Southern Gothic

Where to begin?

How about with invasion, muskets versus bows and arrows. Wind borne lamentations. Later, clinking chains, songs of woeful repetition.  The worst kind of karma, evil spreading out in concentric circles, spreading like an oil spill, sullying every man, woman, and child.

This degradation is Faulkner’s great theme: the darkness of terrible wrongs blighting the landscape, passing from generation to generation, destroying both the rich and the poor, Joe Christmas and Quentin Compson.

These shadows – genocide, slavery, the War – incubate the genre’s monsters: incestuous aristocrats, necrophilic halfwits, sadistic Alabama sheriffs – not to mention the supernatural, hoodoo and haunts.  No wonder Southern Gothic has become a genre unto itself.

WB Yeats is purported to have said, “All of the leprechauns are dying out because no one believes in them anymore.”[1]

You need people who believe in the supernatural for Gothicism to thrive.

When I was little, I remember asking our maid Alice who was part Cherokee and part African if she believed in ghosts, and she told me that she had seen her father standing in her backyard the night after his death. Sitting in a Ford Fairlane 500 in the parking lot of the Summerville Piggly Wiggly, I could see wonder and dread in her face when she told me about that visitation.  I heartily believe if you had pumped Alice with sodium pentothal, she would have sworn she had seen her father’s ghost in that backyard. The dog was howling she said; a howling dog is a sign of a death.

Lots of white folks believe in ghosts as well.  Even some of my students believe.

So, down here, or at least in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I suspect that ghosts aren’t in any imminent danger of dying out.

* * *

Then, there’s that other non-supernatural strain of Southern Gothicism, the suicide hanging in the attic, the alcoholic great aunt who gave birth to the idiot child.

A few years ago at one of Shirley Gibson’s killer dinner parties, I got a heavy dose of that more mundane variety of Southern Gothic when I sat next to [potentially off-putting name-dropping warning] Walker Percy’s niece (Melissa).  She told me the story of her grandmother’s death, her plunging her car into a creek with Melissa’s father in the car. Her father, only nine years at the time (six years younger than his brother Walker), somehow managed to extricate himself from the automobile, but his mother would or could not escape.  Uncle Walker, she told me, regarded the death as a suicide. Suicide runs in the family.  Walker Percy’s grandfather, the son of a Civil War hero, had killed himself with a shotgun; his son, Melissa’s grandfather (Walker’s daddy), also committed suicide.

After crawling his way up the creekside, Melissa’s father waited on the side of a desolate Mississippi road in the middle of nowhere, his mother a corpse in the car.  He sat there alone for twenty minutes. Melissa said that the next car that came by was Uncle Walker’s.  They, along with another brother, were now the orphans of suicides, fortunate to find a good home with their uncle but forever darkened by the ever-spreading shadow. At the time, her father was still alive – though not alive – in a nursing home, one of the living dead.

The Attic by Wesley Moore III

Of course, as they widen, concentric waves eventually dissipate, and it seems logical that with the passing of years and with the homogenization of the South, Southern Gothicism might well be on the wane as a literary genre.  I do know that the Charleston brogue has about had it. A few of my students’ parents still motor aboot in boo-oats casting for shramp, but none of their sons and daughters do.  They clept their mamas and daddies moms and dads. I’m a dad myself.[2]

Nevertheless, Southern Gothic seems more durable than our regional accents, at least as long as Cormac McCarthy, Donna Tartt, and Ron Cooper dream into being their dark worlds where the ghosts of the past still rattle their chains, where bigotry, fanaticism, and incest still breed monsters.  People seem to enjoy the macabre, get a rush from skulls and insanity.  It makes them feel alive I suppose.

Some types of creepiness do possess a certain amount of charm:

Southern Gothic by Maggie Taylor

Others not so much.

Or so it is writ/tattooed . . .


[1]In fact, I’m starting to feel like a ghost myself sometimes.

[2]I can’t remember where I read this quote, and I so want it to be true that I dare not attempt to verify it.

 

America’s Dystopia Jones

Motorcycle Gang in The Wild OneOh, for those quaint days of yore when the worst your uptight cinematic town had to fear was a motorcycle gang led by Marlon Brando cutting doughnuts on Main Street, shattering the plate glass windows of hardware stores. [TRAILER HERE]

how-to-be-on-the-walking-deadNowadays, it’s brain-eating zombies upsetting the ambiance of the townships of Televisionland, shuffling like Roman Legions down Martin Luther King Boulevard, crossing the tracks, headed toward gated communities guarded by underpaid military retirees in police uniforms.

For whatever reason, we First World consumers crave catastrophe, whether we’re curling up on the sofa with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, programming our DVRs to record the latest episode of The Walking Dead, or listening to the dulcet intonations of NPR announcers bringing us up to date on Ebola and ISIS.

Horror is all the rage in Late Empire America. Walking your rescue dog past young Bentley’s house, you can hear heavy gunfire and explosions emanating from his manipulations of a video console. Hmm, sounds like he’s playing Mortal Kombat Armageddon, or is it World of Welfare: Let’s Kill the Bloodsuckers?

Edwin Butler-Bayliss

Edwin Butler-Bayliss

All of this got me to wondering when the West quit writing utopias a la Thomas More and started portraying the future world as a nightmare. Of course, my go-to unscholarly source is Wikipedia, and it anoints Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s as the first dystopian “literature “– though Oedipus Rex might lay some claim to being the first with its plague-ridden Thebes ruled by a tainted king whose sexual misdeeds make the Clinton/Lewinski dalliance seem downright wholesome in comparison. But Oedipus Rex predates empire, and I suppose you must have an empire, a nation state, or a fucked-up planet to qualify as a dystopian society. My colleague Aaron Lipka tells me the civilization must be a fallen one. I’d add that God has to be Dead.