Today, I have as guest blogger D. Alexander Ward, whose latest book is Beneath Ash and Bone. He is blogging about Gothic done Southern style for Supernatural Friday. Welcome him and enjoy his post.
When someone uses the term “Gothic,” we all know what they’re talking about, right?
It conjures up a great many things that we have seen, watched, or read. Everything from the arches and gargoyles perched on the ledges of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to the barren and windswept moors of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and the ubiquitous, Mary Shelley-esque manor house or castle, with candlelit windows, set against a sky cracked by lightning.
Born out of the Romanticism, these notions and images that represent the Gothic are very true to their European origins.
But like any American Southerner will tell you, “We don’t care how y’all do it _________.”
Now, usually we fill in that blank with the words “up North” but in this case I’m going to say “across the pond.”
The Gothic, as reimagined by Southern writers, has a long and complex history that I won’t attempt to address here. I don’t want to get into the whys and the wherefores of it, but let’s see if we can at least identify it and some of the places it has shown up. And, finally, I’ll share a little bit about how I infused my latest novel, Beneath Ash and Bone with it.
It’s impossible to address the Southern Gothic without talking about Flannery O’Connor. Her fiction—and some of the best Southern Gothic fiction, if you ask me—also often includes some of the finest examples of transgressive fiction, where we are concerned not with the “betters” of society and their lives but with the people that exist on the edges of polite society and who feel encumbered or restrained by its tenets. Early Cormac McCarthy novels, such as Outer Dark and Child of God are fine and classical examples of the Southern Gothic.
Quite simply, where the Gothic tradition as exported from Europe tended to shine a light on the lives and troubles of upper or upper-middle-class folks, the Southern Gothic often veers off to the side and focuses, instead, on those the European tradition would have only cast as bit characters. The help, the indigent, the poor, the damaged. The grotesque.
Flannery O’Conor once famously said (and it’s probably my favorite quote from her):
“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
So, yeah. We like the freaks. And we find something important there in the lives of those regular folks who walk around every day, not with their affairs in order, but their lives and their psyches messy and broken. It resonates with us because, deep down, we feel that we all have known that level of brokenness at one time or another. Maybe we even know it still.
But sometimes the freaks don’t take center stage.
Sometimes, in keeping with the origins, the Southern Gothic does concern itself with the plantation owner and his family or the politician—the upper-crust folks that were and are in power. Granted, it’s usually only to bring them down a peg by exposing their misdeeds, their family drama, or their most savage and basest tendencies. In my view, it’s done as a means to say to the powerful that they are human, too, and they are not immune from the scars and the demons that the rest of us poor souls must bear.
This is what I’ve always loved about the Gothic done Southern style. It’s a great equalizer. Fiction for the people by the people, you might even say! Because, quite frankly, stories where the powerful or the wealthy or the well-heeled are glorified and held aloft as something to which we should aspire, are dreadfully boring.
If you’re looking to dip your toes into Southern Gothic fiction for the first time, I recommend anything by Flannery O’Connor, although my personal favorite is Wiseblood. Along with that, I would recommend A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews to get a look at just how weird and brutal it can really get. Pinckney Benedict is another writer, alive and working today, that stands tall as a purveyor of the Southern Gothic. And, lastly, an unequalled example that tends more toward the horrific would be the late Tom Piccirilli’s novel, A Choir of Ill Children.
In my own recent novel, Beneath Ash and Bone, I blended—as I often seem to—different elements and aesthetics of the Southern Gothic with the old European Gothic. I wanted a typical Gothic ghost story as might be written by someone like Susan Hill… but with a bit of Southern flavor. (Some great contemporary examples of this sort of thing that come to mind are Rhodi Hawk’s A Twisted Ladder and the film The Skeleton Key).
So, setting it in Virginia in 1860, before the unrest of the Civil War, at an influential local family’s estate, was my way of calling back to those great works by Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and the Bronte sisters. But I didn’t want to get bogged down in the often flowery prose of those earlier times, so I kept the writing more in my own style, which is contemporary and (sometimes) poetic, but always with an edge. I also wanted to employ a very distinctive aspect of Southern Gothic fiction, which is a sense of place. Not only to employ it but to give it more teeth than is customary. I wanted Evermore and the winter blizzard that had cut it off from contact with others to permeate every moment and to come across almost as antagonistic characters themselves.
You’ll have to be the judge about whether or not I succeeded in my efforts. In the end, I hope I crafted a riveting and entertaining tale with both the Gothic and the Southern Gothic as my inspiration.
As I wrap up here, I’d like to thank the generous Pamela K. Kinney for the opportunity to take over her blog for a day! Since you’re likely a reader of her blog, you already know what a fabulous author and a wealth of knowledge Pamela is on not only the subjects of writing and publishing and conventions but on paranormal phenomena and legends of local ghost stories and haunted houses (the kind of place I imagine my fictional Evermore has become in modern times). Keep doing what you do, Pamela!
