As a child growing up in Texas, I devoured my grandparents’ tales of Louisiana and Mississippi along with the biscuits and grits. I also swallowed the bitter taste of family conflicts and homegrown dramatic tensions. Escaping into storytelling, like so many future writers, I dreamed of one day holding my published novels and of witnessing my plays on stage, but thought myself handicapped by not being from somewhere exciting such as New York or Paris. Still, I persevered, and some of my writing dreams have since come true —though not by my turning away from my uneasy beginnings. When I turned back, found the courage to peer into the dark corners and let myself be lured into them by the Southern Gothic, then I discovered my voice and my audience.
Gothic literature earned its name, in part, because of the settings it favors—the gothic architecture of labyrinthine castles and crumbling manor houses—enclosing worlds haunted by madness and monstrosity. How easily traditional gothic atmosphere moves, like a restless spirit over marshland, into the Southern Gothic settings of decaying plantation mansions and ravaged landscapes. The antebellum social order echoes the feudal order, and the Lost Cause becomes the protest of power thwarted. Traditional gothic characters such as the patriarchal tyrant and demonic female become the plantation master and the eccentric lady, who cover their respective cruelty and perversion with a sense of entitlement or a genteel veneer.
The sin under the surface, the subtext of evil, is an inextricable part of all gothic tales. In Victorian gothic stories, the conflict between the good and the wicked might be enacted between stock characters—heroes and villains—or dramatized with “doubles” or revealed within a single tormented soul, most famously, by Dr. Jekyll and his other self, Mr. Hyde. While some traditional gothic literature may turn to strange science or the supernatural to raise anxiety in its audience, the Southern Gothic creates a mounting sense of unease by exploring the grotesque in the natural world and exposing the horror beneath the ordinary, revealing the sin and perhaps the saving grace. In my historical novel, Women of Magdalene, the plantation mansion is transformed into the Magdalene Ladies’ Lunatic Asylum, which, as an idealist young doctor discovers, is run by a madman. In my writing, I find the monster in the closet is rascism and the monster under the bed is misogyny. Doubles, indeed, lurking in shadow and hiding behind custom. Even so, I lift my guttering candle and follow the Southern gothic down another dark corridor.