COMPULSION, on the other hand, is not subtly Southern Gothic. I went there. I embraced my favorite over-the-top Southern Gothic elements and then I twisted them.
So what makes a Southern Gothic? Well, the famed Southern author Pat Conroy, who I’m suddenly reminded once offered to read back when it never occurred to me that I would ever write a Southern book, provided my favorite definition of the genre.
“My mother, Southern to the bone,” he said in a speech to the American Booksellers Association, “once told me, 'All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.'”
Got all that? :) That definition gives you almost all the elements: setting, eccentric characters, grotesquerie, and a voice that seeks a bit of light amid the darkness.
Let’s break it down a little more. The elements of a Southern Gothic include:
A Southern setting that becomes a character in the book. That takes more than looming cypress trees hung with Spanish moss, decaying mansions, and seemingly friendly neighbors who aren’t what they seem. A great setting in any book has to show us somewhere new and unique, or something familiar from a fresh perspective. That place must contain specific values and characteristics that impact the people who live there and change them for better or for worse. Most importantly, the setting in a Southern Gothic creates the plot by forcing the need for change upon the characters.
Deeply flawed, damaged, bigger-than-life characters with a heaping dose of crazy. The purpose of these characters isn’t simply to create sympathy for the innocent heroine who has to live with their misdeeds. Nor is it just because nearly every Southern family has a crazy uncle Bobby Joe in the woodpile or the county jail. These characters are broken, and for the most part, they’re finding their way through their lives and navigating among the people around them as best they can. Their flaws and poor choices serve to highlight questions of morality, gender roles, inequality, corruption, violence, racism, poverty versus wealth, and other weaknesses in society.
An innocent plunged into the mix. Because the genre derives from the pure gothic genre, there is usually an innocent: a young woman, young man, child, or outsider who serves to examine, heal, and redeem. By virtue of being different, new, or innocent, she is the catalyst for the change required as the result of the physical, environmental, moral, or societal weakness imposed by the setting.
Powerful family histories, traditions, myths, folklore, and perhaps a bit of magic that serve up unique, supernatural, or ironic events. These derive from the setting and the deeply torn history of the South itself, the push and pull of pride and shame, of love for the past and the need to escape it. This in turn created the characters, which in turn feeds the process of change.
Narrative choices that add humor, lightness, or irony to play against the darkness. I went with swoony romance and a dramatic style, and I love the freedom within this genre that lets me play with extremes. But the range of options writers choose for this element of the Southern Gothic is among the widest. You get gorgeous writing, or very sparse prose. There's the tongue-in-cheek narrator, or one with a subtle hint of humor. There's the gamut from Poe, to Faulkner, to Conroy, to Eudora Welty.
I love that a wealth of Southern Gothic tradition is developing in young adult literature. And just as young adult authors have stretched the boundaries with every other genre, there are many different flavors of Southern Gothic evolving.
In COMPULSION, I lean toward a star-crossed romance with a mix of magical realism and outright fantasy. Maggie Stiefvater expertly blended Southern Gothic elements with Welsh mythology and romanticism to create a complex examination of friendship, wealth, and poverty. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl build an elaborate paranormal world and a memorable romance in their BEAUTIFUL CREATURES series. Melissa Marr created a heart-pounding Southern Gothic thriller in her upcoming MADE FOR YOU, and Delilah S. Dawson and Natalie S. Parker are leaning toward chilling horror in SERVANTS OF THE STORM and BEWARE THE WILD.
It’s a fabulous fall y’all. Are you looking forward to heading down South?
PREVIOUS GIVEAWAY WINNER
Congrats to Debra Chavana for winning HEXED by Michelle Krys
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