From Gone with the Wind to Confederacy of Dunces to the The Sookie Stackhouse series the southern gothic style has appeared in almost every type of fiction since its inception. The first gothic novels were born on the banks of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron hosted a ghost story competition between himself, Percy Shelly, Mary Shelly and John William Polidori. That contest produced both Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre. Almost 200 years later the vampire novel has evolved but is still as popular now as it was when it first sunk its teeth into the reading public. The heart of the gothic novel is extremes; greatness turned tragic, lofty affluence fallen to social squalor, heroic acts of bravery ending in madness and death. And few places can you find more examples of great ventures turned disastrous than the American south. The image of the old southern plantation fallen to ruin; aristocrat turned root-eating beggar, great beauty turned grotesque (or at least put on a few pounds and gone to seed). These themes captured the feeling at the heart of the post civil war south. But the southern gothic novel is not simply an author telling his or her story in a southern setting. No, the southern gothic novel has characters that are bigger than life, nuances of southern culture that are unique to the southern way of life, great battles between good and evil, killer Bar-B-Que and tempestuous, tube top ripping sex.
Southern Gothic Characters - Characters in southern gothic novels have to be bigger than life and, of course, a little crazy; the damaged soul, rising out of the wreckage of lost love, lost lifestyle or lost sanity. The aging debutant hanging on to Baby Jane delusions of youth; the wife-beater wearing, bad-boy who’s always a car chase away from the county jail. And southern writers write these characters so well because they have all known lots of real characters like this in their lives. Also, many southern writers tend to be a little crazy themselves. Seriously, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, John Kennedy Toole, Eudora Welty - all born and raised southern and every one as crazy as a soup sandwich. Take my own town, Richmond Virginia, home to Edgar Allen Poe, not exactly the poster boy for sanity, Tom Wolfe of the perpetual ice cream suit, Tom Robbins, proof there is a fine line between genius and insanity. And I still have the image in my head of Richmond’s own David Robbins standing on the deck of a ship in pirate waters off the coast of Somalia waving a hundred dollar bill as research for The Devil’s Waters. Somehow, I just don’t see Woody Allen or Gore Vidal doing that. So, let’s take a look at some of the things that make southern characters stand out:
Nothing says southern like excess - If your character is going to be poor, make him tobacco row, stained wife beater, dirt poor. If rich, make him ‘owning most of Atlanta rich. So rich he buys a new boat each time the old one gets wet. If male, put the testosterone into overdrive and give your readers a cross between Rhett Butler and Stanley Kowalski. Female characters in the southern gothic have evolved over time, from Scarlet O’Hara to Sookie Stackhouse but they share a common thread, they are always vulnerable and in-charge at the same time, both soft and yielding yet, able to crawl out of the dirt, root in hand and take on the Yankee army with a vengeance. Picture Jessica Rabbit totin’ an Uzi wearing a hoop skirt, flak jacket and a picture hat.
Crazy elevated to an art-form- There is always a crazy character in the southern gothic novel. Some aunt or uncle or cousin, who “just ain’t quite right.” Aunt Earline’s little eccentricities, like perpetually dressing her dog like country singers, provides your other characters with opportunities to come up with great southern expressions like “her driveway don’t go all the way to the road” or “crazy as a pack of peach orchard boars.” (more about southern euphemisms later). Embrace your characters’ eccentricities and get creative. I loved the character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil who tied live flies to his clothes and constantly carried around a bottle of poison earmarked for the city’s water system. Remember the banjo playing boy in Deliverance? Or the story of Boo Radley plunging the scissors into his parent’s leg in To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, most main characters should only flirt with insanity enough to make them quirky and interesting. It’s too hard to get your readers to like them if you make them barking mad.
