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Southern Gothic Literature

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "Gothic" as anything "of or relating to a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents." Though the earliest Gothic novels took place in the crumbling castles and dreary wastes of Western Europe, it wasn't long before the genre crossed the Atlantic and took on a distinctly American flavor. Southern Gothic literature is one of the largest and most diverse subgenres, first popularized in the mid-20th century by masters such as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and still thriving today. If you're looking for a book that puts the "grit(s)" in "gritty," look no further than this list!

 

 "Other Voices, Other Rooms" by Truman Capote

Published when Capote was only 23, "Other Voices, Other Rooms" is a semi-autobiographical novel with all the trappings of a classic Southern Gothic tale: a sultry Alabama setting, a decaying mansion with an eccentric owner, a mysterious woman in white roving the grounds, and a pervasive atmosphere of secrecy and legend. Fans of "To Kill a Mockingbird" will note that Capote draws on much of the same raw material as his childhood friend, Harper Lee (there's even a parallel to Scout in the character of Idabel), but the effect here is much spookier.

 

 "A Land More Kind Than Home" by Wiley Cash

When the snake-handling, faith-healing pastor Carson Chambliss comes to Madison County, North Carolina and sets up shop in an abandoned grocery store, some of the locals are wary of his sinister brand of old-time religion. But things take an even darker turn when a pair of young brothers catch the pastor in a sin. Before long, the older of the boys--the mute, autistic Stump Hall--winds up dead at a church service, and the rule of law (represented by the outsider sheriff, Clem Barefield) finds itself pitted against Chambliss' Old Testament wrath. A well-drawn cast of characters and an authentic narrative voice make this a worthy addition to the Southern Gothic canon.

 

 "As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner

William Faulkner's iconic novel follows the Bundren clan, a poor rural family, as they traverse 40 miles of treacherous Mississippi countryside in order to fulfill their mother's dying wish: to be buried in her hometown with her kin. The morbidly comic premise, distinct characters and expert blend of both Southern dialect and a highly poetic stream-of-consciousness style make this not only a masterpiece of Southern Gothic literature, but an American classic as well.

 

 "Sharp Objects" by Gillian Flynn

The Southern Gothic genre proves a unexpected fit for Gillian Flynn, the bestselling author of "Gone Girl" and "Dark Places." This novel, her first, is the story of Camille Preaker, a journalist who must return to her hometown in the Missouri Bootheel to investigate the murder of two young girls. Taking up residence in her family's Victorian mansion, with a neurotic mother and a beautiful half-sister she hardly knows for company, Camille begins to unravel a mystery that touches her more deeply than she originally realized. Flynn excels at stories of family intrigue and long-buried secrets, and these are hallmarks of all the best Southern Gothic writing as well.

 

 "Outer Dark" by Cormac McCarthy

The Tennessee-raised author of "The Road," "Blood Meridian" and "No Country for Old Men" has a penchant for the dark and twisted, so it should come as no surprise that he has dabbled in the Southern Gothic genre. "Outer Dark" is the bleak tale of a brother and sister's journey through the Appalachian countryside, to find a baby the brother has abandoned. Along the way they encounter perils of an almost biblical nature, and are pursued by three evil men who may or may not be human. An often brutal book, but one that rewards readers with its stark, mythical beauty.

 

 "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers

This enigmatic classic, published when McCullers was just 23 years old, stands with the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor as a benchmark of the Southern Gothic genre. The book takes place in a Georgia mill town in the 1930s, where misfits from all walks of life share their secrets and dreams with a mute man named John Singer. Among his visitors are an African American doctor who yearns to change the world, an alcoholic labor agitator determined to overthrow the capitalist system, and a poor young woman--based on McCullers herself--who longs to make music with her very own piano. A strange, sorrowful, thoroughly Southern novel by an underappreciated American author.

 

 "Beloved" by Toni Morrison

Like so many great books, Toni Morrison's celebrated novel doesn't fit neatly into just one genre. Nevertheless, the sinister locales, supernatural visitations and unflinching exploration of the South's dark past give "Beloved" a distinctly Southern Gothic feel. The book tells the story of ex-slave Sethe, a woman who fled Kentucky for Ohio before the Civil War but was forced to kill her two-year-old daughter to prevent her capture by a posse of slave hunters. Now, with the war over, Sethe is haunted not only by memories of the horrific Kentucky plantation from which she escaped, but also by a young woman named Beloved whom Sethe believes to be the ghost of her dead daughter herself. This Pulitzer Prize winner is a lyrical, hypnotic, and deeply disturbing work by one of our country's greatest contemporary writers.

 

 "Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor is widely regarded as the queen of Southern Gothic literature, and "Wise Blood" is her most exemplary Gothic work. The novel follows Hazel Motes, a young war veteran who is desperate to abandon his Christian faith but cannot escape the feeling of being pursued by God. As he roves the Tennessee city of Taulkinham he encounters a cast of grotesque characters, including a spellbinding street preacher with an immoral teenage daugher, a crazed zookeeper with an otherworldly gift, and a mummified child who serves as a "prophet" for Motes' anti-religious "ministry." Though O'Connor is best known for her short stories, "Wise Blood" is an unforgettably strange tale that perfectly captures the Southern Gothic spirit.

 

 "Serena" by Ron Rash

Arriving in a North Carolina logging camp in 1929, newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton already have a plan for their life together: to forge a timber empire. They quickly set about making their dream a reality, maintaining their dominance as ruthlessly--and as violently--as the Macbeths. But the Pembertons' story takes a tragic turn when Serena discovers she is infertile, and determines to seek revenge by killing her husband's illegitimate child. With an exhilarating plot, beautiful prose, and a larger-than-life central couple, "Serena" is a must-read for any Southern Gothic aficionado.

 

 "The Outlaw Album" by Daniel Woodrell

While almost any of his books would fit the bill, this story collection by the Ozarks-based author of "Winter's Bone" is perhaps his most straightforward Gothic work. As the title suggests, the characters here are mostly outlaws and outsiders, driven to desperate acts by the circumstances of their hard lives. These tales are short, powerful, and often marked by shocking violence, but they are not without moments of genuine tenderness and love, too. An accessible introduction to the genre, set in a landscape familiar to any Southern Missourian.

 

Still wanting more? Check out these other library titles with a Southern Gothic vibe:

"Southern Cross the Dog" by Bill Cheng

"Little Sister Death" by William Gay

"Dark Debts" by Karen Hall

"The Heavenly Table" by Donald Ray Pollock

"Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell

"The Legend of the Albino Farm" by Steve Yates

 

And don't miss our event with local writer Laura McHugh, author of the Southern Gothic-inflected "The Weight of Blood," at the Schweitzer Brentwood Branch on July 15! The event starts at 6:00 pm. Ask a librarian for details!


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