Southern Gothic

The Radley home, from To Kill a Mockingbird

The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference on January 28th, 2017, presents an opportunity for a discussion on writing in and about the Gothic South.     

Writers will bring short passages to read and share and critique in our session, sparking conversation about what it means to be caught in a web of horror, and to grapple with the decadent, the ghastly, the corrupt, and the infinitely grotesque nature of the Gothic South.     

I had several reasons for suggesting this session to conference chair, Dan Smith.   First, I realized that this Gothic South idea was no joke while working as a reporter at the daily newspaper in Charleston SC several decades ago. I have stories from those days, and many are finding their way into the fiction I’ve been quietly writing,  trying to come to grips with all that.

Secondly, it seems that lots of Southern writers have grappled with similar demons,  dark motives and righteously arrogant aristocrats.  They are interesting in their own right.   It’s not just that the Gothic South is one of the sub-genres of the gothic novel.  It is a unique sub-genre.   There may be gothic novels set in other regions, but there is no Eco-Gothic, or Big Apple Gothic, or Southern California Gothic. There is Gothic, and then there is Southern Gothic.

And finally,  now that the nation has ‘gone South,’ the problem of coping with the Gothic South has gone national. 

So I wondered, how do we make sense of these elements in our lives? How do we use fiction to approach the truth about the human condition in this dark and contradictory region?          

Of course, the old Gothic genre is what we call horror today, but infused or sometimes leavened with  social insight. Frankenstein and Dracula were considered Gothic Romances in their day.   (For an exhaustive   history of the gothic novel, see  Edith Birkhead: The Tale of Terror: A Study of Gothic Romance, 1921).

But Southern Gothic is (as one writer said) “more than Southern vampires and trailer park mayhem.”  There is an everyday decadence, often  contrasted with corroded polish and mad arrogance of the old Southern aristocracy, set against racial upheaval and intergenerational turmoil.

Southern Gothic writers expose the ancient myth of the noble plantation society that is now “Gone with the Wind” — a myth that still haunts the decadent region and still provides the grand and grotesque backdrop for the modern Southern Gothic novel.

Despite the abundance of writing that is Strange and Southern, the shopping malls and factories that have come to the South have undermined the Gothic element, argues Soil author Jamie Korngay.

 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.

Create your own Gothic South novel  

It was a _______(adj)  and ________(adj) night, and the rain fell like __________(metaphor)  on the _________ (cotton or tobacco) _____ fields.  Through the fog, _______(proper noun)  could see ___________(pronoun)   ________(verb)  by the light of __(art)   _________  (adj) ___________ (noun).

“If only the  _______ (mule, horse or Model T) had not  _________ ________ ________ , ” said ______(proper noun)  as she brushed the ________(noun)  out of her ________(noun).

She listened from inside the ____ (noun) as  __________ (proper noun) made __________ (adj) noises and hurried to ____(verb)  the _______(noun).

Just then, ___________________________________________
__________ (startling event).  The ___________ rustled as it retreated into the __________.

“My God,” said _______, looking down at the ______.    “What kind of ________ could do this?”

“There’s not even any ___________,” exclaimed ________ in horror.

“Wait a minute,” said ____. “Isn’t this your _______  (relative)?”


Photo by Dan Smith, Dec. 2014. (Click for column about the Confederate battle flag).

Gothic South reading list