One of the first short stories I remember falling in love with was A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner. There were countless things that fascinated me from the narrator seemingly being the town itself to the descriptions of old southern decay. As a woman who grew up in the south, right as economic downturns and outsourcing devastated the textile industry the aesthetic of southern gothic had an intrinsic appeal to me.
There are some genres you can’t help, but fall in love with from the time you are young. For some people this happens with fantasy or romance, and often it can happen again as you grow older. Certain genres have always had an appeal for, but southern gothic and southern based literature always finds it way back into my life with vengeance, leaving my kindle full and my bookshelf ready to explode. In short, the southern gothic genre is Addictive, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. Despite the genre often being left out of everyday conversation it manifests in some of the most remembered cultural icons of our era, even as it goes unrecognized.
Southern Gothic is a classic and often under appreciated genre with infinite possibilities in text and on screen. When it shows up it shows out, whether through Beyonce’s Formation video, or stirring controversy through The Beguiled. As a little girl, I caught a few glimpses of the movie Beloved based on the novel by Toni Morrison (amazon link below) and ,though I utterly forgot I’d seen that movie until one day I saw it on the screen, imagery of it remained in my mind. A house full of ribbons. A daughter trying to save her mother from the burdens of guilt and the history of southern slaves and freedom. A woman, nude and screaming in giggling unnatural tongue before a prayer circle. The images stuck with me as fascinating concepts for years to come even as they faded to the back of my memory.
The south, post-civil war, is a place where hairstyles are always twenty years behind; where rocking chairs to over look your property are sources of pride passed down through generations; where tradition and culture is complex and divided; Where people prefer to say southern history is embodied by confederates while other southerners l(ike myself) look on and know they’re much more embodied by the slaves; where people watch meth ravaged communities scream “the south will rise again” while others try to move forward; where kids can run around the neighborhood alone and often find their friend’s door unlocked and fresh brownies waiting for whomever arrive.
The south is welcome and warning; it is where long standing tradition meets long standing decay. Where the past is present, and the present is always past.
This is why I love to write it, and why I’m currently finishing a six chapter short story called The Hell I Burn Through in the genre. Mind and Frost, turned out to be a bigger project, and I’m letting an associate go through it as we speak, but in the mean time I need something to work on when not finishing up Five Days with the Stranger, so I began to ponder something to write about in-between chapters of Five days rewrites. Suddenly, a vista of pine and river came to my vision, old houses with cared for porches, children playing beneath old water towers in the summer heat, and the streets of my own childhood cast in the intense pallor of Southern Gothic filled my vision. I opened a word document and wrote a six page outline for a novelette. Within the day I had 6,000 words written, characters who I completely fell in love with. It feels like coming home.
And yet my relationship to the southern is complicated. Perhaps this is why I love the genre in the first place.
If you were born below the Mason-Dixon it can be hard not to romanticize the south. Gone with the Wind is a racist nightmare to many modern day black folk, but even still it has a glorious and sweeping appeal. There’s something wonderfully addictive about the south’s attitude of genteel welcome. By that same measure there is something wonderfully addictive about the south’s decay. The hypocrisy of that southern style kindness v.s normalized prejudices is part of why To Kill a Mocking Bird has lasted in the public mind. As a black southern woman, I experienced southern fried racism from a young age. No one ever called me the n-word, but there were times I was followed in stores, witnessed my incredibly intelligent parents being patronized, had visited restaurants with my friends families only for us to be stared at and glared at the whole time we were there because I was there. There were things I did not understand, but came to understand as I grew older and realized “Oh that wasn’t just weird people. That damn near a whole restaurant full of old white folk and their families who don’t like that I ate there, and didn’t understand why I was with that nice white family“. The darkness of the south wasn’t something I could ignore, and it wasn’t something my parents hid from me either. Some of the nicest, well-mannered, and polite people you will ever meet are old fashioned southern racists. Unlike the north –where racism is often excused as “at least we’re not them”(them being the south)– the south continues to have a lot of normalized bigotry and ignorance that contributes to that darkness. Knowing this, despite my love of Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias, the inclusion of decay in southern society rings true to me. The romanticism still exists, but it exists alongside southern shadows I, as a black southerner, can’t escape from. Truthfully I don’t want to.
No matter the media the aesthetic of southern gothic is fascinatingly beautiful and distinctly American, whether a story is set in a bayou, the eastern shore, or urban buzz of Atlanta. The swamps of the bayou and foothills of Georgia all have a unique and poignant natural beauty. Fields of collard greens go for as far as the eye can see, creating unique visuals amidst fields of grass green. The physical beauty of approaching a grand old house fascinates us when confronted by the old slave cabins not quite hidden by the trees. We walk down former main streets lined with businesses with faded paint from the 1960s and 1970s, whose owners still maintain the place with pride, knowing if their grandchildren will ever come back to mind the store. Those grandparents leave and drive old pick up trucks and sedans to lovely little houses on quite, safe, streets. They sit on the porch, have a coffee and way at their neighbors as they come home from school. It is both idyllic and decaying.
A decayed and perpetual beauty. In a way the south is an atmospheric vampire; perpetually the south and yet slowly, beneath a beautiful though tarnished surface, filled with unknowns and entropy.
When I was eight years old, I first saw the movie Eve’s Bayou, and that movie has stuck with me even when the name left my mind, only to return years later. The imagery of well-to-do southern blacks in their communities, struggling with position without power; with creating the illusion of southern manners against the reality of small town gossip and misunderstandings leaves a permanent impression. That film laid a similar ground work that Toni Morrison did in her novels such as Beloved or The Bluest Eye; exploring the complex and taboo world of the secrets below the Mason Dixon. Those stories, though darker than others, create a space for black diversity in fiction. Wealthy blacks, poor blacks, root workers, pastors, and people just trying to get by create a complex reflection of black history and life through the ages. Eve’s Bayou situates the audience as a little girl about to lose her innocence, with her we learn those secrets and her own strength. In that film, we learn the reality that not everything is as it seems is one of the greatest southern narratives ever told as far as I’m concerned. It’s a change from every novel, person, and genre that assumes “urban” without “fantasy” or “paranormal” attached is inherently the black experience.
Southern gothic is and always will be a genre that feels natural to me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by recent media, like Resident Evil and True Blood, truly capturing that aesthetic and culture in exciting ways. Video games and HBO? Wow. It’s spreading. But we can always do with more…and bring more attention to the power of this tantalizing genre. Then again I may just be looking for another fix.
How do you feel about the Southern Gothic? Do you read these books often or not at all? Do you prefer movies with the aesthetic? And isn’t Formation a perfect video?
Kindred by the phenomenal Octavia Butler, check her out (rereading atm)
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