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Guide to Southern Gothic: 10 Dark Must-Reads

Guide to Southern Gothic: 10 Dark Must-Reads

Southern Gothic is a literary style that takes gothic themes and places them in a magical realist American South setting.

Gothic literature got its start in 18th-century England, as a means for authors to express the problems they saw in society. By the same token, Southern Gothic literature aims to expose the underbelly of the idyllic: cracks in the foundation of a decaying grand mansion, seething intentions behind pleasantries, unsavory thoughts of the supposedly pure.

It’s a genre characterized by contrast, mixing elements of dark romance, horror, and the supernatural. The macabre and grotesque are sketched out in flowery prose. The humor is dark and the angst is palpable. In some Southern Gothic books, the supernatural is used to heighten the sense of horror. In others, it drives home the point that reality can be even darker than monsters and ghosts.

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10 stand-outs of Southern Gothic literature

William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are two of the more prominent names that come up in relation to Southern Gothic — but many of today’s most acclaimed writers have dabbled (or been firmly planted) in the genre.

While Southern Gothic has a way of making you question reality, let’s get a grip on what the genre’s really like by reviewing ten of its stand-out works.

1. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936)

Published in 1936, many consider Absalom, Absalom! to be William Faulkner’s magnum opus — including Faulkner himself, who remarked, “I think it’s the best novel yet written by an American.” (Tell us how you really feel, Will!)

The novel centers around Thomas Sutpen, who grew up in a poor family in backwoods Appalachia. One day, a formative experience sets a life goal ablaze in him: to be wealthy. And when he marries into a respectable family, his journey to achieving that goal begins. But extremes can be devastating, and Thomas’s overweening ambition and his need to control everything around him bring about the ruin of his family and himself.

This self-proclaimed masterpiece is one of Faulkner’s most challenging novels to read: it’s told in fragmented accounts from various narrators, all with their own unique perspectives and biases. Some of the narrators look back on American Southern history with pride in its many enduring traditions, while others look back with horror over its legacy of slavery. This narrative style asks one of the story’s main questions: how well can we really know the past — and who’s version do we believe most?

“Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” 

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Depicting the life of a Black woman living in turn-of-the-century Florida, the book was published in 1937 by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. Due to adverse audience reactions to a Black female protagonist, the book remained out of print for almost four decades, until 1978. It’s now a highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.

The protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie Mae Crawford, who spends much her life feeling voiceless as she struggles to take control over her own destiny. At 16, Janie’s grandmother arranges for her to marry Logan Hicks — an old farmer looking for a wife (but who’s definition of a “wife” is more like a domestic server he can boss around). Lonely and disillusioned with the notion of marriage, Janie runs away from Logan with Joe Starks. At first, Joe appears to be her husband’s opposite, with ambitions to become mayor of Eatonville so he can put Janie on a pedestal. But it eventually becomes clear that Joe also intends for Janie to simply fulfill a role in his life: that of an obedient trophy wife. An often joyless twenty-year marriage ends with Joe’s death, and Janie meeting a young drifter called Tea Cake. Initially, Tea Cake and Janie share a passionate love affair. But he also becomes possessive of Janie in the end, and she is eventually forced to take her life into her own hands.

As Janie looks back on her life, satisfying the "oldest human longing—self-revelation,” readers not only join Janie as she discovers who she is, they also glimpse the complicated dynamics of relationships, and the slow and steady blossoming of true love: the love Janie finds for herself. 

“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” 

3. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)

Another example of a prodigious debut: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was 23-year old Carson McCullers’ first published novel, and was met with instant and widespread acclaim.

It opens on John Singer, a deaf-mute, who’s similarly deaf-mute roommate has just been committed to an asylum. Now living a lonesome existence in a mill town deep in the south of 1930’s Georgia, John encounters a motley crew of new companions who take a liking to him. This cast of characters includes: a tomboyish girl eager to grow up and start her music career, the observant owner of the cafe Singer eats at daily, an angry drunk, and an idealistic but disheartened African-American doctor. All four end up visiting John regularly for the comfort he provides as a silent confidant.

The book explores a number of themes: the fetters attached to the American working class, racial injustice, loss of innocence, loneliness — all are common themes in Southern Gothic, and they all get their due attention. But at its core, the novel is about human connection and the deep desire to be truly seen and understood by another person.

“The heart is a lonely hunter with only one desire! To find some lasting comfort in the arms of another’s fire … driven by a desperate hunger to the arms of a neon light, the heart is a lonely hunter when there’s no sign of love in sight!”

4. Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote (1948)

Southern Gothic stories often use their settings to evoke images of times gone by — and the genre’s favorite image just might be an old house that once held a sense of grandeur but now feels haunted by the past. This trope describes, to a T, the setting of Other Voices, Other Rooms, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel by (an only twenty-three year old) Truman Capote.

After his mother dies, thirteen-year old Joel Knox moves from New Orleans to Skully’s Landing, a decaying mansion on an isolated Alabama plantation. He’s meant to be living with his father, but when Joel arrives, the man is nowhere to be found. Instead, he meets a diverse cast of other characters, including: his acrimonious stepmother Amy; Amy’s gay brother Randolph; a young and stubborn tomboy called Idabel; and Jesus and Zoo, the home’s caretakers. But where is his father, and why is he hiding?

Inspired by a walk in the woods that Capote took while living in Monroeville, Alabama, the novel explores lost innocence, and, as Capote said himself, a young and lonely boy’s search for "a father who, in the deepest sense, was nonexistent."

“But we are alone, darling child, terribly, isolated each from the other; so fierce is the world's ridicule we cannot speak or show our tenderness; for us, death is stronger than life, it pulls like a wind through the dark, all our cries burlesqued in joyless laughter; and with the garbage of loneliness stuffed down us until our guts burst bleeding green, we go screaming round the world, dying in our rented rooms, nightmare hotels, eternal homes of the transient heart.”

5. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)

Not many authors boast a debut novel that is also considered a classic of twentieth-century literature — apart from Flannery O’Connor, that is. Wise Blood follows Haze Motes, a young man battling against his own faith. When he decides he wants to separate himself from the church and become an atheist, he begins acting in a decidedly commandment-adverse way. He also starts his own anti-religion called “The Church of God Without Christ.”  But Haze’s fight to not be a “certain kind of person” threatens to turn him into the most extreme version of what he’s trying to escape.

With Southern Gothic’s characteristic use of the macabre to explore Southern values, Flannery’s darkly comic insights are on full display.

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place... Nothing outside you can give you any place... In yourself right now is all the place you've got.”

6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

The Southern Gothic genre is home to many of the 20th century’s literary greats: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah, Zora Neale Hurston, and, of course, Harper Lee. For many readers, To Kill a Mockingbird was their first encounter with Southern Gothic. 

In case you’ve never read this classic bildungsroman, or watched its 1962 film adaptation, the story follows Scout Finch as she grows up in a sleepy town in Depression-era Alabama. Scout’s perception of the world is jolted when her lawyer father Atticus defends a Black man called Tom Robinson, who has been accused of rape. Despite providing evidence of Tom’s innocence, Atticus loses the trial. Tom is convicted and killed when he tries to escape. 

This is Scout’s first impression of the society’s basic unfairness: that bias, ignorance, and intolerance can win out over justice, resulting in the the “senseless slaughter of songbirds.” Of course, this isn’t always the case. And the end of the book sees another chance for the Finch family to aid in the defense of an innocent “mockingbird.”

Today, To Kill a Mockingbird is a seminal work that most English-speaking children read in school — and in 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one "every adult should read before they die."

“If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time. It's because he wants to stay inside.”

7. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (1973)

Child of God deals with extremely dark and twisted concepts, but blankets it with poetic, lyrical prose. Set in the mountains of 1960s Tennessee, it opens in media res with Lester Ballard, a 27-year old orphan, getting released from prison. What readers come to discover is that the skulking Lester is also a hermit and necrophiliac murderer. 

If that doesn’t sound like the kind of character you want to read about, we can’t blame you. But what wins McCarthy’s book a place on many “classic Southern Gothic” lists is his representation of duality: what happens to human nature when our basic needs aren’t met? What does normalcy look like for people pushed to the very fringes of society? What chance does nature stand against nurture, and vice versa?

By taking Southern Gothic tropes to its extremes, McCarthy’s twisted novel sparked the grit-lit movement, emboldening other authors to explore themes of depravity through lovingly composed craft.

“In the spring or warmer weather when the snow thaws in the woods the tracks of winter reappear on slender pedestals and the snow reveals in palimpsest old buried wanderings, struggles, scenes of death. Tales of winter brought to light again like time turned back upon itself.”

8. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

While Southern Gothic often takes place in the past, the historical stories often detail an obsession with an even more distant past. Themes of legacy are prevalent, as well as a sense of mourning for Southern times gone by — some characters mourn the loss of a supposed halcyon time, while other mourn the enduring pain of a traumatic time.

Beloved begins with Sethe and her daughter, who live in a house haunted by Sethe’s dead baby daughter. Despite escaping the slavery she was born into eighteen years ago, Sethe is still not free and remains shackled by her past. This is when Paul D arrives, a slave who was trapped on the same plantation as Sethe. He manages to drive away the revenant, only to find to bring another, even stronger and malevolent spirit called “Beloved” into the house. Sethe has suspicions about Beloved, and that its presence has to do with a secret from her past. Due to the guilt Sethe feels about a horrible act she felt forced to commit decades ago, she begins to give everything of herself to the spirit, leaving readers to wonder whether it’s ever truly possible to leave the past behind.

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel reminds readers that history doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that the atrocities that occurred in the South during the time of the Atlantic slave trade continue to shape and “haunt” even today. It delves into a nightmarish past and present with the intimacy of a lullaby, in the way only a really good Southern Gothic novel can.

“Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place--the picture of it--stays, and not just in my memory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.” 

9. Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah (2001)

Southern Grotesque perhaps fits the bill here more than Southern Gothic. Barry Hannah’s absurdly wild tale follows Man Mortimer, a thief, pimp, and murderer, whose obsession with knives is put on full display during his bloody quest for revenge in a lakeside Mississippi community. The community’s sheriff is far better at seducing elderly widows than he is at solving crimes, and so three other denizens of the community have taken it upon themselves to stop Man: two ex-bikers, an ex-doctor-turned-jazz-musician, and a Vietnam veteran.

Starting with the discovery of an abandoned car containing the skeletons of two deceased orphans, Yonder Stands Your Orphans is not for the faint of heart. At its core, it’s about good and evil, and the relationship between the two: what happens when old Southern manners have soured and when the righteous start sinning. 

“You need to see a bit of hell now and then. That, and great joy.”

10. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011)

Swamplandia! is a pretty average place to grow up. It’s the home of the Bigtree family, on an island nestled in the Florida Everglades, replete with an alligator-wrestling theme park. Average. 

However, the Bigtree’s gator-wrestling dynasty is nearly bankrupt and in danger of closing its doors for good, as a competing park called “The World of Darkness” (think Hell, but with roller coasters) begins encroaching on their business. But the biggest blow comes with the death of the Bigtree matriarch and indomitable Swamplandia! headliner. Now Ava, the 12 year-old protagonist is not only struggling to wade through the waters of grief, she’s also forced to cope with her father going AWOL, her sister having an affair with a ghost, and her big brother defecting to The World of Darkness.

In the hopes of saving her home and family, Ava sets out on a harrowing odyssey to a magical and dangerous part of the Everglades called the “Underworld.” What follows is a coming-of-age story that teeters on the glittering edge of reality and fantasy — and a confrontation of man’s struggle to dominate nature. Perhaps the Bigtrees have mastered the ability to wrestle alligators, but can they find the strength to deal with the scariest foe of them all? Their own emotions.

“Hopes were wallflowers. Hopes hugged the perimeter of a dance floor in your brain, tugging at their party lace, all perfume and hems and doomed expectation. They fanned their dance cards, these guests that pressed against the walls of your heart.” 


Hooked on books with magical elements infused into reality? Check out our guide to magical realism.

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