The Evolution Of Southern Gothic

04/02/2015 09:26 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

southern swamp

I didn't set out to write a Southern Gothic novel, though that's how it has been described. Opinions vary about what makes a Southern story Gothic, but some things to look for include dreariness, dark obsession, the supernatural, wincing humor, sacrilege, perversion, drug addiction, alcoholism, and character deformity, both mental and physical.

My novel, Soil, is set in the sparse Mississippi hill country. The main character is a would-be organic farmer, who, in a downward spiral, composts a dead body he finds in his flooded field. The dead man shows up later as a ghost or a buzzard, maybe just a hallucination. There's a drunken, lame, shotgun-toting old woodsman and a peeping-tom deputy prone to seducing the female citizenry.

Nice ladies have asked me why I write about difficult people in depressing circumstances. Because many of us Southerners would rather read about the aberrant among us, the lowly and damned. Maybe it's because we're always on the bottom and wouldn't mind looking down on someone else for a change.

"Southern Gothic" spread from the Gothic literary movement of the 19th century, when romance novels were dressed up in dreary ambience and set in spooky castles and decrepit manors, shot through with excess, fear, and madness. The best of the lot -- classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights, and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe -- used fantastical devices and aberrant behavior to get at the ugly truth all trussed up in pomp and formality.

Aristocratic Southern society, in its post-bellum heyday, erected a similar façade of gentility and custom to hide the way people really lived. Southern writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams contrasted these customs with grotesque caricatures and shocking imagery to amplify the contradictions of Southern society.

Some examples that spring to mind are Faulkner's rotting corpse in the frilly upstairs bed from "A Rose for Emily" or Flannery O'Connor's low-class country people, running roughshod over civilized white dignity and vice versa. In his stage dramas, Tennessee Williams put fine Southerners on their worst behavior, and I especially love the Gothic sensibilities in Elia Kazan's film "Baby Doll," an adaptation of Williams's one-act play "27 Wagons Full of Cotton," in which two feuding cotton gin owners in the Mississippi Delta use a lusty, virginal teen as a bargaining chip.

As for my own, I'm not convinced that Southern Gothic is completely viable in a modern-day story. With the flattening of the South, the old aristocrats have all moved to the city. Some stubborn hold-outs and strange relatives have stayed behind in dilapidated mansions, but the rest have been bulldozed to make room for trailer parks and Wal-Marts. Today Southern gentility has been replaced by conservative politics, which is anything but chivalrous. The decay of the Old South is aggressively apparent.

The latest best examples of Southern Gothic are all twenty years or more old. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil comes to mind. John Berendt's true-crime saga is set in Savannah, Georgia, which may be the South's most Gothic locale after the capital, New Orleans, with its famously Goth Anne Rice and suicidal John Kennedy Toole. The novels of Harry Crews are rife with this Southern grotesque, especially his 1978 autobiography, A Childhood.

Our dear Faulkner passed on and abdicated his throne to Cormac McCarthy, whose novels Child of God and Suttree are as Southern Gothic as they come. McCarthy left the South in the late 1970s, took his grotesquery out west, but he spawned a new strain of Gothic described as Grit-Lit or Rough South. A strong cast of writers -- admittedly, a heavily white-male cast - have revived the dark Southern novel, whether telling stories of a less gussied-up Old South or delving right into the New South's rural wastelands and trailer parks, meth labs and pot fields, roadside honkytonks and gnarled forests. You won't find old money or plantation servants in the contemporary stuff of Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, Brad Watson, and William Gay, but there is a haunted darkness akin to the Gothic. In particular, Gay's story "The Paperhanger" is prime modern Gothic with a power akin to O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" as an expression of bone-chilling, plain-clothes Southern evil.

For my money, no one better evokes the South I know in all its strangeness, both casual and shocking, and all of its stupidity and love, than Barry Hannah. He's the godfather of a deviant strain of Southern weird. No other contemporary writer has so formidably ripped down the façade of Southern pretensions with such artful glee. His influence looms over a vital brand of Southern grotesque comedy practiced by such noteworthy writers as Lewis Nordan, George Singleton, Mark Richard, and Jack Pendarvis. The style reaches sublime peaks in the hilarious Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis, a writer who, like Hannah, continues to influence a new generation of writers. These writers take the perversity, humor, and outrageousness of Southern Gothic and shape it into something alive and fantastic which speaks to current situation of the South.

A writer working at peak performance who might best personify this new Gothic is Padgett Powell. His novels are deeply experimental while maintaining a Southern sense of conversational storytelling, even as he parodies it. His novel You & Me eavesdrops on the porch-bound repartee between two outlandish loud-mouths. Ditto his oddly compelling The Interrogative Mood, a novel composed in an inquisitive litany. But one of his most unsung and brilliant works tackles the stereotypes of Southern literature head-on -- Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men, recently and mercifully restored to print as Hologram by Open Road Media. In a creative panoply, Powell gives us a mild Southern housewife who sits down to make a grocery list, which unfurls in a brilliant tirade of grievances and absurdist vignettes that resurrect Confederate icons against a hallucinatory background of upended Southern stereotypes. It's a tricky, rollicking existential exercise, but a brilliant exorcism of tired Southern tropes.

I was recently asked how to write Gothic, so it's with a little guilt -- how Southern! -- that I ramble on about the genre, which does little but define and limit what we read and write. And I wonder if Gothic is an old-world idea, just a word tied arbitrarily to this style of irony that Southern writers wield to express the contradictions we see in a society that keeps fumbling along, shackled with bad memories and dog-like devotion to an elusive idyll. Whatever you call it, it's the way we see it down here, the thing that excites us on this quiet, frayed corner of America.

Jamie Kornegay is the author of Soil.