Study Guide

Southern Gothic Top Authors

  • Edgar Allan Poe

    Okay, so Edgar Allan Poe was writing way before the authors we traditionally think of as Southern Gothic began to write in the 20th century. And even though he was a pioneer in the development of horror and the grotesque in American literature, not that many people think of him first and foremost as a Southern writer.

    But the fact is that Poe was from the South, and, more importantly, he was a big influence on the Southern Gothic writers that came after him. Think all those grotesque and macabre Gothic elements would be there if Poe hadn't paved the way? We highly doubt it.

    "The Tell-Tale Heart"

    In this short story, one dude kills another dude and buries him under the floorboards. The only problem is, killer dude is convinced that the dead dude's heart is still beating—and he can hear it.

    This is a classic Poe short story. In it, you'll find all of those characteristic Poe touches: lots of suspense, lots of the grotesque, a serious dose of mental instability, and, of course, some good old-fashioned blood and gore.

    What do you think is lurking on your floorboards, folks?

    "The Fall of the House of Usher"

    This story about a disintegrating family—and their disintegrating house—totally foreshadows Southern Gothic writers' obsession with decay and disintegration. Poe's story is spooky and sad, and it sure served as an example for many Southern Gothic writers.

    Like "The Tell-Tale Heart," this is also considered to be one of Poe's classic works, and it's the first in a long line of creepy Southern stories about dilapidated houses and the dilapidated people who live inside them.

    Shmoops:

    Mental decay and disintegration are a big theme in Poe's "A Tell-Tale Heart." These quotations from the story reflect how the narrator begins to lose his marbles.

    In true Southern Gothic style, the family at the center of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is totally weird. Check out just how strange this family is here.

  • William Faulkner

    William Faulkner's the man. The Southern Goth dude. If there is one name you absolutely need to know in relation to this movement, it's his.

    Not only is Faulkner's work pretty much the embodiment of the Southern Gothic style, the dude was also seriously prolific. He was so fast at writing that he wrote one novel, As I Lay Dying, in six weeks. Six weeks, folks.

    Faulkner's work has it all: the macabre and the grotesque, loads of decay and disintegration, and a very serious obsession with the Civil War. That's pretty much everything you could want in your Southern Gothic fiction.

    Faulkner, who spent his whole life (with the exception of a few years) in Mississippi, made up a whole fictional Southern county to set his works in. It's called Yoknapatawpha County, and it's one of the vastest and most complex geographical and social creations in the history of literature—sort of like Middle Earth, but in Mississippi.

    The Sound and the Fury

    This novel tells of the disintegration of the Compsons, a Southern family.

    Let's just say there are a lot of disintegrating families in Faulkner's work, but maybe none more famous than this one.

    The Sound and the Fury is important not only because of its Southern Gothic themes but also because of its incredibly innovative narrative style. Each of the following chapters is narrated from the perspective of a different member of the Compson family. The first chapter of the book, in particular, will set your head spinning: it's narrated from the perspective of a character—Benjy Compson—who is cognitively disabled.

    Absalom, Absalom!

    Narrated mostly from the perspective of Quentin Compson (yup, one of the characters in The Sound and the Fury), Absalom, Absalom! tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who shows up in Yoknapatawpha County before the Civil War, hell-bent on building a huge plantation for himself.

    Things don't go so well for Sutpen, especially when his family starts falling apart. Hey, this is Southern Gothic lit; did you expect the family to be functional?

    Shmoops:

    Race is a huge theme in Faulkner's work. Explore these quotations from Absalom, Absalom! dealing with race here to see how important it is for this writer.

    How does Faulkner deal with social issues? Delve into these quotations from The Sound and the Fury which grapple with Southern social values and principles to find out.

  • Flannery O'Connor

    Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, and much of her fiction is set in the South. Most of her writing is in the short story form, though she did write a couple of novels. Along with Faulkner, O'Connor is probably the best-known Southern Gothic writer these days.

    O'Connor's short stories are famous for their emphasis on outsiders, grotesque characters, violent or disturbing situations, and stylized Southern settings. Not only is O'Connor known for being a pioneer of the Southern Gothic style; she was also a pioneer in developing the short story form in general.

