In high school, I had a phase where I was really into the Romantic poets. I read about Percy Bysshe Shelley in particular and was struck by his “The Masque of Anarchy,” a rabble-rousing political poem:
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most famous poets of the Romantic period. I found the world of the Romantics fascinating. In the biography Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes I read about his personal life, which even as a high schooler I understood to be a truly amazing trainwreck.
Gothic is a 2023 larp by Avalon Larp Studios inspired by the Ken Russell movie of the same name, featuring the Romantic poets in a story of gothic horror. I signed up and got lucky, playing first Percy Bysshe Shelley and then the servant William Fletcher.
This was because Gothic was based on an unusual production model pioneered by another intimate horror larp, House of Craving. There are five overlapping runs of the event. Played in a mansion in the Danish countryside, the larp runs continuously as a repeating one-day instance which each player experiences twice, first as a poet and then as a servant.
When I was playing Percy, the person who had played Percy yesterday was now my manservant. The next day, I was the servant and a new player was portraying Percy.
At any given time, Gothic only has five poet characters and five servant characters. The ensemble is small and tight. The division between the social positions of the characters meant that the focus of play is on the five players who arrive together each day. When I was Percy Bysshe Shelley, my primary focus was on my co-players who played Mary Shelley and the others, and when I was Fletcher, I interacted most with my fellow servants.
This allowed for nuanced, interesting social and internal play. The schedule keeps things moving with events such as afternoon tea, a séance and dinner but there is space to explore ideas and build scenes together.
The fact that they share a design structure made me initially compare Gothic to House to Craving, a larp known for its extravagant, depraved madness. During play, I realized that Gothic was quite a different experience, more focused on the depth of the themes, characters and the setting than the visceral, bodily experience of House of Craving. The Romantic poets allowed for an unusually thorough examination of the various ideas connected to the larp because the characters themselves were quite capable of both discussing and implementing them.
The poets were intellectually ambitious, and that meant we as players could explore things like the difference between an ideal and reality, or conversely the problems caused by strict, heedless application of ideals to reality.
In the fiction, the larp was set in Villa Diodati where Lord Byron famously stayed in the summer of 1816, spending three days together with Dr. John Polidori, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Claire Claremont. The time spent by the poets at Villa Diodati is famous for Lord Byron’s challenge that each should come up with a horror story. It is this prompt that gave Mary Shelley the push to come up with her idea for Frankenstein, a landmark work of horror literature.
Our group of poets approached this task diligently, each of us coming up with a story. This meant that not only was gothic horror the genre of the larp, we as characters were also telling each other horror stories in the dimly lit, creaking mansion in the middle of the night. There were layers upon layers of horror, building to an escalating level of unreality as the night progressed.
The themes of artistic legacy and creative immortality influenced my play strongly. There was an unusual space for playing on the complex real-life legacy of the characters because the design facilitated it, key details brought into focus in the excellent character writing. To prepare for the larp, I’d read Miranda Seymour’s excellent biography Mary Shelley and was surprised how directly applicable it was, especially in the surreal late night scenes where talking about the future was as sensible as talking about the past. I’d done extracurricular reading beyond what was suggested by the organizers because I enjoy it, but it paid off.
There was an interesting creative tension between the themes of poetic and creative immortality for the characters, a group of legendary artists, and larp as an artform. Larp is ephemeral by its very nature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein lives on although she and even the society she came from have disappeared.
A larp lives on in the memories of its players, and shadows persist in documentation such as photos and this essay. Otherwise, it’s lost the moment it ends. Yet what larp loses in the pursuit of immortality it gains in the immediacy of the experience.
Noises in the Dark
When you go to international larps, you end up staying at a lot of mansions available for rent in different countries across Europe. They’ve been built to the specifications of a certain culture of servants and masters. The living quarters of the family in residence are separate from the discreet, narrow staircases and attic rooms of the servants needed to keep the household functioning.
Playing Gothic was the first time I experienced an old mansion through the social context it was actually made for. Since the larp had a number of partially overlapping runs, the players of each run had to arrive discreetly so as not to disturb ongoing play. Thus, a taxi left me and several other players outside the grounds of the Danish country manor where the larp took place and an organizer came to fetch us, guiding us discreetly to a servant’s entrance. This way, we’d be as invisible as possible to the players who were at that moment gazing forlornly out the windows as the poets.
We spent the evening doing workshops and then retired for the night, all on the basement floor of the expansive building. The next day, we had more workshops before we’d start play at 14:00 as the poets.
Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were both aristocrats. As the poets, we’d be sleeping in the magnificent first floor bedrooms so before play started, we bundled up our linens and carried them up the stairs to where we’d sleep the second night, in grand style. We moved from the servant side to the public facing side.
Our third day onsite, our second day of play, it was our turn to play the servants. Thus, we bundled up the linens from our beds again. Most of the servant’s rooms were in the attic. We shifted back to the servant side both inside the fiction and physically inside the mansion.
At night, the mansion was extremely atmospheric. Waking up to go to the bathroom, I was walking the corridors alone, listening to the strange sounds of the building, pitch black doorways and creaking windows looming over me.
It’s a common human experience that when you wake up, your brain misconstrues something you see in the dark. The shape of a coat hanging from a doorframe looks like the silhouette of a human. For one reason or another, I’m very prone to this. It happens all the time and I don’t really get an emotional reaction from it anymore. Seeing something looming in the dark just after waking up, I know it’s just my brain being stupid again. The vision goes away when I turn on the lights.
I was sleeping in my room the third night, on my side cradling a pillow with my left arm, my hand resting against my face.
As I woke up, I saw a hand holding my hand.
Turns out, I wasn’t quite as blasé as I’d thought. It took a while to fall asleep again after I’d frantically grabbed for my cellphone light.
Who Is Remembered
One of the key moments of the larp is a séance involving prophetic statements about the futures of the poets. The themes of who gets remembered and who’ll have a legacy are brought into the open.
As players we knew the statements were true and we knew which applied to which character. This meant that the unfairness of how these people’s lives proceeded was integral to the experience, both in terms of character history and future fate.
The Romantic poets are long dead and the versions we play are fictional, calibrated to the questions we are interested in exploring. From the biographies I knew the larp’s take on history was surprisingly faithful. Perhaps the poets had led such dramatic lives that it was easier to adapt them to the purposes of the larp’s design. Still, I also knew the versions we played were romanticized and exaggerated to make the larp function.
The question of who is remembered and how was explored both explicitly and implicitly. It was an ongoing topic of conversation for our characters who operated on what they knew at that moment: Lord Byron was famous, while the others were unknowns, although Percy Bysshe Shelley had written poems that could go somewhere. Other works, like Frankenstein, were still in the future.
Our characters didn’t know that in terms of popular impact, Mary Shelley would in time be the most enduring of the writers present. Although Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley both continue to be read, it’s no exaggeration to say that Frankenstein is in a completely different category. As players we knew this and were able to play on it, even as it remained outside the frame of the fiction.
From her biography, I knew that Mary Shelley’s relationship with success was complicated. Her creative career was overshadowed by the difficult fact that her biggest hit was her first book. She wrote many others but never managed to capture lightning again.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was never particularly popular during his lifetime. His poems became iconic only after his death, and one person who put a lot of work into making that happen was Mary Shelley. You could almost say that the idea of Percy Bysshe Shelley as the archetypal ethereal elf-poet was created by Mary as she curated and contextualized his work.
A play based on Mary’s Frankenstein made her novel a pop culture phenomenon already during her lifetime and accelerated sales of the book. After Percy’s death, she exercised significant control over how his legacy should be remembered. In all this, although she suffered many indignities and setbacks made worse by 19th century gender discrimination and the travails of being a professional writer, she also exercised power of her own. She was an active participant in the shaping of literary memory.
Of the poet characters in Gothic, I find the most tragic to be Claire Clairmont and Dr. Polidori. The latter was the only one alongside Mary who actually completed the story he came up with during those fateful days at Villa Diodati, called The Vampyre, a progenitor of the romantic vampire genre. Although not as famous as Frankenstein, it too has remained in the canon of horror literature.
Dr. Polidori based the vampire of his story on Lord Byron and when he got it published, the publisher decided to attribute it to Byron instead of its true author. Although Byron himself demanded that his name be removed, this and other setbacks eventually depressed Polidori so much that he took his own life at the age of 25.
Working people barely get remembered at all. The servant characters were also based on real people at least to some degree, but the problem is that records about their lives are limited. The servant I played, William Fletcher, was probably the one of whom the most complete picture is available from historical sources because he stayed with Byron for such a long time and enjoyed a very close relationship with him.
As each day of play ended, we received letters informing us of the future fates of our characters. Percy’s letter didn’t have a significant effect on me because I already knew his fate. Reading Fletcher’s letter was a much more emotional experience. Although he might have felt an inkling of power and control amidst the terror-infused chaos of midnight at Villa Diodati, in the end he was just a poor man living in an age that wasn’t very kind to those without money, title and connections.
