A century ago, writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or Truman Capote gave birth to the Southern Gothic literary genre, which focuses its attention, as the name hints, on the southern part of the United States. In these books we could see deeply disturbed characters living in degraded environments full of misery, racism, poverty and superstition. In their worlds everything was changing so fast they felt out of place (and time). The rules weren’t as clear as before. Their social hierarchy was falling apart and the promised land never arrived. Therefore, they settled in a place where the past was vanishing and the future was a broken promise. In the middle of nowhere and nowhen.
Although this may look as an isolated genre product of very specific features, if you love TV this first paragraph will probably ring a bell inside your head. Why? Because a lot of shows like True Detective, Rectify or even True Blood or American Horror Story: Coven share the same decadent point of view and, at the same time, are unsurprisingly located in the south of the United States.
Let’s look closely to this gorgeous screenshot from True Detective. What can wee see? The nature, an ancient past that is slowly falling apart. The factories in the distance, that broken promise of a better future that I previously mentioned. The church, turned into a strange and esoteric place, is the heritage of the superstition that Southern Gothic literature captured.
The space, but also the characters (think about Rust Cohle) are wounded. When you have no past, no roots, and the future is an illusion, the present starts to disappear. The narrative structure of the show exemplifies this: through the subjective flashbacks, True Detective searches for a continuous reconstruction of the past that ends up substituting the actual present. A present that we don’t understand for the same reason, its origin is unknown.
Rectify is another great example of this “revival” of Southern Gothic elements in contemporary fiction. Daniel Holden, the main character, has been released from prison after spending two decades behind bars waiting for his execution. But he is not completely free, his case is being reopen, so the future is again just a possibility. His past life as an adolescent, as the bicycle in the image, is useless, a path that he will never be able to walk again. So if the future isn’t clear and a huge scar crosses Daniel’s past, the present is the only option. But once again living in a new temporality is not as easy as it may seem and his existence will soon turn into a nightmare.
Madame Lalaurie from American Horror Story: Coven (a woman outside her time and mores), or the village of Bon Temps in True Blood (in which superstition has turned into fantasy) have also several connections with the literary genre I described above. But why is this happening now? Perhaps because we, the citizens of the XXI century, also feel overwhelmed by the speed of contemporary life and need, urgently, to look back in order to understand how others could bear it.
The Homecoming Queen.