In Southern Gothic, the most important concept is the grotesque. With the grotesque, reality is distorted into ugly and absurd shapes. “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear,” Flannery O’Connor once said. By exaggerating reality, we are able to actually see it. The grotesque is a balance of contradictions. It creeps and crawls between repulsion and attraction, the real and the unreal, and humor and horror. The sublime floats in the mind, but the grotesque is experienced in the body—in turning stomachs, goose bumps, and sweat.
"Yes, I am aware that I’m mythologizing the South, but the South is myth."
"In the South, the sense of loss and ruin is combated with the faint whispers that “the South will rise again.” A few years ago, the Onion ran an article titled “South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year.”"
"In many respects, the South deserves its legacy of racism, intolerance, and backwardness. At the same time, it has always been easy for America to push all its racism, intolerance, and backwardness on the South. What percentage of TV or film characters spouting racial slurs do so in a Southern drawl? It’s comforting for Americans to see bigotry in art and entertainment confined to one ever-shrinking area. It allows us to admit our sins while simultaneously distancing ourselves from them."
I have been contemplating what it means to be a Southerner for a long time, specifically what it means to be a native daughter who half-identifies with/half-rejects the worldview of the proud, long-suffering Southerner. In Tracy Thompson’s excellent book, The New Mind of the South, she explores what the South is and how it continues to change, and what I took away from her book is that what marks Southerners is simultaneous denial and shame. The best Southern gothic illuminates the gaps in between our denial and shame and brings to light the literal horror of our history. We tell ourselves stories to try to make sense of our lives. Any art that comes from the South is informed by blood, decay, poverty, and injustice. We are a deeply human region of this country, and our art reflects that.
I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about how natural landscapes inform cultural landscapes. I go on runs through my neighborhood, past overgrown lots littered with beer cans next to manicured million-dollar homes with giant boats docked in the yard. I love the South for its contradictions, the way it posits itself one way but can’t help revealing its true nature via its dirty, gritty corners. Spanish moss-filled live oaks. Statues of great blue herons. Yards teeming with lyreleaf sage. Kudzu winding up telephone wires. Burned out houses peering out over the bay. In my neighborhood there are 30-year-old moss-stained doublewides with gated mansions next door, separated only by small fields of brambles and sprawling live oaks. There is nothing manicured about this space. We may say we are one thing, but how can we be convincing when we have no veneer?
People get so frustrated by Southerners who are polite face-to-face and judgmental behind closed doors. This is a cultural behavior that, as B so astutely pointed out, manifests from people in the South never going anywhere. I would also venture to say that this kind of circular small talk is not meant to be taken at face value. In the South, there are things left unsaid because to say them bluntly would evoke such pain and terror, who could live with themselves with those words hanging in the air? So we deny and cover ourselves, and in that way the South’s art’s main purpose is to examine the spaces between that denial and shame and shine a light there. There are different ways of being honest. There are different ways of dealing with trauma. The South’s legacy is one of loss. We are losers and rightfully so, but our losing goes against the American tradition of winning, of being a superpower. The American myth is that we are the greatest country—but no one except the Southerner believes the South is all that great.
I am still trying to articulate why I love the South, why I love being a Southerner even while I loathe what being Southern stands for. In the ever wise words of Patterson Hood, I am still worrying over the duality of the Southern thing. How can something be so good and so bad? This region reflects the best and the worst of the human spirit. It makes for great storytelling, if nothing else.