    "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    In this short story, a family's road trip through the South goes way, way wrong, and it's all because of an old grandmother who can't stop talking in the backseat of the car. The story's innocent beginning is deceptive: we're led to a very dark place by the end.

    This is one of O'Connor's most famous stories. In it, you'll find a deep questioning of Southern values, a commentary on social issues such as poverty and crime and punishment, and a particularly disturbing dose of violence.

    Wise Blood

    One of only two novels that O'Connor wrote, Wise Blood tells the tale of Hazel Motes, a veteran returning home from World War II. The guy is shell-shocked; he has a lot of questions about religion and sin; and he moves through a decaying Southern landscape that reflects his own state of inner disintegration.

    This novel is funny and scary, weird and engaging all at once. It's a great example of the way in which Southern Gothic writers deploy landscape and setting in their work to heighten the feeling that something is not quite right in the South.

    Shmoops:

    Flannery O'Connor is really into exploring the hypocrisy that underlies a certain type of Southern mentality. See how she does this in these quotations from "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

    How does O'Connor deal with issues of race and racism? Delve into these quotations from "The Displaced Person" to get a better idea.

  • Tennessee Williams

    Unlike the other writers in our top five, Tennessee Williams was a playwright, not a novelist or a short story writer. But he's included in the list not only because he's one of the most important playwrights to come out of the South (or anywhere, for that matter), but also because his work exemplifies a lot of the characteristics of Southern Gothic.

    Williams was gay, and he took the outsider theme to a new level by depicting gay characters—a taboo subject back in the day—in his plays. Williams also loved writing about dysfunctional Southern families and characters ruined by their inner demons.

    A Streetcar Named Desire

    This famous play focuses on Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle who shows up at her sister's house in New Orleans after being fired from her job as a teacher under mysterious circumstances. (Trust us: the circumstances are pretty bad.) Oh yeah: she's also an alcoholic, and she's slowly losing her mind.

    The play is yet another Southern Gothic portrait of a disintegrating family. And boy, do these characters tear each other apart—especially Blanche and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

    This play was immortalized on the silver screen (yeah, it's in black-and white, but smokin' black-and-white) with white-hot performances by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando as Blanche and Stanley. This is Southern Gothic at its very best, folks.

    Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

    Tennessee Williams' own family background wasn't very happy, and he drew a lot of the material for his plays from his childhood.

    Here we've got yet another play about a Southern family falling apart: Big Daddy is the dying patriarch of a rich Southern family, whose gay son, Brick, is stuck in an unhappy marriage to Maggie, the "cat on a hot tin roof" from the title. The play depicts a get together in which all the family secrets come out into the open.

    Shmoops:

    Williams loves depicting characters in the throes of decay and disintegration. Blanche, the troubled heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire, is undone by alcohol in these quotations from the play.

    In Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there's a lot of talk about death. Hey, why not? Check out these quotations about death here.

  • Carson McCullers

    Carson McCullers published The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her first and most famous novel, at the tender age of 23. Even though she was a successful writer at a young age, McCullers herself didn't have such a happy life. In fact, she had a pretty miserable marriage, and she suffered throughout her life from health problems.

    But that didn't stop her from writing. She followed up the success of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter with other novels set in the Deep South. Her Southern Gothic world is full of outsider characters who explore and question Southern social values and ideals.

    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

    At the center of this novel is John Singer, a mute man who ends up befriending four characters who live in the same Southern town where he lives.

    In true Southern Gothic style, the novel ends tragically. People, including John Singer, just can't seem to find a ray of hope in the depressing, devastated small town world of the South.

    Reflections in a Golden Eye

    This novel wasn't very well received when it was first published in 1941. Considering that it dealt with a number of taboo issues for the time, including homosexuality, that's not a huge surprise.

    Like McCullers's other work, this novel depicts characters living on the social margins, forced to contend with a close-minded Southern society. Though it's not as famous as her first novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye shares many of that novel's preoccupations: loneliness, isolation, depression, and social decay.

    Shmoops:

    Carson McCullers is great at depicting outsider characters. Here's an analysis of John Singer, an outsider who also happens to be the protagonist of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

    McCullers's second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, dealt with a whole bunch of taboo social issues, including homosexuality. Check out the novel here.