‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ – William Faulkner
To me there is nothing better than Southern Gothic Horror…on Halloween or any day. To quote 11 Southern Gothic novels every horror fan needs to read (southernthing.com), “In the world of the Southern Gothic, the Deep South is a deeply weird and haunted place: one of tumbledown mansions sinking into swamps, wild-eyed snake handling preachers, mad dog killers, restless spirits, old families with dark secrets, and closets full to bursting with skeletons. It’s spooky stuff …”
And don’t forget the dark. In the dark Southerners embrace darker themes. Throw in a bit of Voodoo or Hoodoo, ghostly strands of Spanish moss hanging from fog shrouded cypress trees, the sounds of what might be tortured slaves carried by the breeze, you get the idea. Much has to do with our suspect history.
It might ‘be in your face’ horror but much of it is subtle ala Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. In some there is violent horror, in others it is the plot and flawed character development that makes the horror. They are scary but not scary like Michael Myers ‘slasher’ scary. Still, there is usually violence in a rural setting even if it is the mental or emotional type.
Who can forget the immortal words in Deliverance, “Squeal like a pig?” Thank you, James Dickey, or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote…I know it took place in Kansas, but it fits. I mean having your brains blown out by a shotgun held inches from your face is horrific. I don’t know if non-fiction can be Southern Gothic but there’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. It takes place in Savannah and yes, I know, Berendt is a ‘damn Yankee.’ Like all good novels, these were made into good movies.
I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with Gothic Horror, specifically Southern Gothic Horror. That would be June 6, 1961. It was a Monday night in front of a black and white TV. I watched and listened to a lisping Boris Karloff introduce this week’s Thriller episode, “Pigeon’s from Hell.” Murder by ax, Voodoo, Zombies, the Blassenville family with a closet full of skeletons…literally and figuratively, all with bad Southern accents dripping from the screen like Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees.
A pair of New Englanders find themselves lost, stuck up to the axles of their ’56 Ford in the middle of a Southern piney woods. The light is quickly failing over a dilapidated Southern mansion sitting at the end of an overgrown drive. The brothers discuss what to do and decide to spend the night in the abandoned mansion. Never an intelligent move if you are familiar with Southern Gothic.
I jumped when the character, Johnny Banner, is caught in a spooked flock of pigeons, pigeons that represent the lost souls murdered in earlier days. Later, I hid my eyes when the same character attempts to split his brother Timothy’s skull with a hatchet. He does this after having had his own skull split by persons or “things” unknown.
Many years later I would read the short story with the same title the TV episode drew from. It was written by pulp fiction icon and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard. The story was published posthumously in Weird Tales, a fantasy and horror magazine in 1938. Despite “Thirties noir speak,” it is a good short story and a better story line than the TV version.
There is something baleful about abandoned Southern mansions, with or without pigeons or Zombies. Doors and shutters hanging askew, broken windowpanes, paint peeling to expose the silver of many layers of whitewash underneath, old chimneys collapsing under their own weight. Columns…one can almost hear the voices of the dead and abused in the breeze especially if you have an active eleven-year-old imagination…even an active seventy-two-year-old imagination. Old mansions…why do people always run up the stairs trying to escape? Do they expect to grow wings?
I hope none of you have outgrown celebrating Halloween and accept with glee the little ghost and goblins that will come calling. I don’t live in a mansion; I live in a one hundred- and twenty-year-old farmhouse that sits midway up the side of a tree-covered hill. We don’t have a swamp or Spanish moss swaying in the fog but in the thirty-five Halloweens we have lived here, we have not had one trick or treater. We do have the ghosts of the four families who lived here but no vampires or Zombies that I know of.
Still, Happy Halloween to you all.
I have released a new novel, Thunder Along the Copperhead. Not Gothic horror, it is a historical romance with plenty of history of the depression year of 1933. An almost destitute farm woman, a damaged World War One veteran who moonshines on the side are the primary characters. Please help a struggling author by downloading or purchasing it in paperback. Thanks, I know you will.