Saturday, June 8, 2013

The New Southern Gothic by Christine Locke

I'm seeing something interesting in the Young Adult publishing world these days, and you've all seen it in the movies.  Despite its mixed reception, the movie "Beautiful Creatures" illustrates the phenomenon I want to write about here.  And if you liked the movie at all, please read the book.  It's so much better.  These are just some beginning thougths on the matter.  I will add citations as I find them.  I would welcome any comments on this, as the exploration of "gothic" as a genre is a vast and lengthy journey, I find.

In the past, Southern gothic was a genre set in the present dealing with a primary conflict that was political in some sense: the effects of poverty/lack of education, the lasting effects of slavery, racism, etc.  I'm thinking of Carson McCullers and Faulkner and O'Connor, etc.  I noticed that many authors who are now called simply "Southern" writers were once described as Southern gothic.

How is this gothic? you might ask.  And it's a good question, too.  After all, "gothic" conjures images of haunted houses, rambling abandoned spaces, an ingenue in a white dress, etc.  When we think of American gothic, we think more of Poe than McCullers, yes?

Well, not always: I think to understand why Southern writers portraying social/polital conflict in their writings got classified as gothic, you have to go back to Poe's time and remember that American gothic storytelling was in part a response to the Transcendentalist philosophical movement.

Who were the Transcendentalists?  Well, for one thing, Emerson and Alcott and Thoreau and others believed that we humans could perfect our character by striving for what is best in ourselves and believing in what is best in others.  It's a very idealistic philosophy focusing on the best aspects of our human nature.  There's very little fiction or storytelling to be found amongst transcendentalist writings. 

Enter Edgar Allen Poe and company: they had less faith in the shiny, happy version of human nature, and they believed the human soul to be a dark place indeed.  And they did tell stories about this darkness and how it forms and expresses.  From the gothic storytelling movement, two more genres were born that intrigue us to this day: the detective novel and the horror story.

I would say that Southern gothic writers like McCullers were writing "gothic" tales in the sense that their stories were about the darker side of human nature, especially as expressed by humans living in the American south.  These Southern novels and stories are "gothic" in the same way that Poe was, focusing on humans' darker side.  It's not about the rambling mansions and ghosts for the Southern writers, though, but, otherwise, they were doing something similar to Poe by refusing to let human nature's dark side hide behind a pretty philosophy.  McCullers once told a friend that the reason she would revisit the South sometimes was to "renew her sense of horror."  I always found it interesting that these Southern writers often did not live in the South, having "fled" it in some sense (not unlike, I have to say here, a gothic ingenue fleeing the mansion only to return again).

But there's something new happening to the genre "Southern gothic," and I'm a part of it.  I found myself calling Open Door a gothic novel before I really realized what I was doing.  I thought, well, it's "gothic" in the old fashioned sense, a haunted rambling house, a young ingenue, etc.  I wasn't sure what I meant by "old-fashioned": Poe, maybe, or maybe the Bronte sisters.  I knew my tale had all the elements of the gothic story.  Yet, my story is also set in the American South, in Arkansas.

But I did not feel that writing a story set in the South necessarily bound me to address exclusively socio-political concerns or the darker side of human nature.  When I touch on either, it is incidental to the story, not a determining force of the story itself.  I thought I was alone in this, and I wondered if my little story would ever have a "genre" home, so to speak.

Then, I noticed that a few other writers are doing exactly the same thing.

The Aurelia LaRue series by Kira Saito

Beautiful Creatures series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Amber House and its sequels by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed and Larkin Reed

In all of these tales, insofar as I've read them at this point, classic, Poe-like elements of gothic dominate a story that features plenty of the dark side of human nature and, yes, there are elements of Southern darkness present in these tales as well, like poverty, lack of opportunity, racism and prejudice.  Yet, unlike earlier examples of the Southern gothic, these series, and mine, dig up truths hidden in secret places (very gothic) in order to transcend to a new, brighter, powerful place for the main character (not characteristic of American gothic).  In the end, it's all more Jane Eyre than Telltale Heart, and I do think there are connections to be made between the British Victorian novel and what's going on right now in the genre "Southern gothic."

Yet, in this ultimate transcendence, I find a "full-circle" connection can be made toward the earlier point that the old-school Southern gothic stories employed the older meaning of that term, gothic, as a rebellion against Transcendentalist philosophy or even more general spiritual hopefulness.  McCullers stories of powerlessness and human evil remind me of The Castle of Otranto as much as Poe's work: the Southern gothic genre, and Poe's work, and the distant origins of the genre as displayed by Otranto all focus on darkness in human nature.  A common characteristic of these stories is that things don't work out well, because, after all, humans screw up.

More recent contributions to the American Southern gothic genre, however, my own writing included, starts in a dark, "gothic" place of human nature, BUT, through employing elements of gothic story, moves the characters out of that darkness and toward--if not into--light.  This might be the light of love (like British Victorian Jane) or knowledge, or something else.  And yet, there is something ultimately Transcendental in this new movement. 

So where I'm going with all this is that I think there's a New Southern Gothic sensibility forming, at least in the realm of Young Adult literature.  Writers are employing traditional gothic elements to tell stories of transcendence.  I find it beautiful, and I watch and participate with joy.


  1. We are so pleased, Christine, to be included by way of example in your intimidatingly intelligent analysis of modern gothic set in the South. I had not thought of Amber House that way -- the setting was chosen for its wealth of history, but the southern currents of racial oppression and conservative imperatives do provide a fertile ground for the gothic elements to flourish. There is a perceived lushness to the south, a dark feminine undertone that must well up and fuel the storytelling -- if we had set our tale in New England I think it would have produced a more brittle result.

    I look forward to reading all the books on your list, including your Open Door.


    Kelly Moore

  2. Thank you for responding, Kelly. How good of you to share with us your inspiration for setting Amber House in the South! It's always a pleasure to hear from you, and I eagerly anticipate the next book in your series.