Hold my beer and watch this - A recent study - I think conducted at U of Michigan - tested how quick people were to anger when provoked. They found that the northerners angered more quickly but the southerners were the first to throw a punch. Southern characters don’t tend to be introspective; they jump first then figure out how the parachute works. And when they are introspective it is in the form of brooding, seething, or contemplating some stupidly brave or despicably heinous act. Violence, or the threat of it, is usually an undercurrent in southern gothic, but it is usually expressed more in bravado than brawl. Then again, they don’t call those sleeveless white undershirts ‘wife beaters’ for nothing.
Who are your people? - Attend any southern gathering and the second thing you will be asked is ‘who are your people?” Of course, the first thing you will be asked is “what would you like to drink? Finding common ancestors is how southerners connect. They find some mutual, distant relative and spend the rest of the evening talking about the time great uncle Colonel Beaumont Carter rode his horse into the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel (of course, if every old family in Richmond that claims their ancestor rode a horse into the Jefferson actually had a ancestor that did it, the Jefferson would have been the biggest stable in the south). Family is important in the south so trot out that freak show in your southern gothic. Mummah, Big Daddy, Great Aunt Bessie who’s so fat it takes two dogs to bark at her, should be showcased or at least have walk-on parts. And not just your main characters immediate family, there needs to be at least a couple minor characters, like double cousins, that are at least a ‘half a bubble off plumb’.
Ya’ll come - Southerners love any excuse to get together for a party so any southern gothic should have a scene featuring a local Dew Drop Inn, a barn dance or a cotillion, anywhere where folks are getting drunker than Cooter Brown and dancing like Baptists with nobody watching. This is a good place for violence, drunkenness and sex. And don’t exclude funerals as a party venue. I don’t know what it is about funerals that make southerners both thirsty and horny but southerners host great post-funeral parties with lots of liquor and distant cousins, which makes for a situation where anything can happen.
Act like you got some raising - My favorite southern expression is “bless his (or her) heart” which means “you poor (ugly, ignorant, fat, stupid trashy- take-your-pick) thing.” It’s right up there with “hold your mouth right,” which is said when someone is attempting a tricky maneuver and the only way to accomplish it is to hold your mouth right…OK some of these southern expressions just have to be experienced. But suffice it to say no southern gothic novel would be complete without a few colorful euphemisms. If you can’t come up with an enigmatic, yet homespun, analogy on pretty short notice you won’t be able to write southern gothic worth a huckleberry up a bear’s ass and your novel will come across like something the dog’s been keepin’ him under the porch.
Just for grins I looked up what Wikpedia had to say about southern gothic and they used words to describe southern characters like racial bigot, egotistical, self-righteousness. Bless wiki’s little pea-pickin’ heart, he must be a Yankee and he just don’t get it.
Southern Gothic Plot - Most early southern gothic novel plots were basically a combination of romance and horror like the secret vampire lover or the seductive ghost haunting the old manse. But over time the plots of southern gothic novels have gotten more complex and urbane. While the plot of the southern gothic still contains certain commonalities such as flawed characters overcoming the forces of evil the novels now take on more sophisticated issues;
Homegrown Evil VS ‘Come-heres’ - In southern gothic novels the worst evil usually comes from out of town. Evil forces that just show up in town, usually in disguise, are called ‘come-heres’ and they are the worst kind of evil in a southern gothic. The term ‘come-heres’ can be used for anything from an invading army of vampires to just a yankee with a U-haul. In Gone with the Wind the Yankees are the ‘evil come-heres’. In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch battles homegrown racists. In A Confederacy of Dunces the whole world constantly conspires to keep Ignatius Riley down, and in the The Sookie Stackhouse Series there is an interesting twist, the home-grown vampire, Bill Compton, teams up with heroine Sookie Stackhouse to battle both “come here’ supernatural creatures and home grown, anti vampire bigots. In my book Heavenly Pleasure I mixed it up a bit. My hometown-hero characters, including Goth stripper, a fiction writer, a physicist and two life partners who run a dirty book store. These are joined by come-heres such as God, in the form of an Ice Cream man, and a fallen angel. The heroes square off against a hometown Fundamentalist preacher and Richmond city officials joined by a come-here demon (who has possessed a local vampire), and the devil himself. Sooner or later in the gothic novel the town will join forces to fight the evil led by one brave homegrown soul that ‘knew it was evil in disguise the whole time.’
