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Southern Gothic

By Edited Dec 27, 2013 1 2

Decay and Gloom

It is generally agreed that the first gothic novel ,was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole written in 1764. This style of fiction became popular with such writers as Ann Radcliffe who wrote The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Mary Shelley, writer of  Frankenstein (1816) and Bram Stoker, creator of  Dracula (1897); to name but a few. The gloom, dark emotion and sense of isolation expressed by gothic literature, also flowed into the writings of many authors of America's South. Many of whom, used the gothic style to express:  mood, pessimism, a sense of loss and to reflect the imagery of decay, neglect and the crumbling aristocracy of the post Civil War South.

Faded Glory

Decaying Grandeur

Edgar Allan Poe is often dubbed the father of American gothic fiction and there is no doubt that Poe was a pioneer, who also lay the foundations of the Southern gothic tradition.

There was plenty that was dark in Poe's own life, so it is unlikely that he had to plumb the depths, to access a sense of the gothic. His childhood was turbulent, he often struggled with poverty and experienced much loss as his father was an alcoholic and his mother died of tuberculosis. His wife, who was also his first cousin, Virginia Clemm, also died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Poe had married her when she was 13 years of age and he was 27.

Death Darkness and Decay

Edgar Allan Poe photographed circa 1849

Poe, distinguished himself as an author who dwelt on such themes as death, mourning and burial. Poe's writings emanate a gothic sensibility and are set in a world of decay, with an often insane narrator.

Extreme events rule his literary world, which are often terrifying and may involve a desire for revenge that extends beyond death. The book, The Fall Of The House Of Usher begins, with the narrator who is unnamed approaching the house of Usher, on a “dull, dark, and soundless day”. The gothic elements are clearly evident very early, with the evil brooding house, decaying tree and the fact that the crumbling aristocratic family are clearly threatened and barely surviving, generation to generation.

The pervasive feeling of anxiety, gloom and decay and quotes like: "There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart", clearly communicates the gothic heart of the novel.

Crumbling Ruins

Emily's Lover

William Faulkner was a Southern gothic author of colossal talent, whose work often explored the isolated and crumbling aristocracy of the "old South" and the idea of the past haunting and overshadowing the present.

In his short story A Rose for Emily, Faulkner uses the character of Emily Grierson to symbolise the "Old South". Emily lives in a decaying mansion, where the forbidding mood and the pall of dust and decay, pervades everything. She refuses to change and is hanging onto the disappearing remnants of her families aristocratic past.

Emily's gruesome bridal chamber, also reveals that she is in love with the dead past. She herself is like the living dead, a "fallen monument", who slowly becomes more and more inhuman and unreachable, much like the old social order, which shows its corruption, as the thin patina of refinement corrodes away.

Gothic Experience

Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958)

The writer, Tennessee Williams described Southern gothic as a style that captured "an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience." Born in Mississippi, Tennessee, Williams, like Poe, probably derived much inspiration from his family when writing his works. His father, who was a travelling salesman, was abusive to his children and his mother was a "Southern belle" who came from a Southern family of gentility. His beloved sister Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lobotomized, was undoubtedly the inspiration for Laura in The Glass Menagerie and other tragic figures in his plays.

In Sweet Bird of Youth, many of the characters are deluded, ostracised and damaged people, who would not conform to the standards of the antebellum South. It was this, false southern-American dream, that Williams felt warped individuals into something grotesque.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the favoured son of an important southern family is seen to be destroying his marriage with his alcoholism, and yet the reality is, that like Tennessee Williams himself, he is homosexual; oppressed by a social order who will not accept him. 

Exposing Social Injustice

To Kill a Mocking Bird

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, features many aspects of the Southern gothic genre. There is a spooky house, a mad dog, the possibly mad Boo Radley who seems to be locked away; the legends and superstitions and the swirling force of potential injustice, when a man is convicted of rape, simply due to his colour. 

To Kill a Mockingbird, also explores and develops the sense of "otherness", which is often seen as central to the Southern gothic genre. Tom Robinson is treated as alien due to his colour,  Boo Radley is separate and ghost like and people like the Ewells who live near the town dump, are seen as the "other", outside the cultural tribe.

The decaying gentility of the town and its seeming isolation, also adds an almost medieval tone to this Southern gothic novel, as it exposes ingrained inequality and ugliness. And yet there is still hope, alive in the Knight-like Atticus Finch, a man of conscience.

Gothic Childhood

The Little Friend

A more recent contribution to the Southern gothic genre is, The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Born in Mississippi, Tartt had her own Southern gothic childhood, as her memoir “Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine” (1992) explains.

Her great-grandfather cooked her up a cocktail of “blackstrap molasses and some horrible licorice-flavored medicine, that was supposed to have vitamins in it, along with glasses of whiskey at…bedtime and regular and massive doses of some red stuff” - later  she learned the mixture was cough syrup with codeine. Tartt, spent almost two years of her childhood“submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness.

Tartt's novel The Little Friend, begins with the seemingly senseless murder of a young, angelic child called Robin Cleve. His sister Harriet as she gets older, becomes obsessed with revealing who Robin's murderer is; the rest of her family also has largely imploded. Harriet's family, the Cleves, are part of the old world Southern gentry, whose world, like their mansion Tribulation, has decayed and withered away. Harriet however, is bent on vengeance and hones in on a white trash family. Harriet in the process, becomes  involved with the horror of deadly cobras and journeys into the haunting, decayed, abandoned, industrial area of town. The novel explores race, religion and class, through the eyes of the disturbed but precocious Harriet.

Fantastic and Macabre

Southern Gothic often revolves around the lost world of the antebellum South and explores, often with a sense of mourning the ignoble elements of that world, "otherness" madness and death. 

The Little Friend
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Apr 18, 2012 7:07am
Thank you for a brilliant article about Gothic novels. Thumbs up! My favorite (of those novels that you mention) is 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.
Apr 18, 2012 8:30pm
I am a major fan of the "Gothic novel" and "to Kill a Mocking Bird" is indeed a book to savour.
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  1. . A Rose for Emily William Faulkner. http://www.sparknotes.com/short-stories/a-rose-for-emily/context.html: Spark Notes, ..
  2. . About Tennessee Williams. .: Georgetown University, ..

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