Southern Gothic

"The Evil Among Us" excerpt from Black Flowers

So the following is an excerpt from the first story in my short story collection Black Flowers. I just wanted to give people a little sneak peek before the book releases in less than a week. Hope you like it!

Disclaimer: There are implied mature themes and some explicit language.

Jim awoke to find a tall, thin man in a suit standing beside his bed. A faint glow filtered in from the night-light in the hall as Jim’s steady breathing turned to frantic, shallow gulps of air. Who is this man? Why is he here? What does he want?

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you, little fella,” the man said with an artificial tone that reminded Jim of a radio disc jockey.

“Who are you? Where’s my mom?” Jim attempted to sound as calm as possible in order to keep the man from noticing that he was trembling beneath his covers.

“I’m one of your mother’s friends. No need to worry – she’s asleep in just the other room.”

Jim was afraid to contemplate on just what exactly the term “asleep” might imply.

“I see you’re into baseball,” he said shooting a quick glance at Jim’s glove. “You know, I also used to play baseball when I was your age. It is America’s favorite pastime, after all.”

“Mooooom?” Jim said barely able to raise his voice above a whisper.

“Don’t worry, slugger. She’s just in there,” he said pointing to Jim’s door and down the hallway to his mother’s room.

“Moooooooom!” Jim said raising his voice to that of a slight yell, betraying the fright he had tried to conceal.

“Aw, now don’t be that way!” The man sat down on the bed next to him and placed his hand on Jim’s blanket-covered leg. “I don’t wanna hurt you. I just wanna be your friend.”

The man’s face was now only a few feet away from Jim’s. He could faintly see the man’s toothy grin and vaguely smell the spicy scent of his cologne.

“Winston, step away from my son right now, or I’ll blow your goddamn brains out!” Jim could just barely make out the silhouette of his mother in the doorway holding what appeared to be a small revolver.

“Ella, I was just talking with him. Right? We were just talking about baseball, weren’t we?” He turned to Jim.

“Get the hell away from my son, and get the hell out of my home before I put a bullet in your head.” His mother’s voice was calm and steady now, but Jim recognized the fury that lay beneath.

“All right, all right,” the man said as he lowered his head and slipped by her out the bedroom doorway. “You got the wrong impression, though.”

She turned to Jim. “Are you all right?”

He nodded.

She followed the man through the front door with the revolver raised the entire time. The door shut behind her.

A few moments later, she came rushing back into Jim’s room and sat on the bed next to him, placing the revolver on his bedside table and taking his head into her hands. She kissed his forehead and cradled him against her chest. “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so, so sorry.”

Her disheveled hair hung in strands across his face and she began to sob quietly, clinging to him. He could smell the alcohol on her breath.

“I won’t let this ever happen again, sweetheart. There won’t be men coming here anymore, I promise,” she said as she gently rocked him back and forth in her arms.

They stayed this way for what felt like hours to Jim. Then she silently crawled beneath the covers with her dress still on and the two slept, her arm across his chest and his back pressed against her. . . .

Anyways that was a short excerpt from “The Evil Among Us.” I will probably post an excerpt from another one of the stories later in the week for those interested.

What is southern weird?: Part II

Okay so in my last blog post I described and gave examples of the southern gothic genre, similarly in this one I will attempt to explain what the genre of weird fiction is in order to demystify what I mean when I describe my upcoming book Black Flowers as “southern weird.”

Firstly, let me begin with a quick description of weird fiction that I will later expand upon. Weird fiction is a somewhat slippery term used for strange, dark stories that blend horror, science fiction, and fantasy together often exploring the limits of humanity’s knowledge or individual encounters with the unknown.

When we left off I mentioned how HBO’s crime anthology series True Detective was a good example of the more grounded, realistic side of the southern gothic with only possible hints of the supernatural. In season one, those hints at the supernatural and occult were actually writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s nods to a somewhat obscure work of weird fiction. Fans of the show may remember the cryptic mentions of the “Yellow King” and “Carcosa,” which sent fans off theorizing in a million different directions similar to the show’s two lead detectives, Rust and Marty.

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True Detective ended up having its own explanations for these terms, but in real life these are references to Robert W. Chambers’ book of short stories, The King in Yellow, that was published in 1895. In The King in Yellow the titular character is an ominous, shadowy figure in a play that shares his name and he lives in the kingdom of Carcosa. The reader is only given brief, albeit disturbing, excerpts of the play throughout the book and it is rumored that anyone that reads the entire play will completely lose their mind . . . so pretty creepy if you ask me.

Anyway, The King in Yellow‘s importance to the genre of weird fiction has less to do with its own contents and more to do with who it later influenced, which was a writer by the name of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though not the earliest writer of weird fiction, is by far the most well-known and most closely associated writer with the genre. Lovecraft was one of the first writers to popularize the term “weird fiction” as well as one of the first to define it and explain what made it distinct from the gothic ghost stories of the old days.

