I knew I was in love with southern gothic stories before I even finished the opening sentence of the first one I'd ever picked up: "When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house," writes William Faulkner in "A Rose for Emily." See what I mean? I might go so far as to say this genre literally changed my life, a fittingly dramatic but true statement since it really catalyzed my love of reading and writing.
Indeed, southern gothic stories show us what we can do with words—how narrative and language stretch our interior and external worlds. They involve all things heavy, from the damp, oppressive heat of the region to the weight of a violent history, which creates a compelling backdrop for damaged protagonists and family dramas. Say it with us: The bleaker the better.
If you, too, take a morbid delight in histrionics, history, satire, and dark humor, you're going to want to add the following books to your shelf. These southern gothic novels are everything you'd look for in an enriching and entertaining read. Prepare to be moved to chills of all varieties, including those that flare up from beauty and distress.
How good is this title, though? Defying the prophecy of his deceased evangelist and prophet uncle, 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater struggles to understand his relationship with the faith that was instilled in him from birth while being introduced to the outside "modern world" for the first time. Though it definitely feels like a dismal coming-of-age tragedy at times, there's also a very earnest pursuit of truth, justice, and growth in The Violent Bear It Away.
A Taste of the Tone: "The world was made for the dead. Think of all the dead there are…There's a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Bastard Out of Carolina
You know those books you've had for decades and can barely even read them anymore because the margins are so full of scrawling annotations? This is mine, and it's very near and dear to my heart (and I'm definitely not alone, considering that it's number six on Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century).
Meet the Compson family as they wrestle with the decay of their former aristocratic status and get to Faulkner's fictional town of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which endures a similar dissolution. Each chapter is narrated by a different Compson family member, giving each one a unique tone and style, ranging from a stream of consciousness to traditional omniscient narration. The sprawling sentences seem to go on forever and quite literally take your breath away.
A Taste of the Tone: "I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. "
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: As I Lay Dying
If you prefer contemporary horror writing with a historical spin, try Little Sister Death. It's about a young writer struggling from writer's block until he decides to go get some inspiration from an old ghost story from the American South (much like the real-life legend of the Bell Witch, the antagonist in a 19th-century Tennessee folktale that may or may not be true). Though it can be read as a horror novel, it clearly has roots in the southern gothic genre, delving into a violent, cruel history with deeply disturbed characters.
A Taste of the Tone: "He was seized with longing so intense it ached in his chest, he wanted it always to keep, to drag out secretly and study it like a yellowed photograph, and he thought I am home, this is me, this is where I have been rambling down to all these years."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: The Kestrel Waters
Known for her gothic fantasies and perfect conjurings of bygone eras, Anne Rice crafts an intelligent, gripping, and moving thriller with Interview With a Vampire. Set in New Orleans in the 1700s, a vampire's first-person confessions are at once haunting, philosophically enlightening, and erotic. It's an easy favorite. Once you finish reading it, watch the movie adaptation, which stars Brad Pitt.
A Taste of the Tone: "Like all strong people, she suffered always a measure of loneliness; she was a marginal outsider, a secret infidel of a certain sort."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Everything about this screenplay is hot: the setting, the characters, the plot, and the language. Even reading the title out loud makes you tap your tongue—and not always in an uplifting way. Indeed, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is bubbling with such intense passion that it becomes a tinderbox. After you read it, watch the movie version, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman (the ultimate Hollywood pair).
A Taste of the Tone: "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?—I wish I knew… Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can…"
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: A Streetcar Named Desire
If you've already read Beloved in school, it's time to pick it back up for a second go. Indeed, this unforgettable ghost story is so much more than just a ghost story. It reveals the ways in which slavery's legacy maintains a strong, haunting presence throughout the Reconstruction era and into the present. It also emphasizes the transformative but undefinable power of romantic, maternal, and internal love.
A Taste of the Tone: "There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind—wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: The Historian
If you want to get a taste of McCullers's style but you don't want to commit to her longer-form seminal novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, start with this novella instead. It's about a woman who inadvertently ends up running a café in a small town that serves as a makeshift gathering place for the community. As the story unfolds, the "sad" part of the cafe in the title becomes apparent, highlighting themes of cruel redemption, isolation, loneliness, and heartbreak.
A Taste of the Tone: "And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being loved is intolerable to many."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Other Voices, Other Rooms
And here O'Connor goes again with the home-run titles. When interviewed about the directive behind this short story, she said, "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal." As with all her work, you can expect the perfect combination of dark imagery, satire, and humor.
