers you responded to from the gothic atmosphere created. If you’d like to share thoughts and ideas either on today’s reading or for the novel, send me a message at contact@awriterslighthouse.com. If you’re feeling inspired, please do leave a rating and/ or review in your favourite podcast app.
 
Today’s Exercise
 
For today’s exercise, which is inspired by Liv Stay and her as yet unknown reason for driving hundreds of miles to Scotland with her daughters, I’d like you to explore the theme of secrets in the context of the gothic genre. These can be secrets held by a village or community, by a family or group of friends, or held by one person.
 
Start with a 7-minute brainstorm to jot down the various plot lines and twists which come to mind. Then, review your ideas and select one thread to expand as a story. When writing, consider the language you use and how it drives the mood and setting of your story, for instance, do you intend to haunt and unsettle, yet thrill and excite with your writing? Set your timer to 13 minutes, and write.
 
If you need help with developing this story idea, you can download my free Story Mapping Guide at my website, awriterslighthouse.com and proceed from Step 2.
 
You can also subscribe to my newsletter for monthly writing tips, prompts, and resources to guide you on your narrative journey when you need it at awriterslighthouse.com/subscribe
 
Until next time, happy listening, reading, and writing, with your #eyestothehorizon

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