Good Country People: Southern Gothic

“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going was never there…”
– Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood


 

The Christ-haunted landscape
(a personal note)

Flannery O’Connor referred to the South as “Christ-haunted,” and that’s a phrase that always comes to mind whenever I visit home and see those towering Bernard Coffindaffer Crosses on the side of the road. While the three-Cross sets vary in size, most of the ones where I grew up average around fifteen feet in height and are often spotlighted so they’re easily visible from highways and county roads. I’m certain that some see them and feel their faith stir, perhaps experience a moment or two of spiritual reaffirmation. For others, those Crosses serve as everything from ghostly reminders of middling-to-terrible childhoods and various personal failures to multi-faceted, juridical markers of exactly “who’s in charge” around those parts. No matter the perspective, it’s fair to say that at the heart of Southern Gothic is some form of  haunted landscape. The individual who finds themself born into the region is often subsumed by that imaginary geography and all it entails, for better or worse. A cultural legacy of violence, acknowledged or not, has bled into the the land itself and has stained the feet of its inhabitants at an almost generational level. I’m interested, as always, in those kinds of ghostly ruptures.

The surface culture, the one decorated with sugary niceties and a codified “charm” that supposedly serves as a positive background for the horrors of  Southern Gothic is, logically, promoted by the region and its inhabitants for various reasons despite the fact that it’s more a product of Hollywood than anything inherent. I think it’s one that many Southerners get a kick out of and encourage if for no other reason than its irony…although I figure it’s particularly useful for those areas with tourism-based economies, as well. I’m not sure how earnestly anyone who’s reasonably aware of their surroundings really believes the old myth of Southern social grace and goodness. Sure, they may repeat it the way we all repeat the things we’ve been taught as truth, even if they’ve never taken the time to examine why it’s never felt quite sincere.  Likewise, I know plenty of folks who employ the idea ironically. At heart of all good Southern Gothic is bitter irony, have no doubt.

Monsters, everywhere

Ask almost anyone with roots in the American South and most can offer you plenty of anecdotal support for the reality of the “daily grotesque” in some way or another—stories of outcasts and hometown weirdos, accidental (hapless/town-people) and intentional (maligned/”hillbillies”) inbreeding, absurd acts of casual cruelty, and “just plain weird” encounters of various sorts.

Yet so much of the grotesque that we see in popular Southern Gothic is usually poverty-based. One can’t talk about the good, evil, or otherwise of Southern culture without acknowledging the role that poverty plays, obviously; however, one of the most common mistreatments of the genre, particularly in film, is the presentation of that distorted “face” without an apparent awareness and/or acknowledgement of its critical function within the context. It’s too damn easy to equate poverty and ugliness with evil; it’s convenient, too, and easily manipulated towards various ideological purposes. What’s troubling to me is the—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—divergence from using degeneracy and grotesque levels of poverty as a means through which to cast light upon the more malignant attributes of those in power in these small, rural communities.  O’Connor loved taking shots at “good,” upstanding townsfolk, as did Faulkner, and to be fair it’s often been fairly subtle in some of those works—although Miss Emily’s corpsey bed partner is about as obvious as it gets, I’d think.

There are some excellent examples in contemporary media, as well. The Tuttle family in Season One of True Detective is depicted as simultaneously powerful and utterly degenerate. While it’s easy to get lost in the perverse grubbiness and over-the-top moral decay we see, the show does remind us just often enough that these are people descended from “upstanding folk,” people powerful enough to hide the bodies, so to speak, and are only part of a large, tentacular conspiracy.

errolandsister
from True Detective, Season One

The Tuttle family’s legacy of local/regional influence was sweeping, yet they were despised or, at the very least, avoided—even the members who “cleaned-up” pretty nicely and weren’t marked so obviously as outcasts. What makes these people  grotesque within this framework of Southern Gothic isn’t the inbreeding or even the nasty, backwoods Yellow King cultishness—it’s the “fall” away from wealth, power, prominence of certain familial lines and the deep core of hellishness that it reveals as always already present. That’s good Southern Gothic. Yet it’s still the image of the rural inbred that captures fascination, and somehow the power structures that would allow a creature like Errol exist for so long unchecked get lost behind that spectacle of the grotesque. The sense of irony often seems (intentionally?) lost for reasons I probably don’t have to explain to most folks. It’s probably tucked away somewhere along with discussions of public lynching and the KKK’s prominent place in so many small communities well into the 21st Century.

An anticipated apology…

For those of us with complicated relationships with our upbringing and identities, it often feels doubly difficult to parse the personal from the critical, particularly when it’s coming from “outside” vantage points. If I occasionally turn the critical personal in these next few posts, then, please forgive me; I’ll do my best to keep some distance from here on out. Even those of us who were outsiders within our own cultures and communities, who fled when financially able, and who are all too ready to spotlight the infinite social and cultural problems in the South, both old and new, sometimes catch an odd bout of misplaced nostalgia for the things that never were from the place that never was. (Hell, hauntology is practically taught to many of us as a coping mechanism, whether it’s recognized as such or not.) I’ll apologize for that in advance.

