I’ve been on a bit of a Southern Gothic kick this summer in preparation for my yearly Halloween novella (out now). I’ve always been attracted to the genre (I’m attracted to just about anything gothic) but this is the first time I’ve really delved into it.
So what is Southern Gothic? Well, the term ‘Gothic’ began to be used for something other than medieval architecture in late 18th and 19th century Britain when literature took a turn for the dark and the grotesque. Novels like Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wuthering Heights dealt with madness, death, doomed romance and degeneracy in aristocratic settings. Occasionally (although not necessarily) involving the occult and the supernatural, Gothic fiction is all about decay and the dark side of human nature. The genre has translated well to the U.S. particularly in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and, to a certain extent, H. P. Lovecraft. Although Poe, who spent most of his life in Virginia, undoubtedly laid the foundations for Southern Gothic in the first half of the 19th century, it would be in post-Civil War Dixie that the genre really hit its stride.
To say that the South has a troubled history is an understatement. The Civil War brought an end to slavery; a moral triumph but an economic disaster for the South. The system of land-owning aristocracy began to crumble. As the paint began to peel on the steadily warping boards of the plantation manor houses the once proud families who had inhabited them found themselves in greatly reduced circumstances. Like Poe’s Roderick Usher, Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights or even Count Dracula, the fallen nobility of Southern Gothic literature mirrors its decaying surroundings; corrupt, rotting and a shadow of its former glory.
The festering swamps of the South with their cypress trees dripping with Spanish Moss provide an exotic but equally eerie counterpart to the misty moors of England. There is something uneasy and dangerous in the beauty of the South and it isn’t just the lurking gators or the poisonous snakes. Local folklore, steeped in Christian imagery, has left a lingering fear of the devil as a force very much to be reckoned with. African beliefs made their way to the South with the slave trade and manifested as the folk magic known as Hoodoo. In the late 18th century refugees from the Haitian Revolution began arriving in Louisiana with their slaves bringing with them the Voodoo religion. The use of poisons and curses in Voodoo and Hoodoo and the concept of the zombie has provided Southern-set horror with rich pickings in the mysterious and the macabre. Despite a wide use of charms for protection and healing, Voodoo has often been sensationalized and stereotyped as ‘evil’.
Edgar Allan Poe may be seen as the forerunner in Southern Gothic and his tales The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-tale Heart are classic works of the macabre dealing with madness and decay, but one name stands even taller in the Southern Gothic tradition. William Faulkner’s novels – such as The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom! and Sanctuary – are full of crumbling Southern plantations and dysfunctional families but you won’t find a more Southern Gothic yarn than his 1930 short story – A Rose for Emily. Like most of Faulkner’s work this tragic tale of isolation and madness peeks behind the delicate social order of the South and provides a commentary on North/South tensions, the South’s vanishing aristocracy and the constraints on women in a patriarchal society.
Southern Gothic was also touched upon by the pulp magazines of the 1930s which were known for sensationalizing the more lurid aspects of life. Texan writer Robert E. Howard (best known for creating the barbarian adventurer Conan) penned several horror stories set in the Ark-La-Tex region. The best of them by far is Pigeons from Hell, ‘one of the finest horror stories of our century’ according to Stephen King1. This terrifying yarn tells of two friends who spend the night in a derelict plantation house only to encounter the horror that still stalks its hallways since the family’s tragic demise decades previously.
Rivaling Faulkner as the master of the genre, Flannery O’Connor is hailed for her 1953 short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. Like her novel Wise Blood it explores the freakish and grotesque in both the landscape and denizens of the South. Brutal and controversial, the story explores the Christian theme of grace and the shallowness and hypocrisy of others who may yet redeem themselves in the face of violence.
The theme of alienation haunts Southern Gothic and features prominently in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms and Tennessee William’s short stories tackle the thorny issue of homosexuality in the conservative South. Like Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s work these novels peel away the veneer of Southern respectability and confront society’s hypocrisies and prejudices head-on. This tradition has continued to the present day with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and James Lee Burke delving into the seedy underbelly of the South.
There are issues with labeling things Southern Gothic. Definitions vary and we are always in danger of stereotyping, romanticizing and simplifying real people and real problems. It is needless to say that the South isn’t all racism and Voodoo and the rest of America (indeed the world) has its share of violence and grotesquery. Southern Gothic has often been accused of dumping America’s sins in the South. Flannery O’Connor herself addressed these issues when she once said; “I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”2
The constraints and problems of genre labels aside, the Southern Gothic tradition remains an enticing one for both readers and writers. The genre has translated well to screen from The Night of the Hunter (1955) to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and recent TV shows like the first season of True Detective, the third season of American Horror Story (Coven) and to a certain extent The Walking Dead all drawing upon Southern Gothic. Indie authors are also continuing the tradition in fine style such as the two books below by Eden Royce and Mike Duran (click the images to check them out on Amazon).
My own humble effort inspired by Southern Gothic is out now in e-book format. It’s a ghost story (of sorts) and utilities that stalwart of the genre; the decaying plantation manor. Switching between the 1900s, the 1930s and the 1970s, Whispering in the Cypresses tells the story of a family, a house and the fate of those who intrude on its shadowed seclusion.
Check it out on Amazon here!
- Stephen King, Danse Macabre (1981)
- Flannery O’Connor, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction