The Scoop on Southern Gothic Lit

      I’m addicted to Gothic novels. I love the twisty storylines where everybody has a secret. I love the batshit romances (hello Catherine and Heathcliff); I love the romances that don’t quite make sense—Jane Eyre choosing moody, bigamist Rochester over sensible Calvinist St. John Rivers. And did I mention the architecture? Whenever I’m in England I spend way more time than normal staring at castle and cathedral turrets and gargoyles.

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            I’ve always been drawn to Gothic elements in my books. But recently, I’ve developed a particular interest in Southern Gothic lit. I live in South Carolina, so it’s a genre quite literally in my own backyard. I can take a day trip and visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" in Charleston or wander through the oyster-shell ruins of St. Helena’s Chapel of Ease near Beaufort. As background research for a Southern Gothic Young Adult novel I’m working on, I arranged a tour of the old Bull Street asylum—only a five minute drive from my house.  (Talk about Gothic—I toured on a bright, hot June day and still felt goosebumps as I walked around the grounds.) My brother-in-law worked on a construction project there, and he had some CRAZY stories of things people supposedly heard or saw from the gloomy buildings—like phone calls to security from broken phones in abandoned buildings.

Are you scared yet????

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So what are the main characteristics of a Southern Gothic?

1)      A textured urban or rural landscape somewhere in the American South. Urban settings like Savannah or New Orleans crop up a lot in Southern Gothic stories. Also popular are abandoned farmhouses, crumbling island plantation houses, small barely there towns, and houses hidden away by sprawling swamps and Spanish moss.

Photo from my tour of the old Bull Street Asylum campus

Photo from my tour of the old Bull Street Asylum campus

I was a little obsessed with this creepy-looking tree on the asylum grounds. 

I was a little obsessed with this creepy-looking tree on the asylum grounds. 

2)      Eccentric Characters: Flannery O’Connor, the Queen of the Southern Gothic, once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” Quirkiness, mental illness, alcoholism, religious extremism and/or superstition (think witchcraft, family curses) are all common traits of Southern Gothic characters.

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3)      Hauntings—paranormal may or may not be part of a Southern Gothic novel, but characters are always haunted either by something—whether it’s literal ghosts or by family secrets. I love stories of psychological hauntings, where a character fears inherited mental illness or is weighted down by guilt. But I can also stay up all night reading a good page turner with vengeful ghosts, family curses, or voodoo spells. 

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4. Lawlessness-Southern Gothic characters can't expect any help from the law. In the traditional Gothic novel, there is no "safe" place for characters; threats are as likely to come from one's own home or church as from anywhere else. Many of the best Southern Gothic novels feature corrupt sheriffs and deputies, much more interested in settling old scores than in law and order. 

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Recommendations:

Wiseblood by Flannery O’Connor

Published in 1952, this is an oldie but goodie. About a wounded veteran turned atheist "preacher," Wiseblood showcases all the good marks of a Southern Gothic including maniacal characters and startlingly violent scenes. Characters wrestle with guilt and belief. Also, don't read this if you have a fear of losing your eyeballs. Trust me. 

Published in 1952, this is an oldie but goodie. About a wounded veteran turned atheist "preacher," Wiseblood showcases all the good marks of a Southern Gothic including maniacal characters and startlingly violent scenes. Characters wrestle with guilt and belief. Also, don't read this if you have a fear of losing your eyeballs. Trust me. 

This Southern Gothic young adult novel features a likeable heroine haunted by strange dreams. Atmospheric, the story takes place on an old plantation outside of New Orleans and features murder and voodoo spells and delicious links between past and present dramas.

This Southern Gothic young adult novel features a likeable heroine haunted by strange dreams. Atmospheric, the story takes place on an old plantation outside of New Orleans and features murder and voodoo spells and delicious links between past and present dramas.

 

Minnow by James E. McTeer II

This middle grade fantasy Southern Gothic takes place on the islands surrounding Beaufort, South Carolina. A young boy, Minnow, is desperate to save his sick father. He agrees to bring back “graveyard dust” to Dr. Crow in exchange for a medicine that will cure his father. Accompanied only by a dog, the boy braves dangers from people and the wilderness itself, Minnow is a compelling must-read for anyone into Southern Gothic.

This middle grade fantasy Southern Gothic takes place on the islands surrounding Beaufort, South Carolina. A young boy, Minnow, is desperate to save his sick father. He agrees to bring back “graveyard dust” to Dr. Crow in exchange for a medicine that will cure his father. Accompanied only by a dog, the boy braves dangers from people and the wilderness itself, Minnow is a compelling must-read for anyone into Southern Gothic.

Twilight by William Gay

This is a particularly creepy read featuring vengeful mortician who loves corpses a little too much. When two teenagers threaten to expose him after he abuses their father’s corpse, he sends a murderer to pursue them through a dense woods called Harrikin. Creepy and disturbing this is a must-read for any Southern Gothic fan.

This is a particularly creepy read featuring vengeful mortician who loves corpses a little too much. When two teenagers threaten to expose him after he abuses their father’s corpse, he sends a murderer to pursue them through a dense woods called Harrikin. Creepy and disturbing this is a must-read for any Southern Gothic fan.

Soil by Jamie Kornegay

When a young idealistic scientist tries to bring his wife and young son to the Mississippi flood basin to build a sustainable farm, he battles the elements, a local deputy, and his own mind. 

When a young idealistic scientist tries to bring his wife and young son to the Mississippi flood basin to build a sustainable farm, he battles the elements, a local deputy, and his own mind.