Directions

The motivation for this short series of posts on Southern Gothic ultimately rests nestled somewhere between a year-long love affair with True Detective‘s first season and subsequent, often frustrating discussions with friends about various films and pieces of fiction given the SG label in mainstream media and various, generally reputable, discussion forums. While I’m usually pretty flexible and promiscuous when it comes to labeling (of any sort), I’ve often found myself in odd little impromptu discussion groups concerning the “qualities” that make something Southern Gothic. And, for better or worse, I am intimately familiar with the genre, all around. It’s part of my cultural history, a part of my personal lens, and a large part of my media library.

Likewise, I’ve often found myself bickering (goodnaturedly…most of the time anyway) lately about some movie or story’s heinous mislabeling by some reductive so-and-so somewhere or another. For that reason, I also intend to include multi-part and hopefully useful version of the old “Southern Gothic tropes” catalog since I have had it requested by friends within the past few months who say they’re still fairly unclear on what, exactly, makes something “Southern Gothic.”

On the big picture side of things, I intend to explore, specifically, the relationships among Southern Gothic’s spectral aspects, its grotesqueries and monsters with the “Weird” that seems to be of interest in both Horror fiction and film these days.  That’ll include both the fiction and film that almost everyone agrees falls in this category, as well as newer works that are up for debate and/or discussion. Hopefully this will be of interest to at least a few readers and followers. If it’s not, never fear. I’ll move on to other interests very shortly.

Qualities (ideally and/or often) found in Southern Gothic, part one –

  • Transfer of traditionally supernatural features from the Gothic genre onto the “real” landscape of American Southern states – most folks include this attribute, and I always include it when I’m teaching a unit on Southern Gothic lit. It highlights the use of archetypes like the spinster, the town drunk, the angry white man, the two-faced politician, the freakish outcast, and various others within a “realistic” setting. And it’s important, sure, but I’m also interested in liminal spaces in my Southern Gothic—the weird (and Weird) gray areas between the real and unreal and places where a text walks a line between the clearly realistic and the “so damn odd it’s almost unnatural.”
  • Irony, but not just in the writing style (in works of fiction), as is often noted, but in the general approach to subject matter and inherent spirit of a work – in other words, there should be a sort of “dark humor” to good Southern Gothic, I think, even if it’s only occasional and very limited. There should also be a healthy embrace of most things paradoxical and overtly contradictory in nature.
  • The “grotesque” – it’s a pretty standard and easily recognizable attribute of Southern Gothic, often the attribute instructors highlight as a way to help students identify it when they see it; although I think it’s important that whatever form the grotesque takes, it should  be set against a backdrop of social niceties and should, as the standard goes but sometimes ignores, highlight deep and abiding flaws within the culture.
  • Violence – it’s integral to Southern Gothic in any form, but it should be likewise paired with a sense of denial or unwillingness to acknowledge its place within the culture and criticism of that denial. I also think Southern Gothic that ignores racial tensions and systemic racial discrimination is weak-hearted, at best, and negligently culpable, at worst.
  • The “fallen” prominent family, degeneration, and the angry old white man — I mentioned the function of the “fall” above in this genre, but I’d also like to note the significance of both familial and community degeneration and decadence, specifically the breakdown of health and/or power, due to inside, outside, or a combination of forces. Incest and inbreeding falls under this category as a trope, of course, but it also involves the broader “death of family lines” and their peculiar significance within this cultural context. Discussions related to sex and sexual identity also fall under this general umbrella, I think. You can also observe the varied yet centralized depictions of white, male power in these works, and most good Southern Gothic will find both subtle and overt ways to undermine that particular archetype’s potency.

    cohle_hospital
    from True Detective, Season One

Some suggested reading and resources, part one –

  • Archetypes of the Southern Gothic: The Night of the Hunter and Killer Joe by Christina Newland (article linked)
  • Haints: American Ghosts, Millennial Passions, and Contemporary Gothic Fictions by Arthur F. Redding (book)
  • Violence, the Body, and “The South” An issue of: American Literature; Volume: 73, Issue: 2; Special Issue Editor(s): Dana D. Nelson, 2001 (journal)
  • Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture (Southern Literary Studies) by Eric Gary Anderson, Taylor Hagood, Daniel Cross Turner (collection)
  • Sharma, Divya. “True Detective as a Southern Gothic: A Study of Its Music-Lyrics.” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, International Journal of Social, Behavioral, Educational, Economic, Business and Industrial Engineering 9.2 (2015): 600-606 (article linked)
  • Nyong’o, Tavia. “Little Monsters Race, Sovereignty, and Queer Inhumanism in Beasts of the Southern Wild.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies21.2-3 (2015): 249-272 (article)
Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6
from Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)


Letterboxd Viewing List (on-going/part one)

The list includes, at the moment, films such as John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979), Beloved (1998), and The Story of Temple Drake (1933)—all of which are adaptations, to a greater or lesser degree, of works of Southern Gothic literature.