The majority of Lovecraft’s stories were first published in the cheap, fiction magazines known as the “pulps,” referencing the poor quality of the paper. Pulp magazines reached their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s with such titles as Unknown and Weird Tales.

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Weird Tales is the magazine that published the majority of Lovecraft’s fiction and seemed to be the one he connected with the most. Though I have not found this explicitly stated anywhere, I suspect the magazine’s title and content might have played a big part in why Lovecraft referred to his chosen genre as “weird” since it was in the very title of the magazine. In the time period when Weird Tales was first being circulated the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy weren’t clearly defined, distinct classifications as they are today. So in magazines like Weird Tales they were often lumped together and seen as a “lower” art form separate from the “higher,” more respectable art form known as “literary fiction.”

Lovecraft’s extremely influential contributions to weird fiction include a pantheon of ancient extraterrestrial gods known as the Cthulhu Mythos (the most famous being the octopus-faced god Cthulhu) and a pessimistic philosophy known as Cosmic Horror concluding that humanity’s existence and any of its actions are completely inconsequential in a vast and uncaring universe.

Recently many modern-day critics have stated that weird fiction was merely an insufficient placeholder term for the three, now, very different and distinct genres of sci fi, horror, and fantasy. Mostly due to the fact that the publishing industry has been using these terms for decades to classify and sell certain books. Others disagree though, some readers love the thrill of the unexpected and strangeness that comes along with reading a “weird” story and writers of the “weird” enjoy the freedom that comes along with being able to blend various ideas into new forms to create original concepts and stories.

In 2012, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer compiled a collection of 110 stories by various writers spanning over a century of time that was titled The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Many have seen this massive collection as the definitive book of so-called weird writing. On a side-note, some of you may recall the recent film starring Natalie Portman called Annihilation which was based on Jeff VanderMeer’s weird fiction novel of the same name.

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… So this ended up being a bit longer than I had originally planned so I’m glad I decided to split it up into two parts. I hope I did a good job of explaining what southern gothic and weird fiction are so that people can understand where I’m coming from with my own literary-hybrid of “southern weird.” In summary, I take the misfit characters and dark Southern settings of the southern gothic and combine them with all the scientific, fantastic, and horrific ideas of weird fiction.

Okay, so we’re clear as mud, right? Right! See ya next post.

What is southern weird?

All righty, here we go with my first blog post and I know the question everyone is just begging for the answer to is “What do you mean by ‘Welcome to the Weird South’?” and “What is southern weird?”.

…Okay so probably no one was actually asking themselves that question, but I like being nerdy and analytical so bear with me.

Southern weird is my own amalgamation of two previously existing fiction genres (southern gothic and weird fiction) that I feel best describes my book Black Flowers. First, I’m going to describe these two genres and provide some examples of their seminal works, some literary and some not, then tell you how I’ve worked to combine these two genres into something, hopefully, new and unique.

Southern gothic fiction is a subgenre of the larger category of gothic fiction, which I imagine most people are probably somewhat familiar with already. Gothic fiction is the literary genre that later evolved into horror, but was originally far more subtle and populated with mostly upper-class, Victorian folks. The timeless classics Frankenstein, Dracula, and the majority of things written by the goth-father himself Edgar Allan Poe are all good examples of your standard gothic fare.

Southern gothic is similar to those works in atmosphere and darkness of tone, but takes place specifically in the American South. The setting, instead of simply being a backdrop for the stories like in traditional gothic, is essential to the messages, characters, and values discussed in southern gothic works. It is thought that the reason Southern literature took this turn towards the “dark side” was due to its loss of the Civil War. The Civil War left the Southern economy in shambles, since it had formerly rested on the backs of the unpaid workforce of slaves, and many Southerners were dragged kicking and screaming into a new way of life, one where they were forced to face their sins of enslaving their fellow human beings when they should’ve treated them as equals, you know, as originally stated in the Constitution.

Anyways, this new moral territory for many Southerners eventually led to some classic works of literature, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily” and “Barn Burning,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Many southern gothic works dealt with the lingering racism in the South and typically had strange or unusual misfits as their main characters often used as a way to reevaluate what should or could be considered “good” or “normal.”

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Some more modern, non-literary examples of the southern gothic are HBO’s vampire drama True Blood or their crime anthology series True Detective, (especially season one and season three).

While True Blood is a good example of the supernatural side of the southern gothic genre True Detective, and no I don’t know why HBO is prone to naming their stuff True this or True that either, is a good example of the more grounded, realistic side of the genre, only hinting here and there at the possibility of something supernatural occurring.

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True Detective also serves as a good segue into the next part of this explanation of the southern weird, which I will continue in part two next week when I delve into weird fiction . . .