Southern Gothic is back and better than ever. The aesthetic is coming back into style on a national scope. The movement has begun to permeate all different forms of popular art and media. The ghost of William Faulkner is alive (in a manner of speaking) and well, reviving the literary tradition he perfected.
Like the classic Southern Gothic, this resurgence still plays on the decaying land and lineage of prominent families and the old southern aristocracy. But now the landscapes depicted are condemned manufacturing plants and massive oil refineries and the aristocracy are the dying wealthy or corrupt politicians vying for more power. While the original Southern Gothic was in many ways a reaction to reconstruction and the influence of carpet baggers moving into the south, this revival might well be a response to the current influx of Yankees, like my family and I, moving out of the New England and Mid-Atlantic rust belt in search of jobs and a cheaper cost of living. While obviously things have been flipped on their head (now the northerners are fleeing the north) the population statistics remain the same. Within a few years’ time the town I moved to in North Carolina had more north eastern transplants than locals living in it.
This contemporary Southern Gothic aesthetic shows the effects drug trafficking and gangs, of prostitution, unemployment and the consequences, especially in more rural areas, of rapid urbanization and a greater amount of centralization in the deep south. It responds to natural disasters and, subsequently, the crumbling infrastructure and variable economy of the south’s coastal, river, and delta communities. And perhaps most importantly of all, it continues to present and represent, albeit rarely in a positive light, a part of American culture that is often labeled as backwards by the American public.
In many ways, Hip-hop is leading the way in utilizing and reinventing the Southern Gothic with music videos. Take for example School Boy Q’s music video What They Want where viewers are led through one of the famous New Orleans above ground grave yards and confronted with the image of skeleton figures walking between the raised graves and modern day New Orleans. Or Earl Sweatshirt’s Hive music video where the images of nature’s perverse qualities, an important component of the Southern Gothic style, are manifested throughout by brief, verging on subliminal, images such as the two dogs getting it on in the middle of a desolate street. The visuals in these music videos are reminiscent of the grotesque and paranormal imagery in the classic Southern Gothic, but they recast the images in today’s world.
TV and film are also huge players in the Southern Gothic revival. This is due in part because the south, especially Louisiana and North Carolina, offer massive tax breaks and incentives for film crews, making the region a more prevalent setting. Television shows such as True Detectives which depicts occult killings in rural Louisiana and True Bloods which pits vampires in small town Louisiana epitomize the new Southern Gothic. Strange tales of horror set against failed bureaucracies, such as a state police department that still answers to evangelical leaders, and unsustainable or otherwise doomed institutions.
Films such as Mud set in Arkansas and Beasts of the Southern Wild set in Louisiana are contemporary examples of the strange mysticism, a kind magical realism if you will, that permeates Southern Gothic literature. Their events, characters, and setting aren’t necessarily out of the realm of possibility, but like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County the places and their inhabitants don’t seem entirely of our world.
Along with all these serious revivals the Southern Gothic is being parodied more frequently. We are seeing this aesthetic, as a classic cliché, being played upon and made light of more and more. As silly of examples as they might be, contemporary B movies like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, where the main villains are a society of vampires living in mansions on decaying plantations or Tucker & Dale VS Evil which creates a comedic flip of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s expectations. Movies like these are important as any valid movement needs a satire of itself.
Now I’m just hoping that the literary world follows suit on a wider range. I’m sure there are some works that are using and advancing this style, I just honestly don’t read enough contemporary fiction. If anyone reading this blog knows of any current authors who are writing in this style please leave me some comments or links to their stories or titles. All in all, I’m excited to see the resurgence of a literary aesthetic and the writing that it will create, like the eerie possibility of A Rose for Emily set in the era of Instagram!