In case you’re unfamiliar with the genre, Southern Gothic books are a sub-genre of the gothic novel, which focuses on death, horror, and sometimes romance—AKA every topic humanity is biologically programmed to care about.
The Southern gothic, though, takes place in the American South, specifically, but there’s so much more that the regionalism entails than just its geography. It has all the components of Gothic novels, but it also addresses poverty, alienation, crime, or violence. The causes of these topics are more readily evident in the South than in other regions: its history gives the American South these qualities, and it breeds grotesque settings and eccentric characters through its very nature. Southern Gothic novels contain all of these elements, and here are some of the best Southern Gothic book examples, both classic and contemporary.
While Southern Gothic has a way of making you question reality, let’s get a grip on what the genre’s really like by reviewing ten of its stand-out works.
Published in 1936, many consider Absalom, Absalom! to be William Faulkner’s magnum opus — including Faulkner himself, who remarked, “I think it’s the best novel yet written by an American.” (Tell us how you really feel, Will!)
The novel centers around Thomas Sutpen, who grew up in a poor family in backwoods Appalachia. One day, a formative experience sets a life goal ablaze in him: to be wealthy. And when he marries into a respectable family, his journey to achieving that goal begins. But extremes can be devastating, and Thomas’s overweening ambition and his need to control everything around him bring about the ruin of his family and himself.
This self-proclaimed masterpiece is one of Faulkner’s most challenging novels to read: it’s told in fragmented accounts from various narrators, all with their own unique perspectives and biases. Some of the narrators look back on American Southern history with pride in its many enduring traditions, while others look back with horror over its legacy of slavery. This narrative style asks one of the story’s main questions: how well can we really know the past — and who’s version do we believe most? Read More.
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Depicting the life of a black woman living in turn-of-the-century Florida, the book was published in 1937 by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. Due to adverse audience reactions to a black female protagonist, the book remained out of print for almost four decades, until 1978. It’s now a highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
The protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie Mae Crawford, who spends much her life feeling voiceless as she struggles to take control over her own destiny. At 16, Janie’s grandmother arranges for her to marry Logan Hicks — an old farmer looking for a wife (but who’s definition of a “wife” is more like a domestic server he can boss around). Lonely and disillusioned with the notion of marriage, Janie runs away from Logan with Joe Starks. At first, Joe appears to be her husband’s opposite, with ambitions to become mayor of Eatonville so he can put Janie on a pedestal. But it eventually becomes clear that Joe also intends for Janie to simply fulfill a role in his life: that of an obedient trophy wife. An often joyless twenty-year marriage ends with Joe’s death, and Janie meeting a young drifter called Tea Cake. Initially, Tea Cake and Janie share a passionate love affair. But he also becomes possessive of Janie in the end, and she is eventually forced to take her life into her own hands.
As Janie looks back on her life, satisfying the “oldest human longing—self-revelation,” readers not only join Janie as she discovers who she is, they also glimpse the complicated dynamics of relationships, and the slow and steady blossoming of true love: the love Janie finds for herself. Read More.
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Another example of a prodigious debut: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was 23-year old Carson McCullers’ first published novel, and was met with instant and widespread acclaim.
It opens on John Singer, a deaf-mute, who’s similarly deaf-mute roommate has just been committed to an asylum. Now living a lonesome existence in a mill town deep in the south of 1930’s Georgia, John encounters a motley crew of new companions who take a liking to him. This cast of characters includes: a tomboyish girl eager to grow up and start her music career, the observant owner of the cafe Singer eats at daily, an angry drunk, and an idealistic but disheartened African-American doctor. All four end up visiting John regularly for the comfort he provides as a silent confidant.
The book explores a number of themes: the fetters attached to the American working class, racial injustice, loss of innocence, loneliness — all are common themes in Southern Gothic, and they all get their due attention. But at its core, the novel is about human connection and the deep desire to be truly seen and understood by another person. Read More.
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Southern Gothic stories often use their settings to evoke images of times gone by — and the genre’s favorite image just might be an old house that once held a sense of grandeur but now feels haunted by the past. This trope describes, to a T, the setting of Other Voices, Other Rooms, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel by (an only twenty-three year old) Truman Capote.
After his mother dies, thirteen-year old Joel Knox moves from New Orleans to Skully’s Landing, a decaying mansion on an isolated Alabama plantation. He’s meant to be living with his father, but when Joel arrives, the man is nowhere to be found. Instead, he meets a diverse cast of other characters, including: his acrimonious stepmother Amy; Amy’s gay brother Randolph; a young and stubborn tomboy called Idabel; and Jesus and Zoo, the home’s caretakers. But where is his father, and why is he hiding?
Inspired by a walk in the woods that Capote took while living in Monroeville, Alabama, the novel explores lost innocence, and, as Capote said himself, a young and lonely boy’s search for “a father who, in the deepest sense, was nonexistent.” Read More.
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Not many authors boast a debut novel that is also considered a classic of twentieth-century literature — apart from Flannery O’Connor, that is. Wise Blood follows Haze Motes, a young man battling against his own faith. When he decides he wants to separate himself from the church and become an atheist, he begins acting in a decidedly commandment-adverse way. He also starts his own anti-religion called “The Church of God Without Christ.” But Haze’s fight to not be a “certain kind of person” threatens to turn him into the most extreme version of what he’s trying to escape.