The South is full of superstition, folklore, and spooks. I think it's because of our large number of Scottish descendants, but it could also be because people move slower here. We spend lots of time sitting around the table or on our dusty front porches. We're natural-born storytellers. We believe in community and keeping traditions alive.
Southern Gothic Literature focuses on grotesque themes, often featuring broken, damaged, and delusional characters with possible supernatural elements. It's a vibrant genre that has long captured the attention of audiences. Authors who write Southern Gothic embrace their heritage and write about what they know best--the mysterious, murky madness that staunch tradition, religion, and secrecy create.
What is Southern Gothic?
Southern Gothic Literature first emerged in the early twentieth century in the southern United States, with its roots digging deep in the European Gothic styles from the nineteenth century. Southern writers were inspired by the great Romantic authors like Mary Shelley, the Brontë Sisters, and Lord Byron. Even being inspired by the literary genius of the U.S., Edgar Allan Poe.
Gothic literature by nature focuses on the darker side of things—the supernatural, unexplainable, the things that go creak in the night, the sinister side to human nature, and the decaying traditions and morals of society.
Some of the most famous authors of this literary style are Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee.
In classic gothic novels like Frankenstein, author Mary Shelley used gothic descriptions and techniques to create a suspenseful tale, while exploring the dynamics of creator and creation.
Southern Gothic writers took it a step further. They used their art to expose the problems of their society in hopes to inspire change. They portrayed the South in all its grandeur and decay. They highlighted what was quaint and beautiful about it while attacking its negative, sometimes backward thinking. They wanted to improve the moral standard of their day by combatting racial prejudices, class differences, and gender inequality.
They explored the difficulty of abiding by a strict social code. There was, and still is to some degree, a code of manners, dress, and habits that must be upheld if you were to be considered a proper southerner. Modeled after English aristocracy, these rules distinguished one from the haves, and the have nots. Think Gone With the Wind. The Antebellum period was something to be reckoned with.
Since 1865, the end of the Civil War, the South began to decay, and the haves no longer had. This disruption and decline of traditional southern life fascinated authors like Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner.
Another aspect of Southern Gothic tradition is writing about characters who appeared normal, proper on the outside, while on the inside they are quietly in despair, and their lives—sometimes morally or by circumstance or both—are crumbling into darkness.
Authors also revealed the brutal scars slavery left on the culture of both sides—no sin goes unpunished.
Their literature goes into the tensions between the North and the South, which always reminds me of the fabulous television series with Patrick Swayze. The North had significant advantages because of the Industrial Revolution, while the South had relied on its agricultural economy. Without it, the South suffered economically for many, many years—some may argue they're still struggling today—whole towns losing commerce, residents, and businesses. The Antebellum town I live in now will never be as prominent and wealthy as it was pre-war. Those days are long gone, and for a time, there was a general distaste for Northerners because of their part in that loss. You don’t hear that much about it these days. We’re a couple of generations away from hearing stories of the Old South. But when the Southern Gothic Literature (with a capital L) authors were writing, that sentiment was still quite strong.
Southern Gothic Literature discusses the New South and how southerners were trying to pick up the pieces after the Civil War, and it highlights—in many cases celebrates—the shifting of southern gentry to a more average status quo.
A common thread for southerners is their confusion of good and evil. The most obvious example is that slavery of any kind is wrong, yet they justified this grave sin to better their situations. This and other types of darkness, hidden beneath the niceties of “southern hospitality,” became key in Southern Gothic writing. Literature has always been great at exposing the dark underbelly of society.
The role of women in the South changed even slower than the rights of black men. Women didn’t get the right to vote until more than 50 years after the Civil War. The role of a woman was to get married and have children. Typically, the only working women you'd find were those of lower classes. In other words, upper-class women were only there to breed. Though this wasn’t only true in the South at the time, southern women still marry and have children earlier than other parts of the world, with the average hovering around 23 years old. The national average is 26, while the national average in Italy and Spain and other European nations is 31.
There are certain character types and characteristics that you’ll see repeated.
Common Southern Gothic Characters:
Other Southern Gothic Characteristics:
Southern Gothic Literature Authors:
William Faulkner was one of the earliest and best known Southern Gothic writers. His novels, As I Lay Dying [affiliate link] and The Sound and the Fury [affiliate link] are great examples of this literary tradition. He delved into themes of racism, incest, economic stress, and even some spooky people and places.
He famously said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past," which exemplifies how southerners truly felt, always haunted by their past and the sins of their past.
I visited one of his homes in New Orleans, purchased his book Soldier’s Pay [affiliate link] there, and stood in the room where he wrote it. It’s now a bookstore and worth the stop if you’re ever there.
Despite having never been a fan of the term, Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor is another famous author who wrote stories that exposed the truth about southern life. She’s known for her short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge” [affiliate link]. Her works are quite cynical and dark. She explored the deeply complex racial divide of her time. And she didn’t shy from including violent, monstrous characters.
I listened to a recording of her from 1960, where she talks about Grotesque Southern Fiction. She explains that a southern writer cannot escape the influences of the South any more than she can escape the Catholic sacraments that have marked her soul. She believed that southerners understood a certain depth of people because of their deep religious entrenchment and on the flip of that, their belief in ghosts. To her, it was the job of a southern writer to exorcise the ghosts. Because southerners were still able to recognize the complexity and darkness that lived comfortably in the shadows of society, they could write about them. Southern writers saw those shadows as a way to light a path to a new world—a new South. She had a very Romantic view of writing.
I visited her childhood home in Savannah, GA, a few years ago. From her window, the spire of St. John the Baptist's Cathedral, jolts through the trees, upward like a promise in the sky. The cathedral is one of the most impressive churches I’ve ever seen. The home is quaint and modest. Settled in the heart of downtown Savannah, she had a front-row seat to the epitome of southern life. And she watched, and later, she wrote.
Another pivotal figure to mention is Tennessee Williams. Though he wasn’t a novelist or short story author, but a playwright, his plays explored dysfunctional families and social injustice. They are great at showing what the South looked like, after being stripped of its wealth and pretense, and how the people were coping with all of it.
In Episode 10, we discussed Conrad Aiken and his writing. His works fall well into the Southern Gothic category, even though he didn't consider himself a southern writer. My feeling is that he was born there; he returned there… I'm sorry Conrad, but we claim you. Not only did his works exhibit many of the same characteristics, but unfortunately, his life did too. See that episode for details.
We can’t talk about Southern Gothic without discussing Harper Lee. Although Lee used many of the same characteristics as the other authors, To Kill a Mockingbird [affiliate link] is much more family-friendly in tone. She also used humor and wrote a hopeful ending—good triumphs over evil. In the book, Lee still acknowledges the dark past but ends with a hope that southerners have reconciled with it and will go on to be better by doing good and changing their societies. The book ends with this, “Most people are nice when you finally see them.” Trying to understand people, to really see them, is the key to all lasting and sincere change, which is why I feel people are so interested in the Southern Gothic genre. We, as a people, want to understand the South—both past and present—to create a better future.
But Southern Gothic goes far beyond the literary figures of the past.
Modern Southern Gothic Entertainment:
Southern Gothic has proved to be an evergreen genre, expanding from literature to television. Shows like True Blood, Rectify, The Originals, Midnight Texas, The Walking Dead, and American Horror Story are examples.
There are many modern Southern Gothic books out there, but a few of my favorites are Burying the Honeysuckle Girls [affiliate link] by Emily Carpenter, Sharp Objects (which is also a fantastic television mini-series) [affiliate link] by Gillian Flynn, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt [affiliate link] by Beth Hoffman. Just to name a few. If you’d like to know more, I’ve compiled a reading list.
If you're on Pinterest or Tumblr, you may have noticed the Southern Gothic aesthetic—photos of girls wearing white floating in water, holding flowers, in rich southern settings. Or you may have seen photos of crumbling mansions, which represent the decay of the southern landscape—the loss of a pure tradition. People are drawn to these types of things. It’s as if they are physical representations of what haunts all of us.
Since you enjoy podcasts, there's a wonderful one called Southern Gothic that's worth checking out. And if you're okay with a bit more grit, S-Town is another I'd recommend. And of course, Fabled covers many Southern Gothic tales.
Musicians have it too. Groups like Haunted Like Human (one of my favorites), The Band Perry, and Miranda Lambert, use these same techniques to enrich the storytelling in their songs.
Eudora Welty once said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve heard some readers say that they feel almost exploitive for finding Southern Gothics so entertaining, as if by enjoying reading about our pain, our horror, our brokenness, they are somehow profiting from the ghosts that haunt us.
Personally, I feel I’ve benefitted from my roots, and I hope those same roots will educate others on this beautifully broken, yet mystical place I call home. We're a complicated people with a complicated past. Just like many, many other cultures around the world. Art is all about documenting and trying to understand—and make sense of—the grander human experience. Reading works about different places and cultures only add a deeper compassion for people—all people. And really, that's what it's all about.
I recently visited the home of a retired and now passed on, newspaper editor in my town. In his library, he had a letter from Harper Lee, who he’d known for many years. It reminded me just how close I am—we all are—to these stories. For Southerners, they are us. These authors have told our story, the best they knew how. It’s a murky mess—our history—and there’s no way to soften the horrors, but with that complexity has come an ever-growing bloom of diversity. There are many of us now who’ve learned to embrace the ugly truth—to own our past while still being hopeful about the future. History has given us wisdom. Just like in those decaying photos of old houses and those whispers of old charm slowly stripped away, there’s something hauntingly beautiful about southern life. We have been given the good and the bad, and it’s up to our generation to make the best choices and steer the South into another direction. It’ll be our words, our stories, that will shape its future. We will be the history the future will someday tell.
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"Ghostpocalypse - 6 Crossing the Threshold" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License