A Taste of the Tone: "She would have to be a saint because that was the occupation that included everything you could know; and yet she knew she would never be a saint… but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Wise Blood
Hear's another must-read from the author who brought us On the Road. Like most of his work, Cormac McCarthy paints a palpable image of normal everyday life but against the backdrop of terrible violence and misery. Specifically, Child of God is about a serial killing necrophiliac (another common theme in southern gothics) wreaking havoc in Appalachia. Though the themes are definitely not for the faint of heart, the first-person narration makes it a digestible, entertaining read.
A Taste of the Tone: "A malign star kept him."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: James Dickey's Deliverance
Carson McCullers's groundbreaking book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter isn't just about love, it's about the absence of it that makes us feel dreadfully alone and alien. She poses questions that nail this sense of loneliness, asking us things like, "When a person knows and can't make the others understand, what does he do?" Another example is when she describes the protagonist as feeling like she has been cheated, "Only nobody had cheated her. So there was nobody to take it out on."
So while it's all about that dreaded feeling of disconnection and the fear that it will last forever, this book might actually make you feel a little less alone in that emotion. Clearly, someone else has felt it before, too. Unsurprisingly, she's also the author who coined the term "stranger in a strange land," even in the most familiar places.
A Taste of the Tone: "The Heart is a lonely hunter with only one desire! To find some lasting comfort in the arms of another's fire…driven by a desperate hunger to the arms of a neon light, the heart is a lonely hunter when there's no sign of love in sight!"
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: And the Ass Saw the Angel
Some of the best true crime nonfiction reporting ever, In Cold Blood is a must-read. Truman Capote crafts a spine-chilling book about the 1959 murder of the Clutter family, which was carried out while they slept in their home in rural Kansas. But rather than depicting the crime as the main action, he uncovers the psychological and social backgrounds of the two men who carried out this supposedly motive-less homicide.
A Taste of the Tone: "Imagination, of course, can open any door—turn the key and let terror walk right in."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Wicked Temper
An opulent mansion guarded by a sharp black iron fence and cloaked in Savannah's morning mist is the ideal backdrop for a mystery. Indeed, some believe the setting foreshadowed its transformation from an idyllic place to one of dread and decay. In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt weaves together a colorful cast of characters emblematic of the Old South who piece together the murder of Danny Hansford by Jim Williams, an antique dealer, and preservationist who embodies the twisted romanticization and nostalgia of something sinister. The book asks how a place shapes our perceptions of violent acts.
A Taste of the Tone: "Savannah's resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Provinces of Night
Here's another contemporary hit that's perfect for anyone who prefers new releases. In Swamplandia!, there are more than just alligators lurking beneath the murky surface of the Everglades. Karen Russell creates a magical world in which her protagonist, Ava, grows up in a theme park in the Florida Everglades. It traces her adventures as her family begins to unravel. With its magical realism, clever humor (the rival theme park is called The World of Darkness), and buoyant, energetic language, Russell's story will captivate you.
A Taste of the Tone: "The beginning of the end can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Evil and innocence, heartbreak and strength, and past and present converge in Donna Tart's epic novel, The Little Friend. It's about a young girl who sets out to uncover the killer behind the murder of her brother 12 years prior. He was found hanging from a tree in the front yard at just nine years old, and it's been unsolved ever since. It's a bone-chilling, gripping, and enlighting read, to say the very least.
A Taste of the Tone: "All her grace was in her vagueness. Her voice was soft, her manner languid, her features blurred and dreamy."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: To Kill a Mockingbird
Here's another tour-de-force about the Compson family history. Each chapter tells the same basic story but from a different narrator's perspective, so we learn the epic tale of one man's demise, but sort of as an allegory of the Old South. Some literary theorists believe that Absalom, Absalom! is an attempt to explain the main action and drama in The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner also explores the meaninglessness of the common traditions we continue to honor simply because we've inherited them, how storytelling and gossip warp everything, and the legacy of violence in everyday life.
In fact, it's so full of rich insight that you could just open the book to a random page, pick a sentence to re-read for the rest of your life and still learn something and find some new beautiful takeaway (but you'll want to keep reading to unpack the mystery).
A Taste of the Tone: "Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm."
There's More Where That Came From… Next Up: Welding With Children