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The Southern Gothic is a genre that, unlike its European antecedent, roots its hauntings directly in the barbarism of slavery, the repercussions of abolition, and America’s relationship with its troubling history. It typically looks at where the white institution abuses its power, brutal realities of racism coupled with supernatural horrors: ghosts of the enslaved in decaying plantations, or racist preachers in seamy swamp towns. But with American police now being recognised as an institution steeped in a racist history, and present, it seems the time for the Southern Gothic to adapt and revive.

It is not that the Southern Gothic has not reappeared in recent years: Jennifer Clement’s 2018 novel Gun Love was set amongst Floridian trailer parks and Mexican motels, a move away from traditional Southern Gothic into a world where Trump’s America demonises border crossing, and the very existence of Black and brown bodies. Evidently the Southern Gothic is still quite able to adapt to a new American horror and racism, it now needs to encompass the evident antiblackness ingrained in its culture.

"The present seems to speak directly to the American Gothic, to demand art in dialogue with Black Lives Matter"

With the resurgence in lynching, the mass protests, and a deadly plague that disproportionately affects black people, the present seems to speak directly to the American Gothic, to demand art in dialogue with Black Lives Matter, an assertion that certainly needs greater presence in a genre so bloody and so white. The toppling of confederate statues besmeared with protest-red paint seems an image torn directly from McCullers, the senseless shootings of innocents a topic fit for Berendt.

If the Southern Gothic seeks out a white institution to force to confront its troubling history (plantations in Faulkner; White townships in Welty; the Church in O’Connor) then the police is the ideal institution to target. The police are not alien to the genre - the success of the HBO series, True Detective highlighting the failings of American police departments - yet even this failed to fully confront American racism, focusing instead on masculinity and religious abuses of power. It seems almost wilfully blind to the obvious racist implications of policing in the American South.

To look at the cohort of Southern Gothic authors we see the white—O’Conner, Williams, Capote, Faulkner—greatly outnumber the Black—notably Jesmyn Ward, and Toni Morrison, the latter even rejecting the genre. What is an ostensibly white written genre, deals often heavy-handedly with Black narratives; even here, I am a white man writing an article on literature that arguably appeals to white guilt as a means of speaking with the oppressed, but often verges dangerously into speaking over.

Morrison’s distaste for being associated with the genre (‘I am not like Faulkner. I am not like in that sense’) seems to be because though the Southern Gothic aims to be a genre used to unabashedly confront white oppressors with their shameful past, in actuality it focuses less on giving voice to the Black characters experiencing racism, and more on vilifying the white perpetrators. This is an important job of writing, of course, but not at the expense of speaking over marginalized narratives and assuaging the guilt of the oppressors. It needs to take more care not to centre the discussion of Black lives, around white sensitivities.

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This side-lining of Black narratives is potent in O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, a short story written in the light of integration. O’Connor frequently speaks through the voices of racists to mock them, in this case a mother and son on an integrated bus. The son chastises his mother for her racist assumptions and fears about the Black riders, yet despite his derision, he internally harbours a jealousy for his late grandfather’s money, made through slavery.

It is a short story that, though written sixty five years ago, feels disappointingly current, with the hypocrisy of modern white allyship, and the performativity of purported white allies who still are reluctant to give up their privilege. The son wants to bring a Black woman home, not out of any desire for equality but simply to shock his mother: this nameless Black woman, along with many Black narratives in the Southern Gothic, becomes an accessory to white narratives in the genre.

The Southern Gothic works because its fictional institutions are implicit in their racism

The current relevance of the Southern Gothic, and its relation to BLM, is apparent too in Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first novel. The young protagonist finds a mildewed plantation bell a century after emancipation; though slavery is long over, its effects still survive, with ability to ring out. This survivability of voices is an intensely American Gothic trope and is evoked even now through the murder of George Floyd: ‘I Can’t Breathe’ is emblazoned on cardboard signs and chanted at protests, allowing Floyd to speak on somewhat, after his death.

And yet, I am hesitant to say that the genre can make something of the present state. The Southern Gothic works because its fictional institutions are implicit in their racism: wealthy white families deny their racism, and therefore are reminded by the ghosts of those they enslaved, for example. They are punished for their complicity through the supernatural manifestations of the horrors their privilege is built on. But when the nation becomes so blatantly and unapologetically racist, when the system itself is proudly anti-Black, the Gothic has nothing to play off; there is no nuance, no denial, just blatant hatred and violence, and absolutely no shame for it.


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If the Southern Gothic seeks to create a grotesque of its country, then America’s present is too real, too potent, too absurd, too bloody, to caricature. Despot presidents, followers with cultish devotion and unabashed pride in their racism are too surreal, even by the standards of the genre. In short, it is too horrific even for the horrors of the gothic.