Finding family in theft: heists, horror, and healing

Building family brick by brick.

Art by Shania O'Brien.

I have built a castle in my mind, and it puts Neuschwanstein and the Umaid Bhawan to shame. It stretches well into the clouds and its stained-glass windows trap sunlight within their jewel hues, the portraits on them immortalising the great adventures of the people who live within. It does not crumble, does not obey orthodox rules that govern its establishment, and it is not isolated upon a faraway mountain. 

In 1764, Horace Walpole wrote the first gothic novel: The Castle of Otranto. ‘Gothic’ literature aimed to elicit strong emotions — to intrigue and terrify and mystify. The genre boasts decaying old buildings where rotting secrets are buried under floorboards, missing women just elusive enough to establish curiosity, and foundations upon which a significant amount of modern horror is based. As a setting, a castle is a place that has existed for centuries and houses myriads of memories. It is marked by death, ghosts of generations past haunting each arched-window and secret passageways, their misery chiseled into the stone.

Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is set in early Renaissance Italy and France, and the titular castle is once again a place of fantasy and fascination; the protagonist Emily and her maid immediately yielded to the “gloomy and sublime” nature of the space by imagining that the castle is inhabited by fairies and spirits. Although it is half in ruins, with roofs caving in and walls deteriorating at dramatic speeds, the sense of grandeur is reinforced by its decor: faded tapestries, gold awnings, and ancient suits of armour. But there are no supernatural beings that lurk within its walls — it is merely infected by men who crave power over women. 

Scholars of medieval literature often attempt to force a view of the ‘feminine’ onto castles, likening the endless secret passageways to women being unknowable and moats with curtain walls to a womb. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Mallory have famously bound the two together on opposite ends of the medieval Arthurian tradition — but it is likely that the same is nothing more than an extended metaphor for the declining Arthurian social order. In my opinion, all of this is significantly derivative. 

To me, castles, first and foremost, are fun. The OxBridge Heist is something Marlow and I find ourselves talking about a lot. It might just be the overexposure we have to campus novels and found-family tropes, but there is a certain je ne sais quoi to moving to a foreign country and stealing precious objects with your best friends. I shouldn’t associate crime with found families as closely as I do, but there is some literature that does not escape you. We have spent hours where chili hot chocolates have turned to ice, scheming and plotting the best ways to pilfer ancient artefacts — all with the end-goal of forming unbreakable bonds rather than the possession of fancy trinkets.

In fiction, the ‘found family’ trope is heavily queer-coded and crime-focused. It speaks of societal outcasts who come together and form a family of their own, the blood of the covenant thicker than the water of the womb. In the stories I write, they live together in houses big enough to call a home, castles of their own making. 

Historically, the gothic genre has focused on the destruction of the family unit — novels are littered with women with madness and men with bad habits. The disturbance of the domestic ideal is essential to the plot, such as the unnamed narrator’s obsession with the eponymous Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel and the effect it has on her marriage. The wide hallways and deserted rooms of the Manderley estate represent the emptiness of the narrator’s life, her obsession with a phantasm leading her to hide behind Rebecca’s skeletons.

I think the appeal of a neo-gothic family stems from a shared experience that cannot be outlived or forgotten, a healthy bond formed out of joint hardship. Books like The Secret History by Donna Tartt portray a series of events that diverge from this ideal; it shows the characters grow apart after an otherworldly bacchanalia and gory manslaughter. However, in a genre defined by misadventure, found families rely on trust and stability within their relationships. The misadventure serves to bring the characters together, such as in books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Six of Crows

Where at first the setting was essential to the story, a revival of the genre would focus more on themes that connect horror with interpersonal relationships. Castles are no longer just a tangible backdrop but are more akin to the imaginary one that lives in my mind. But this is also due to the movement towards contemporary architecture in the modern day; towering castles with endless space are no longer a viable setting that many people can relate to. 

However, there is comfort in knowing that one is not limited to relations formed by blood, and the friendships one chooses can be just as meaningful — if not more so. I believe found family novels are on their way to reclaiming and reimagining the gothic, a haunted castle turning into a fortress against adversity.