By Susan E. Farris
Search for Southern Gothic on Google and you’ll get over a dozen “Best Of” lists for this hard-to-pin-down category. Some of these lists focus on books that are more akin to Gone With the Wind while others are heavy with Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty.
The wealth and variety of results is a testament to the enduring nature of this genre and just how old it is. While Edgar Allen Poe is widely credited as the first “Southern Gothic” writer, this style of writing comes from the wider American gothic tradition which itself is derived from English Gothic. Interestingly, now that plantations have given way to big agriculture, some academics have begun to argue that Southern Gothic literature is itself a hold-over of a bygone era, destined to fade into obscurity.
I see no evidence of this in the thriving bestsellers of today which have been slipping further and further into our social consciousness with their growing numbers on New York Times’ bestsellers lists. Despite the homogenization of our world, the South remains a unique crucible of America’s biggest cultural struggles.
Fittingly, in Southern Gothic, the buried secret(s) of the past tend to come to the forefront of the story, highlighting whatever culture or family does not want to acknowledge until the present is so corroded that all facade falls away. The past never dies in the South—whether it’s old-time religion, old buildings falling into disrepair, issues of race, or family secrets long-repressed.
Because of this, taboo, paranoia, and anxiety are all hallmarks of Southern Gothic, in addition to the macabre and supernatural. Add humidity, mosquitoes, and a landscape constantly trying to take back over, and you have the perfect setting for these darkly grotesque, confrontational and sometimes humorous and touching tales. While the settings may have changed more fields and plantations to shopping malls, suburban neighborhoods, and churches meeting in old gyms, the feel of a Southern Gothic work is still easy to detect.
But beyond the sweltering heat, the macabre, and the fantastic, there is one additional element that holds this genre together: the underdog. Whether they are the slave struggling for freedom, the imperiled questioner of Jim Crow, or the searching rebel of the New South, the Southern Gothic hero almost always is a tortured underdog, relatable to the reader no matter how boundary-pushing or “transgressive.”
In the last decade or so, I’ve been delighted to see Southern gothic works exploring issues beyond an agrarian-dominated society, the lost plantation, and the primarily white writings of characteristic of the 20s through the 90s. These works are by diverse writers using their own voices to address racism, sexism, and poverty—issues of the New South.
Writers like Jesmyn Ward, Joshilyn Jackson, M.O. Walsh, Tananarive Due, and Emily Carpenter have pushed the boundaries of this genre in bold new directions.
One of the most exciting recent works in the Southern Gothic genre, Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon, tackles these issues of oppression and power, identity, and even transformation head-on in a powerful and magical way. Race takes on an even more fantastical and cathartic reimagining in Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, where a spell has been cast over American and Ku Kluxers ride as actual demons. They are fought not with ideas but with blade and bullet in order to keep Hell from taking over Earth.
On the more humorous side of the spectrum is The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix which dives into issues of sexism and classism while battling the unexpected but very real monster next door. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is a touching and magical story of one girl’s quest to save her family’s home in the Everglades from the encroachment of suburban creep, rival parks—and the draining grief of losing their mother.
Family legacy and the history of the South come to the forefront of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing as Jojo travels through rural Mississippi with his troubled mother to meet his absent father. A truly transcendent work of what it takes to restore stolen humanity, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates follows gifted Hiram Walker as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved.
Other Recommendations: When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens; Beloved by Toni Morrison; Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
I’m a Southern author and poet with a passion for local stories and local voices. You will see many of my favorite places appear in my stories and poems.
When I’m not wrangling words on the page, I love to garden, play board games, or snuggle up with my
three cats and two dogs while appreciating my husband’s amazing cooking skills. #cheflevel