Imprisonment and Freedom - This is often both literal and figurative. Many southern gothic novels open with someone getting out of either prison or a county jail. Cool Hand Luke is unique in southern gothic in that it begins with Luke being sentenced to work on a southern road gang. But this prison is only a microcosm of his greater prison, the world filled with rules, religion and mendacity that he rejects. Often, characters in southern gothic literature feel trapped in their social station, their small town, their families or even their sexuality. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick is injured and his injury has imprisoned him in Big Daddy’s house, but he is also imprisoned by his wife, Maggie the Cat’s sexuality and his own.
Grandeur fallen to Ruin - This Property is Condemned begins with a young girl walking down the railroad tracks which run by an old hotel fallen to ruin. She stops to reflect on the hotel’s previous splendor and the rest of the movie is a flashback about a “come here,” named Owen Legate, who arrives to close the local train station and doom the hotel to ruin. Grand houses fallen to ruin are typical in the southern gothic, picture Tara Plantation in Gone with the Wind before and after the Yankee invasion. Sookie Stackhouse’s grandmothers’ house is another beautiful old house that has seen better days. And this theme doesn’t stop at property. Blanche DuBois, once beautiful and affluent is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, some not so kind.
Southern Gothic Setting -It just wouldn't be southern gothic if you didn't feel like you'd been thrust into a hot, sticky southern night replete with the drone of cicadas, sweat beading up on your tall glass of something sweet and alcoholic, the scent of honeysuckle in the breeze as it wafts across your front porch rocking chair. But there is an undercurrent, a strange feeling that something about to happen. The very air is pregnant with the first tremors of trouble beginning to rise with the waves of heat rising up from the street. Does that give you the feeling of a southern night?
Smell those Magnolias - The south has flora, fauna, smells, feels and tastes all its own (there’s nothing like that first bite of North Carolina Bar-B-Que). Incorporate them into your scenes, but don’t overdo it, subtle is better than overkill. You want to capture the feel of the south but give your image a distinct look and feel that is all your own. Bon Temps in The Sookie Stackhouse Series has the feel of a small Louisiana town, but with resident vampires and werewolves. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and To Kill a Mockingbird both capture the towns of Savannah, Georgia and Maycomb, Alabama, respectively, while most of the story is set in a courtroom. In Heavenly Pleasure I have a typical Evangelical Preacher and my characters do some ‘porch sitting” but I made it unique to Richmond centering life around the James ‘Rivah’ and Richmond’s English/Southern architecture but I did something that I doubt any Southern Gothic novelist has ever done - I made it snow.
Danse Grotesque – Flannery O'Connor once remarked; "anything that comes out of the south is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” What northerners call grotesque, we southerners call normal. Fortunately, most southerners have an arsenal of grotesque personal experiences to draw from so damn the Yankees and add that touch of the grotesque to your novel. When I was a kid I was terrified of my grandmother’s house. It was a large, rambling farmhouse built in the mid-1700s. Heat came from fireplaces, my grandmother cooked on a wood stove. Oh, did I mention that upstairs there was a baby in a jar and a rocking chair that rocked by itself? Apparently the baby was left on the doctors’ doorstep and had died from the cold before the doctor found it. My grandmother was his first patient that day and the doctor asked her if she would bury it. Instead of burying it she pickled it. I don’t know why, I guess she just had a little too much character, bless her heart. The rocking chair is still a mystery. You can bet though somewhere down the line one of my books will feature that crazy old woman, the baby in the jar and the rocking chair that rocks by itself.
So good luck with the southern gothic, and remember, while you are composing the next Gone with the Wind to ‘hold your mouth right.”