Updated: Feb 26, 2020
As the crisp smell of fall lightly sweeps through the south, the region’s literature is coming out of its solstice hibernation. Although temperatures are still in the 90’s down here, the days have become slightly shorter and the nights are slightly longer. A spookiness blows in, leaving one with the desire to make a cappuccino, grab a light throw, and read the words of a southern gothic novel.
While the Southern Gothic genre is most easily identifiable by its southern setting, there is much more than location that comprises this extraordinary variety of art.
While we here at Lost in the Wardrobe passionately love to read, we also recognize that the written word can come to life through other forms of art. Over the course of this month, we will explore the Southern Gothic genre through several different mediums: Written, Visual, Auditory, as well as Experiential. From plays to television to fashion, we are going to investigate the influence of this genre and how much it sneaks into various parts of our lives. That’s the beauty of literature, it speaks to a variety of mediums, and it connects us in ways that we may not even realize.
Now, before we hop on the old steamboat and ride down the Mississippi, let’s run through the elements that comprise this genre.
-Typically, and most obviously, this genre is exclusively set in the South.
-These stories are often filled with a dark, somewhat twisted sense of humor.
-The characters tend to be grotesque. Often times, they are disturbed mentally, and have pervasive thoughts.
-Themes of alienation and marginalization dominate the field. Whether it’s because a character was once a slave now living in a free world, or it's a young, poor girl with a child out of wedlock at the mercy of wealthy bystanders, or a male heir struggling to be noticed, loved, and accepted by his cold and stoic father, this element somehow makes its way into every Southern Gothic story you read.
-Heat, is a popular motif in the genre. Southern summers are hot and muggy, and help show the difficulty and strain of the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Southern falls are also very hot, bringing an air of sensuality to the field. Sex is a topic often discussed in this genre, and the repeated use of heat throughout each story is a clever way to bring the grander themes of sex and struggle to life.
-Elaborating on heat, fire is often used in the genre. Sometimes it’s used to show the burning down of a prevailing idea or of an establishment. Sometimes it’s used to represent a character’s fear. Other times it’s used to depict a burning passion that is slowly building. Whatever the usage, fire plays a big role and sometimes you will see it represented through other descriptions, such as a burnt landscape, dried brush, or the smell of burning wood.
-Similar to fire, water is a common symbol. Think of the old slave chant, “Wade in the Water”, and how slaves often used the rivers as routes to escape to freedom. Think of the Low-Country and the terrain south of the Mississippi. Think of the alligators that roam the swamps, the stench that emits from those waters, and the twisted decay that occurs in them. Now, let those visuals carry you into this genre.
-Speaking of decay, you will have the jarring experience of witnessing moral and physical decay amidst sprawling plantations, old opulence, and gentility. This is one of the most profound aspects of the Southern Gothic genre, and whether the medium is literature, film, or music, I am equally impacted each time.
-With decay often comes the perversion and misuse of spirituality. From the misappropriation of Christianity to push a character’s own sick ends, or the practice of voodoo and dark magic to arrive into an even darker state, twisted spirituality and fire (there it is again) and brimstone play huge roles in showing the moral and physical decay of a society.
-Much of this decay is experienced by families of various classes. From old aristocrats to freed slaves, you will come to see the genre believes there is no escaping the sins of your past, and while old family secrets and betrayals may bind characters, it can divide them too.
-Themes of racism and classism are inescapable, as many stories deal with the post-Civil War Era. This period saw slaves, newly freed, trying to understand the new landscape they now lived in. The era also saw poor white farmers who lost their livelihood after the war and Union takeover. Racial and economic struggle drive the genre and open the door to introspection.
-Finally, there is Dark Romanticism, which tends to be one of the biggest draws to the genre. This focuses on human weakness and our tendency towards imperfection, and it marries the idealistic with the hauntingly fallible. In some stories, this is where ghosts and other spirits come into play, even if they’re only used metaphorically.
The Southern Gothic genre is a bit off the beaten path. It takes all of the traditional elements of horror and brings a new twist to them. The genre also saw the birth of a new kind of writer, as voices that had never been allowed to speak before found their expression through this movement. These new voices are what bring texture and depth to the field.
As you become acquainted with classic Southern Gothic, you will begin to see just how profound its influence has been on our culture, and just how far it has made its way into the mainstream. From Faulkner’s novels to shows like Sharp Objects to pop star music videos, this is a genre that is loaded with content, and one that is impossible to look away from.
Lost in the Wardrobe welcomes October, and we welcome you all to Southern Gothic Month.