10 Fantasy Books Steeped in the Southern Gothic

Craig DeLouie’s new novel One of Us, out now from Orbit Books, is a dark fantasy tale that plays out against the backdrop of a plague-changed Huntsville, Georgia in 1984. Today. the author joins us to talk about how the novel fits into the tradition of Southern Gothic, and provides you with a reading list of his favorites in the genre.

With its powerful themes and titillating use of the grotesque, Southern Gothic has a venerable literary tradition that today offers fertile ground for a fun, pulpy, atmospheric brand of dark fantasy.

The roots of Southern Gothic’s trace back to the Gothic movement in Victorian England, giving us works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and later stories like Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Southern Gothic adopted the tradition and made it distinctly American, from authors like Harper Lee and Donald Ray Pollock to Rough South writers like Cormac McCarthy. Popular themes include complex and deeply flawed characters, the grotesque, a society in decay, and social issues such as prejudice and poverty.

In these stories, the mansions are in ruins, the past looms over the present, and the larger-than-life residents aren’t quite right in the head. Repressed desires threaten to burst in lust, violence, and other taboo acts. Magic, the supernatural, and the Devil himself may haunt the swamps. An atmosphere of mystery and history pervade the earthy setting. A big lie may be lived or challenged.

In my view, mixing Southern Gothic with fantasy isn’t so much a mash-up as a natural fit. The genre is highly adaptable to the grotesque, whether it be monsters, ghosts, demons, or any other fantasy or magical realism element. Its themes are powerful and universal, its settings brooding and atmospheric, its dialogue spiced with wit and wisdom passed down through generations.

Dark fantasy and magical realism elements are made even greater and more believable in their contrast against the earthy setting, people who are ordinary but also larger-than-life, and a mundane rural/small town world.

When I was considering writing my monster novel One of Us, the Southern Gothic style begged for a treatment. The novel is about a disease that produces a generation of monsters now growing up scorned and rejected in orphanages throughout the rural South in 1984. While monstrous in appearance, they have the hearts and minds of teenaged children.

As they grow up oppressed, they begin to develop extraordinary abilities that will allow them to revolt and claim their birthright, recalling themes from The Island of Dr. Moreau and Planet of the Apes.

The story, which focuses on an ensemble cast including the monster children and the residents of the nearby town, explores prejudice, generational conflict, and what makes a monster a monster. It features complex characters and dark elements such as transgressive desires, social decay, and the grotesque. The main focus is on the major characters’ humanity, whether monster or not.

The novel was a heck of a lot of fun to write, and I hope it’s as fun to read.

If you’ve got an appetite for Southern Gothic with a strong genre flavor, you can also try these other works, which tackle similar themes from different angles.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest
Eden traces her diseased family tree across the South and back in time to the Civil War, where her investigation leads to a supernatural climax.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Sethe escapes slavery and is now haunted by memories of the horrifying plantation she escaped and the ghost of her dead baby “Beloved”—until a teenaged girl appears with the same name.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Ava, a 13-year-old girl growing up in an alligator-wrestling theme park, must make a magical journey to save her family when its matriarch falls ill.

Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice
Louis, a vampire, shares his 200-year-long life story to a reporter, a story that begins in 1790s New Orleans.

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
In 1849, a boy joins a scalp hunting gang whose spiritual leader (the Judge) may be God or the Devil, taking him through a hellish Wild West landscape filled with violence.

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, by Emily Carpenter
Fresh from rehab, Althea goes home to learn a terrifying secret—that for three generations, the women in her family have gone mad and died after turning thirty—forcing her on a trek to unravel the mystery before her looming birthday.

What Blooms from Dust ,by James Markert
Facing the electric chair, Jeremiah is given a second chance at life but on his way home to Nowhere, Oklahoma, he discovers a world that has been overtaken by the Dust Bowl. To save his despairing town, he must learn to forgive himself for his past’s sins and secrets.

Compulsion, by Martina Boone
Barrie travels to live at her aunt’s South Carolina mansion to discover an ancient spirit cursed her family while giving magical gifts to the area’s two other leading families, putting them all at odds. Hunted by unseen forces, she must find a way to break the curse.

With its roots in English Gothic, Southern Gothic fiction endures as its own unique fictional flavor. Often over the top in their delivery and sophisticated in their themes, these stories titillate. For fans of Southern Gothic or fantasy lit who alike seek something fresh, Southern Gothic fantasy offers a distinctive and fun read.

One of Us is available now.

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