One of the benefits of retirement is that “dicing time” becomes less thinly sliced, its passage vaguer, elapsing as it did before that infernal invention the clock transliterated the overhead sun into 12:00 P.M. Because I no longer have workday pressures that dictate how I spend my hours – no essays to grade, no lessons to plan, no report cards to crank out – I can take my own sweet time.
For example, on road trips, rather than enduring a regimented slab of interstate stretching forth with its green mile markers clicking past tick-tock like, you can opt for the back roads, which, if you’re driving from Athens, Georgia, to Folly Beach, South Carolina, means you motor through mostly farmland – cornfields, peach orchards, but also tiny towns in various stages of civic decay.
Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, you can run across something truly remarkable, as my wife Caroline and I did outside of the tiny town of Wrens, Georgia.
We had dropped Brooks off at Camp Illahee and spent a couple of nights outside of Athens with our friends Jim and Laura. Both they and our friend Ballard, whom we met tending bar at Five & Ten, suggested we take the backroads home.
The route we chose took us through Thomson, Georgia, the birthplace of Blues legend Blind Willie McTell, whom I had discovered on a compilation LP called The Story of the Blues, a gift I received for my nineteenth birthday. So Blind Willie and I go way back.
I mentioned to Caroline that Blind Willie had been born in Thomson, so for a moment she abandoned her post as navigator and googled “Blind Willie.” She reported that there was a statue of Blind Willie in Statesboro but also that he was buried about eight or so miles outside of Thomson in Jones Grove Baptist Church Cemetery. So, as upright Protestants used to say – what the hay – we decided to take a side pilgrimage to pay our respects to Blind Willie. As Bob Dylan put it in one of his greatest compositions: “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”
I’ve visited Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s graves at The Père Lachaise in Paris, both graves bedecked with flowers, notes, and in Wilde’s case, lipstick-like kisses imprinted on the stone obelisk that marks his resting place.
Not surprisingly, McTell’s grave is not as rich in gifts bestowed. There were no flowers, only a sprinkling of pocket change that wouldn’t cover the cost of a Coca Cola, a mini bottle, and a guitar pick.
Rather than backtracking to return to our original route, we improvised, GPS-ing out a more southerly passage. As I was tooling along, Caroline let out a “Whoa, what was that!”
“We ought to turn around,” she suggested. “We need to check it out.” Which we did.
Now you can check it out. Southern Gothic Deluxe.
After ten or so minutes taking in this remarkable outdoor installation, we continued to Allendale, the county seat of the poorest county in South Carolina. Not to put too fine a point on it, Allendale is the po-dunk equivalent of a Blade Runner hellscape, a stalled freight train of shuttered businesses lining the highway in succession, not to mention human habitations in various stages of collapse.
At any rate, we arrived at the kennel to pick up KitKat, who, was beyond ecstatic to see us, and headed back to Folly, which, of course, offers its own offbeat pleasures.
I’ll leave you with a snippet of Dylans'”Blind Willie McTell
Seen them big plantations burning Hear the cracking of the whips Smell that sweet magnolia blooming See the ghost of the slavery ship I can hear them tribes moaning Hear the undertakers bell Nobody can sing the blues like blind Wille McTell
 What a gorgeous-sounding word, Cherokee for “heavenly world.”
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.”
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.
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 . . .
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.In fact, I’m starting to feel like a ghost myself sometimes.
 In fact, I’m starting to feel like a ghost myself sometimes.
When I was a child, I spent, relatively speaking, a good bit of time with my great aunts on both sides of the family. My mother’s aunts, Pearl and Ruby, were the daughters of a god-fearing Baptist farmer from Orangeburg County, and my father’s aunts were snobbish women who valued table manners above morality. I saw Aunt Ruby the most often because she lived the closest. Here’s a snippet from a earlier post with the fetching title “Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood”:
Aunt Ruby lives on Warren Street near Condon’s Department store in a downstairs apartment with her daughter Zilla, who is one of the founders of the New Republican Party in South Carolina. Zilla is a Bircher, claims Lucille Ball is a communist, and entertains us with comic books depicting Khrushchev banging his shoe promising to bury us. Not only has Zilla never married; she’s never been on a date.
The house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible abound.
On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. My brother David and I start smacking him as if he were one of those bottom heavy clowns you punch that falls over but returns to the upright position for more punishment.
We’re told to stop. As it turns out, Zilla is afraid of being raped. If she has to go out at night, she rides with the inflatable man next to her.
Sardonically, my father reassures Zilla that she needs not fear being raped.
Up the road in Sumter, where Aunt Pearl lived, things were a bit more laid back. She and my grandmother, “Mama Blanton,” spent their afternoons shelling beans, watching soap operas, and gossiping. Once, when I was seven or so, I saw Aunt Pearl naked through her cracked open door. It was by no means a pleasant sight, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away as in the clichéd horrible-wreck-on-the-freeway scenario.
Because of their Baptist upbringing Ruby, Pearl, and Hazelwood (aka Mama Blanton) considered alcohol an abomination, though once I witnessed Mama Blanton and Aunt Ruby swapping barbiturates like M&Ms. So, anyway imbibing hooch in the house was banned, so my grandfather was reduced to hiding half pints in shoes stored in his closet.
