Here in the South, we share a history permeated by shadows. For every Sunday afternoon spent on a porch swing or gossiping with neighbors after church, there are a hundred hidden moments. From our grand antebellum cities to the lonely rural crossroads that masquerade as towns, these moments in between define who we are as individuals and as a culture.
While rooted in the writings of Henry Clay Lewis and the later tales of Mark Twain, Southern Gothic as a genre was first called by name in the 1930s. These authors, such as William Faulkner Carson McCullers and Erskine Caldwell, explored the darker moments of Southern life. They wrote about a post-Civil War landscape pocked by crumbling mansions and fallow plantations. A decaying aristocracy and restless youth filled their days and nights with senseless violence, moral ambivalence and barely concealed despair.
In this South, poverty, racism, violence, xenophobia and intolerance were more than just social issues, they were the foundation upon which communities were built.
If you’ve never enjoyed the bleak, nihilist beauty of a true Southern Gothic gem, give one of these four classics a try tonight. Pour yourself a mint julep, wipe the sweat from your brow and get yourself a window seat. It’s gonna be a hot, humid evening.
Sanctuary by William Faulkner. You really can’t go wrong with Faulkner, but Sanctuary is a tale that rises above the rest. A shuttered mansion, a fallen debutante, the criminal underworld and unspeakable violence — this one has it all.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Before we had reality television to gift us visceral thrills from the safety of our living rooms, we had Truman Capote. His seminal work is more than just a blow by blow recreation of a brutal crime; it’s also an unflinching look at the moral decay wearing away at the bedrock of a changing American society.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Published when she was only 23, McCullers’ first novel rocketed her to literary stardom. A typical diner filled with atypical misfits is vivisected in this unsettling tale of small-town secrets, petty jealousies and hidden dreams that reach further than some may find fittin’.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. One of the few books that is done service by the movie that followed, To Kill a Mockingbird has become something of a touchstone for the crisis of conscience that faced many small, Southern towns following the Civil War. An intense microcosm of the cause and effects of human nature all witnessed through the eyes of a child, this book remains a late Gothic classic.
If you’ve got a favorite Southern Gothic author or book, drop me a line. I’m always looking for the my next obsession.