Consider an ornate European cathedral, corniced with dark, mossy stone and catching the distant sun in its multicoloured panes. Walk through the vaulted entranceway, pausing at the ancient staircase winding up to the unseen choir house and echoing with the hymns of ages. The image in your mind is probably as close as you can come to a physical realization of the Gothic, from the dark beams above the pews to the towering spires. Victor Hugo made this symbol the haunt of Quasimodo, Stoker chose to lock up his blood-sucking creation in its many corridors; it’s a symbol as familiar to those who read and enjoy cinema as the three-act structure. Yet this Gothic we know and have loved for decades, near centuries, is not the only one of its kind. The tempestuous moors of Wuthering Heights and the pale damsels locked in dungeons are not the undying symbols of this genre, rather they are the symbols of one side of a Gothic cube.
Southern Gothic has its roots firmly in the antebellum tumult of the post-civil war South, with elements of its grotesque, haunting caricatures beginning to appear most prominent at the turn of the 20th century. Greats like Faulkner began to build their literary homesteads in the far reaches of the South, beneath the yawning willows that curtain the Mississippi. Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, the latter of which locates firmly in the writing tradition that Faulkner left behind, all found themselves tracing the less trodden paths of Appalachia in search of the Southern myths and legends. There has always been an otherness about the Deep South, something that we cannot easily place. Cult films like Harmony Korine’s Gummo embrace the surreal, nightmarish landscape of nameless, backwater towns that have become the almost druidic temples to the Gothic in the heartland of America, and Korine pays homage by negating all narrative properness in favor of nihilistic vignettes and grainy voice-overs. Of course, the genre of strange, mythic dwellings in swamps and of old truck engines idling at lonely gas stations was immortalized forever in 1971 with the release of Deliverance. A classic of cinema, Deliverance managed to take four men of the world, or normal suburban life, and strip them of their American dreams in the primordial hollows of the South.
Of course it is true that humans by their very nature have an attraction to the odd, to the unsettling, and we make it our prerogative to unearth the darkness beneath the topsoil of civilization and hold in our hands the relics of another world. Cormac McCarthy, mentioned above, is the greatest living advocate of this Southern excavation, with all of his books possessing an unnerving sense of dread and ancient evil. His readers crave that hypothetical descent into madness; they crave the pulling back of the low hanging branch that bars the grottos of the South from the rest of society. His second novel Outer Dark, arguably where the inception of McCarthy’s horrific accounts of Southern life is found, included a story of incest and child abandonment in the foothills of the South-East. Images of babies having their throats slit and large-grinned rednecks placing their cartoonish faces into the outpour are the startling images of McCarthy’s watercolour South that we can never forget. No author has captured such a primeval sense of alienation in the South as McCarthy and no author has held up the lives that wander the lonely Southern woods with a smile and called them kin. We are not invited by McCarthy into the South, we are dragged there with our finger marks tracing through the soil the entire way.
A more apt and contemporary study of the Southern Gothic has been shown in HBO’s True Detective, from the mind of Nic Pizzolatto, which explores all the elements above described within the blurred parameters of crime investigation. In my opinion, True Detective is one of the greatest eight episodes of television ever made, and its Southern Gothic foundations are inextricably a part of that success. The acting of McConaughey and Harrelson capture the innate struggles of modern humankind, from the adulterous nature of Harrelson’s Marty to the antinatalist pessimism of McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. In the unlikely pairing, one that is fraught with tension and animosity, we are given two tour guides through the Southern Gothic idylls. “This place is like someone’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading.” This is Cohle’s comment on the South, on the innumerable towns and byways that are anchored in place by rusting off-ramp signs with decade-old population figures. The show’s central plot arc, following the detectives over a period of 17 years, is archetypal of the genre, with cults and unintelligible runes becoming the unmistakable symbols of a Southern Gothic tale. This latest offering by HBO undeniably brings audiences closer to the heartland of this fabular genre, showing us the blackened arteries of literature and cinema in the raw, exposed light of the South.
We see now that the European church is a redundant, inaccurate symbol for describing the horrors and mysteries of the Southern Gothic; it is too familiar, to civilized. Substitute the beautiful architecture of that continent for a Southern plain, landmarked by sage and old wire fence posts, and the image begins to accurately reform. Transmute the impressive spires of Notre-Dame for the whitewashed clapboards of a Southern Baptist church, impressive to no one save the God-fearing and the wayward tourist. This is the symbol of the South, of the Southern Gothic; a lonely church in the middle of an empty field, rotting around the edges, its wooden panels peeling back and revealing a dark grin to all of America and beyond.