D. Alexander Ward
Beneath Ash & Bone Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/ashandbone/
Beneath Ash and Bone Blurb:
Selburn, Virginia: A quiet backwater town nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the days before the Civil War, Sam Lock keeps the peace as the town sheriff, like his father before him.
That peace is shattered during a raging winter storm when a boy goes missing at Evermore, the sprawling estate of Horace Crownhill and his family. Racing against time and the elements, Sam must mount a desperate search for the child—but what he finds in the snow, and the dark halls of Evermore, are madness ... and murder.
As Sam searches for truth in a house poisoned by mysteries and haunted by ghosts, he hopes to weather the storm, but the harrowing secrets he uncovers may prove too terrible to bear. Will he escape with his sanity intact or will the dark presence rumored to hold sway over Evermore claim him as another sacrifice?
Excerpt from Beneath Ash and Bone:
Later, when he woke for a moment in the dim light of that fading candle, he made a vain attempt to crawl out of the dreams that enshrouded him like a grave. Before that could be accomplished, though, a familiar hand lighted on his shoulder and the sound of his father’s voice filled the room as the man stood by his bedside. The moment was so familiar that Sam knew it must be a dream.
“Wake up and stand fast, boyo,” his father uttered in his thick brogue. “They’re comin’ around the back way and ye’d better have more than yer knob in yer hand when they arrive.”
“Da?” Sam groaned, bleary in the near darkness.
It had to be a dream for there was no other reason his father would be there, uttering those words again; words which echoed as small tortures in Sam’s mind. Words that were a bitter reminder of how Sam had failed him one hot summer night long ago and how the old man had paid for it with his life.
Still, when he sat up in the guest house bed, he saw the old man’s form lingering at the threshold of the small bedroom and he rose to follow him.
“Somethin’ goin’ on,” his father said, turning the corner, “and ye’d better see to it.”
As Sam put his first step forward on the achingly cold floor, he was suddenly aware that this was no dream. Something cold and wet mushed between his bare toes and he looked down to see what it was.
Messy, irregular heaps of the stuff led away from his bed, out the door and around the corner. In the quiet of the guest house, he heard a rhythmic, wooden thumping.
He checked his side expecting to find an empty holster but felt the grip of his pistol there, drew it, and crept through the house to follow the path that his father had taken. His wits now about him, it wasn’t that he thought his Da was actually present in the room. It was just that his dream of the dead man and the moment of his waking had intersected with something very real.
Someone had left these tracks of snow on the floor and it wasn’t him.
Sam turned the corner from the bedroom and looked into the shadowed confines of the sitting room. He saw more lumps of snow staggered along the floor and the door to the guest house ajar, banging open and shut with the wind of the storm.
Then something else. The crunch of deep snow and a pressing against the house.
He froze, waiting, scanning the room.
As his gaze fell upon the wide window that looked out onto the wood, he saw a pale and deathly face looking in. The face of his father, returned to taunt his son. He recoiled and brandished his pistol.
“But I have it this time, Da! See?”
Then the face was gone and something in its movement uprooted the sheriff from his frozen fear. Indeed, it had been a spectral face that he had glimpsed in the window, but it hadn’t been his father’s. And it had moved away quickly, not with the slip of a spirit but the clumsy gait of a man.
Sam ran to the door and kicked it open, looking out onto the white landscape of the grounds. Something wild was tramping through the snow in the direction of the manor house, pale and gangly looking, its thin white hair flying behind it.
“Stop there, you,” he hollered out and gave chase, but before he could get far, the figure had disappeared into the shadows, incorporeal as the night itself.
The sheriff stood there, his heart pumping. On the far side of the main house, he saw an orange glow pulsating in the darkness. He barely sniffed the air before he smelled it; burning.
Something beyond the house was burning.
D.Alexander Ward is an author and editor of horror and dark fiction. As a volunteer and Affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association he is an involved participant in the independent horror community.
In addition to Beneath Ash and Bone, he is the author of Blood Savages: A Blackguards Novel (Book 1), A Feast of Buzzards, and After the Fire & Other Tales.
As an editor, he co-edited the Lovecraftian horror anthologies, Shadows Over Main Street, Volumes 1 and 2 from Cutting Block Books and also, GUTTED: Beautiful Horror Stories from Crystal Lake Publishing.
Along with his family and the haints in the woods, he lives near the farm where he grew up in what used to be rural Virginia, where his love for the people, passions and folklore of the South was nurtured. There, he spends his nights penning tales of the dark, strange and fantastic.
He is active on social media and you can find out more on his website: www.dalexward.com