Kiki, what’s this?” I asked one morning after finding a bottle of Old Crow in his tennis shoe.
“Hey, what you doing in that closet? Get out of there! Don’t you tell your grandmama, you hear?”
I found my daddy’s aunts to be much more interesting. Aunt Lou, who resided in Columbia, had married a Canadian shipping executive, and according to her, at one time lived at the Waldorf Astoria where she lent the actress Jean Arthur a mink for an audition and had struck up a friendship with “Tony Fokker,” the founder of the aircraft manufacturer who supplied German in WWI with their fighter planes.
When I was in the 7th grade, David and I rode a Greyhound to Columbia to spend the weekend with her and Uncle Harry. She took us to the revolving restaurant at the top of Capstone dormitory and to a movie called The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.
Later in life, Aunt Lou and Uncle Harry would come stay with us in Summerville. Every afternoon, she would get tipsy on sherry and tell us the same stories over and over and over, like time that her in-law Sarah locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired. This was very same Sarah, the sister of the wife of my second cousin, who had managed to burn a hole in my sweater with her cigarette one Christmas Eve.
“I don’t think Sarah knew the gun was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when that gun went off.”
Twice-widowed Aunt Lila we saw the least. Like a character out of Flannery O’Connor, she ran a 100-acre cotton and tobacco farm in Marlboro County with the help of her son Alec, who had not only a swimming pool in his backyard, but also a clay tennis court. Alec unfortunately had drinking issues and buried bottles in hades-hot tobacco barns to keep his wife Jenny from tearing into him. Daddy claimed that the only time he refused a drink was from Alec who had disinterred a bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and extended it to my father.
Aunt Lila lived in a circa-1810 plantation-like house complete with columns (see below). It hadn’t, I don’t think, ever been renovated. I remember a wagon wheel suspended from the ceiling providing light for the kitchen and a giant ship’s wheel in the foyer. Of course the house was haunted by some woman who had died there. Aunt Lila herself had seen the ghost on several occasions. She also claimed to possess the power of prophecy. Whenever she dreamed of diamonds, someone died. On the night before her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, perished in a car/train crash with two of her friends from Winthrop College, Aunt Lila had, of course, dreamt of diamonds and had warned Lila Moore not to go out.
Unfortunately, I don’t see my own great nieces often, but two of them, both under seven came to the house after my wife Judy’s memorial service. Emily, the older one, with that wonderful candid openness of children, asked if she could see the bed where “Aunt Judy died.”
So I showed her – actually it was a futon – and told her a little bit about the death, and she listened wide-eyed, fascinated, so maybe I too am keeping the gothic great aunt/uncle tradition going.
 In fact, in grad school I actually copped a downer from Mama Blanton to settle my jangled nerves before a presentation.
Let’s talk about Pulp fiction — not the movie — but its namesake, those lurid narratives printed on cheap paper that, to cop the cliché of their heyday, explored the “seamy underside” of American culture, publications like True Detective, which enjoyed a 71-year existence from 1924-1995.
The HBO television series of the same name follows the magazine’s tradition of exposing lurid depravity, though it does so on a much higher artistic plane with shades of David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor, and the depravity depicted in the television series is like to 10th power of the seemingly quaint pistol whippings and murders of the magazine’s beginnings. Furthermore, the series seems to me to be an indictment of American culture, its spiritual poverty embodied in the corrupt Christianity of Southern Protestantism and in the rapacious capitalism of multinational corporations.
The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, constantly underscores these two themes with the visual motifs of crosses and industrial wastelands, which bring to mind landscapes depicted in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosh.
Check out the opening credits, for example:
Obviously David Lynch’s influence is profound here, not only in the arid, dispassionate images but also in the soundtrack, and this landscape is populated by characters right out of Flannery O’Connor — shiftless Southern scumbags, depraved criminals, corrupt preachers. The twin protagonists Marty and Rust offer an interesting contrast with Marty embodying the hollow hypocritical Protestantism that O’Connor despised and Rust the nihilism that O’Connor, though a devout Catholic, preferred to the mealy-mouthed ignorant insincerity of many of her nominally Christian characters, as we can see in her treatment of the Grandmother and the Misfit in “A Good Man’s Hard to Find.” In fact, in the sixth episode, a grown up child whore whom Marty tried to rescue from a trailer park brothel years ago calls him “a good man” in a restaurant, echoing the Grandmother’s comment to Red Sammy Butts in a restaurant in the O’Connor story. Of course, neither are good men, as Marty clearly demonstrates when he engages in extramarital sex with the woman.
(Here’s an earlier post dealing with Marty and Rust).
The complex characterization in the context of the cinematic images that create surreal beauty from ugliness makes the series both intellectually and aesthetically interesting, and there’s also a subplot dealing with public education money being funneled into Christian schools to overcome what one character calls “secular, global education.” These Christian schools lie at the center of the ritualistic Satanic murders the two detectives have spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel.
Certainly, an anthropologist studying the magazine True Detective and the series would conclude that American culture, despite great inroads in civil rights, has declined precipitously since the decades the magazine flourished, and I can’t help but wonder if the creator Pizzolatto is himself a moralist, perhaps even a Catholic in the tradition of both Bosch and O’Connor.
At any rate, the same cultural anthropologist would also have to agree that television has gotten a whole hell of a lot better in the last fifty years.