In the end, all the famous people around him failed to take care of him.
This was the fate of Claire Clairmont too, a lover of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley who ended up betrayed by both and having to make her own way in a cold, uncaring world. Still, some of her perspective remains. Even before the larp, I’d already become familiar with her voice because her writings were used extensively as source material in the Mary Shelley biography.
Playing a famous poet is intimidating for those of us not capable of writing great poetry on demand and Gothic had a clever solution for this problem: The off-game room had a stack of poems and you could grab one and just decide that it was something your poet had just created.
As a player, you had what you needed to make a scene work.
That was my experience of the larp in general. The production model of overlapping small runs used in Gothic is difficult to pull off and requires that everything runs smoothly. This was the case and if there were any hiccups backstage, you didn’t really see them.
Similarly, I was blessed with a cohesive group of co-players who shared similar priorities for what we wanted to do. You could sign up for the larp either as an individual or a group. The run I played in was the only one composed of individual sign ups while the other runs were groups who had signed up together. Due to luck or good casting, I felt our group shared a similar level of interest in exploring the mythology of the Romantic poets and their legacies.
Emotionally, the heaviest scenes were all when I was playing Percy Bysshe Shelley. I got confronted with my failures as a man, a poet, a husband, a lover and a radical, but all that is much easier to deal with when you’ve spent the day as a poet of immortal genius.
The most meaningful scene I played was at the culmination of a game of hide and seek instigated fairly late at night. I ran after Mary, thinking that we could hide together, but the hiding place she chose in the servant’s quarters was for one person only. Realizing I needed a place of my own, I used the same hiding place that had worked for me the last time I’d played hide and seek, probably thirty years ago: Behind the door.
Lord Byron’s hired companion Tita rushed into the room with a baying crowd and noticed Mary. Someone even banged on the door I was hiding behind, but they didn’t notice me and eventually left the servant’s quarters altogether, leaving behind Mary and her maid.
I revealed myself and Mary, supported by the maid Elise, let me have it, all the poison in our relationship, everything that was wrong, pouring out in one powerful, eloquent torrent. I was staggered by it and needed a moment to take it all in. At that point, Elise left, leaving me and Mary alone. I sat on the bed and the conversation continued, slowly shifting gears until it’d moved from the emotional fireworks of gothic horror into a more realistic emotional register.
My key to playing a Romantic poet was that they were very young, precocious teenagers given agency by status and wealth. Lord Byron came across as an elder statesman and he was just four years older than Percy Bysshe Shelley. How come the poets were so irresponsible, so extra? Well, they were barely adults!
When I had my Percy Bysshe Shelley phase, I was at an arts high school where you had a lot of peer support if you wanted to be dramatic. The first time I got drunk in my life, it was with absinthe smuggled from Portugal by my grandmother. (It was illegal in Finland at that time.) We did the whole ceremony with a friend and I got so wasted, I couldn’t take the bus home in the morning without puking on the sidewalk.
Who knows, if I’d had the wealth and fortune of a Percy Bysshe Shelley or a Lord Byron, what heights of folly I would have managed at that age?
Gothic was produced by the Avalon Larp Studio collective.
Main organizers: Simon Brind, Halfdan Keller Justesen, Laurie Penny, Martine Svanevik, and Sagalinn Tangen.
Content writers: Aina S. Lakou and Charlie Ashby.
Website feedback and proofreading: Alexis Moisand, Alma Elofsson Edgar, Esperanza Montero, Eva Wei, Andreas Markehed, and Siri Sandquist.
Location Scouts: Julie Streit Pilegaard (main location), Ragnhild Hutchinson, Tidvis (playtest one) and Laurie Penny (playtest two).
Food Design: Anna Katrine Bønnelycke and Maria Østerby Elleby.
Playtesters: Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde, Jørn Norum Slemdal, Frida Sofie, Danny Meyer Wilson, Tor Kjetil Edland, Aina S. Lakou, Ingrid G. Storrø, Kerstin Örtberg, Halfdan Keller Justesen, Kol Ford, Emmer Felber, Rebel Rehbinder, James De Worde, Dominika Kovacova, Jorg Rødsjø, Martine Svanevik, and Charlie Ashby.
Onsite Crew: Maria Kolseth Jensen, Sascha Stans, and Søren Werge.
For additional acknowledgements see the larp website.
Cover photo: The larp location. Photo by Simon Brind.