The New Southern Gothic

Today's South still festers with the repressed violence and oppression of the past. As Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
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My debut short story collection The Wilds mixes Southern Gothic weirdness with dystopian and sci-fi speculation. When asked to describe my fiction in terms of genre, I could go on and on listing freaky hybrids: surrealist tall-tales, absurdist horror yarns, slapstick fairy-tales, and farcical plague fiction. The more genres I list, the hazier the picture becomes. For me, genre is just another formal tool a writer can use to make a fictional world tangible, a plot kinetic, or a character knowable. Since I am from South Carolina, however, Southern Gothic seems to be the go-to classification for my fiction, a niche that evokes a uniquely southern spin on the romantic, mist-shrouded, ghoul-haunted 18th century version of the genre.

Instead of vampires and stone castles, however, Southern Gothic offers up dilapidated plantation houses and rotted shacks, eccentric or loony characters, grotesquery galore, and a general sense of entropy that is mined for both comic and tragic effect. The declining southern aristos of classic Southern-Gothic-Land resemble their romantic vampiric predecessors, pining in putrid mansions, driven mad by inbreeding and the loss of once-mythical fortunes sustained by brutal parasitic economies. The specter of slavery haunts the imaginations of Southern Gothic's earlier white practitioners, of course, writers who mystify, other, and stereotype African American characters.

Of all the stories in my collection, "Rapture" best fits the Southern Gothic bill. At a slumber party in a "lopsided mill house" in Whitmire, South Carolina, a Jesus-freak grandmother speaks in tongues, croaking out lurid apocalyptic imagery in a Darth-Vader baritone and briefly levitating at the climax of her tirade. "Meemaw," a mystic with strange powers, is furious that the "Greater Zion Tabernacle" won't let her preach because of her gender. Nevertheless, she has trouble accepting her gay son's sexuality. Meemaw refuses to progress, to face the future, preferring to dwell in the realm of religious fantasy, as stubborn as the doomed granny in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Classic Southern Gothic tales often seethe with sexual and racial tension, sometimes condemning the hardheadedness and outlandishly evil acts of racist villains stuck in the past (To Kill a Mockingbird), sometimes attempting to provide "complex" black characters who, nevertheless, perpetuate well-worn stereotypes (Berenice in A Member of the Wedding is, of course, a classic "mammy" figure). Although plenty of racist villains still dwell in South Carolina, although the Confederate flag still droops in the muggy air of our statehouse grounds, racism is not only a vile perspective embodied by evil human beings, but also part of the collective consciousness of the state, embedded in South Carolina's history and haunting its current institutions. The brains of the most progressive people (black and white) are tainted by socially constructed racist ideas. In my story "Jaws," a young woman vacationing with her parents in Orlando realizes that her mother, who says and does inappropriate things, is beginning to suffer from dementia. The cynical narrator recoils in shame when her mom approaches a black family at an amusement park and utters racist remarks. The mother's sense of social propriety has disintegrated, and ideas deeply embedded in her unconscious come bubbling to the surface -- ideas that the narrator feels uncomfortably complicit with, even though she considers herself to be an enlightened person. Today's South still festers with the repressed violence and oppression of the past. As Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

In my story "LIMBs" the past resurfaces as the main character Elise undergoes newfangled brain restoration therapies. A lost world comes back piece by piece, including Elise's relationships with two other nursing home patients--evoking a host of quasi-gothic vignettes from earlier eras of rural South Carolina. Although many of the stories in The Wilds take place in the South and contain elements of the so-called grotesque, the entropic states they depict tend to blend gothic with dystopian, sci-fi, or absurd horror elements. "LIMBs" takes place in South Carolina nursing home, for example, but in a futuristic setting in which cyborgian senior citizens amble around on robot legs. Even the most overt science fiction piece in my collection contains elements that I could describe as "southern gothic." "The Love Machine" portrays the plight of a lovelorn robot manipulated by researchers at Georgia Tech, and when the android eventually escapes the climatically controlled sterility of the laboratory, the sleek, titanium-shelled creature of the future encounters the filthy, hot fertility of the South -- a sensory assault that causes the poor robot to malfunction.

In several interviews, when asked about my sense of genre and my depictions of the grotesque, I have claimed, only half joking, that growing up in a humid, mosquito-infested swampland has infected my brain with obscure yet-to-be-discovered brain parasites that might, when combined with decades of ancestral looniness, create a sensitivity to a particular species of fecund strangeness that can be described as "Southern Gothic." Here, the air screams with manic insects. Here, eerie fog floats up from the swamps. In my opinion, what critics peg as "Southern Gothic" is about a connection to a literary tradition and a troubled history, but also about total immersion -- mind and body -- in a teeming, sweltering, almost painfully palpable ecology.

Julia Elliott is the author of The Wilds.

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