Jamie Kornegay's Soil is Southern Gothic at its best: atmospheric, dark, and funny. Kornegay, a bookseller for over a decade in addition to being an author, picks the best Southern Gothic books.
As a bookseller for more than fifteen years, I’ve made a vocation recommending books. If you came into my bookstore in Greenwood, Misssissippi, a town that may be as Gothically Southern as any you’ll hope to visit, and asked me to help you select ten titles of Southern Gothic literature, I would scramble around the store and produce these titles – along with my own, probably – side-stepping some of the more obvious standards of the genre, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, which seems too honorable to be truly Gothic, or the works of Tennessee Williams, which are wonderfully twisted but should be seen performed for full effect.
So what is Southern Gothic? It’s not just Southern vampires and trailer park mayhem. These are sophisticated stories shrouded in darkness and mystery, set in an old mannered South that has soured. The mansions are gray, and there’s something not right about the residents. There may be magic and illusion. There is death, most certainly, and bad behavior committed by the righteous. There is God and the Devil, standing in the muddy, snake-swarmed baptismal river, holding hands.
These works of Southern Gothic are awfully good, and in my mind stick out as useful examples of the dark, strange contradictory nature of the South.
1. Sanctuary by William Faulkner - Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” may be the most frequently cited and anthologized of this genre, which exposes the moral, cultural, and physical decay of the South that hides been aristocratic pretensions. But when I think of Southern Gothic, this novel comes first to mind. Among other things, it’s about the corruption of an Ole Miss debutante, who gets side-tracked at an old decrepit country mansion belonging to a bootlegger and his criminal associates. Scandalous in 1931 when it was published, it feels more sinister than today’s no-holds-barred crime novels. You’ll want to take a shower after reading this, and it may spoil the innocence of an ear of corn.
2. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor - I was first introduced to the notion of Southern Gothic in college when I read O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Hazel Motes, the backwoods thinker of O’Connor’s only novel, is a darker and weirder anti-hero than another Gothic mainstay, Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. Motes rides into town with a raw, wily anger that he appoints to an atheist street ministry, creating memorable sparks and dark comedy as he subjects a host of motley side characters to his blustering philosophy.
3. Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington - Violence, poverty, and religious fanaticism are part and parcel of Southern Gothic, and it blends masterfully in this journalistic investigation of a snake-handling Alabama preacher accused of murdering his wife by snakebite. Covington delves into the peculiar world of a primitive Appalachian religion, where participants couple with danger to get closer to the Lord, and he pulls no punches as he discover things about himself that many writers would happily leave out.
4. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy - The face of modern Southern Gothic must be McCarthy, who, before he moved west, told deeply dark and troubling stories of Southern outcasts. Among the most memorable and unshakable is this twisted tale of a hermit who takes women, both alive and dead, back to his cave to indulge his unhinged perversions. Characteristically dressed up in formal, poetic language to describe the heinous and unholy, McCarthy’s work inspired the grit-lit movement, which produced such major talents as Larry Brown (Father and Son), Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone), and Ron Rash (One Foot in Eden), all recommended.
5. Twilight by William Gay - Speaking of necrophilia, it rears its head again in this final novel from the great Tennessee novelist (two posthumous works are due soon from Dzanc Books). When teenaged siblings get the goods on a kinky mortician, he hires a redneck bounty hunter to silence them. A chase ensues through a dense, gnarly, Grimm-like forest called the Harrikin, which may be the novel’s most fearsome character. Gay is beloved by Southern readers also for his wickedly dark and funny short stories, including “The Paperhanger,” an unforgettable tale of inspired evil.
6. Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah - Readers down here hold up Hannah as the savior of modern Southern literature. There is a wild, absurdist streak in his works, an off-kilter and rambling genius imbued in every sentence. He’s a hard writer to affix a label, but aside from some short stories, his most Gothic novel may be his last. Casino pimp Man Mortimer, the mean and ridiculous villain, is a stand-in for the vapid wave of commercialism choking the South. Hannah takes glee in letting him harass the inhabitants of a lake community near Vicksburg in a mighty fine celebration of the Southern grotesque.
7. The Heaven of Mercury by Brad Watson - This beautifully imagined story of unrequited love between two people forced to play their roles in a small Mississippi town has been described as Southern magical realism, but it possesses enough dark, comic undertones to warrant the Gothic label. There are ghosts, indicative of this genre, and one of my favorite Gothic scenes in which an undertaker’s son climbs upon the mortuary slab and satisfies his terrible teenage curiosity on the corpse of a pretty classmate. Necrophilia is a squarely Southern Gothic trope, but Watson puts a shocking, beautiful twist on this aberration.
8. Smonk by Tom Franklin - A popular Southern grit-lit author, Franklin took a bizarre turn in his second novel, which is like a Peckinpah Western scribbled over by O’Connor and Hannah, or HBO’s Deadwood on acid. The story is set in an Alabama town and follows a malady-ridden, one-eyed dwarf, and a teenage prostitute as they embark on a violent jumble of glorious depravity. Franklin cranks up the Gothic tricks to eleven here, cleverly skewering the South’s contradictory attitudes on violence, sex, and religion. A lightning-stuck performance guaranteed to offend.
9. House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard - A lot of Southern lit fans will tell you Harry Crews’s autobiographical A Childhood is the place to start for a Gothic childhood. But I can’t help hawking this newer memoir by a writer who beautifully juggles the sacred and profane. Born with a hip deformity, Richard was cast in with all the “special” children, from the merely malformed to the mentally challenged. His odd stories of Appalachian charity hospitals is Gothic enough, but his rambling adulthood searching for purpose and for Christ possesses a rare, ragged beauty.
10. Citrus County by John Brandon - Southern Gothic still seems like an Old South institution, and I wasn’t sure it could be properly represented in a modern setting. But John Brandon’s quietly brilliant and unsung novel depicts the cruelty of youth in a New South Gothic. A frustrated eighth-grade boy commits a terrible act, which Brandon wisely lets simmer in the background as his characters move about rural Florida, bemused and nonchalant. The humor here has an off-handed, almost unintended quality that adds to the creepiness. The real world becomes Gothic in the long shadow of this book, and I admired the lingering, low-grade anxiety that book left in me.