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Lincoln Michel: Lush Rot

March 17, 2014

Flannery O’Connor, True Detective, Southern hip-hop, and the gnarled roots of Southern Gothic.

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Image via Flickr by Melinda Shelton

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I don’t remember drinking sweet tea as a child, and no one in my family wore seersucker. But I do remember the kudzu. There wasn’t as much of “the vine that ate the South” in Virginia as there was in the Deep South, but there was a growth of it hidden in the woods that stretched between two branches of our neighborhood. My friends and I would play back there, launching smoke bombs from beneath the cover of giant leaves. It had already overtaken a football field length of land, descending down from a green tumor of a hill. Each year, it grew a little more, eating into the neighbors’ backyards.

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The South is in a perpetual state of crumbling, at least in its own mythology. The paint is peeling off the walls. The yard is littered with trash. General Sherman burned the countryside to the ground. The plantation houses have been chewed apart by termites. Everything is collapsing and being overtaken by vines. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner describes the Deep South as “dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.” Of course, most of us can only play the most microscopic of violins for the collapse of an economy dependent on slavery, brutality, and dehumanization.

It’s comforting for Americans to see bigotry in art and entertainment confined to one ever-shrinking area. It allows us to admit our sins while simultaneously distancing ourselves from them.

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This sense of rot and ruin is somehow fertile, like compost. The same region has given us everything from deep soul and bluegrass to southern hip-hop and sludge metal. Southern literature is also vast, yet perhaps best associated with Southern Gothic—a style of American literature that presents the South as land of freaks, violence, and the grotesque. This is the tradition that gave us such titans as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Cormac McCarthy.

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Recently there has been a revival of Southern Gothic on the small screen: HBO’s True Detective and True Blood, AMC’s The Walking Dead, and FX’s American Horror Story: Coven. In all four of these shows, decay and a sense of lost glory is present. In True Blood, Louisiana is being overtaken by vampires, its honest Americans being drained empty one by one. American Horror Story: Coven presents witches and voodoo priestesses as crumbling American powers, their numbers reduced to a handful of scared practitioners hunted down by rich corporate bureaucrats. The swamplands of True Detective are patrolled by serial killer cultists who leave twisted branch sculptures in decaying school houses that they twine together in overgrown tunnels in the unmapped woods. In the Georgia of The Walking Dead, the rot is near complete as the land has succumbed to a zombie apocalypse. Decaying corpses lumber slowly out of every forest and house, eating their way across the state as slowly and surely as those kudzu vines.

If the Gothic was ethereal in England, it became earthy in the South. Where Emily Brontë writes of mythic lovers in candlelit parlors, William Faulkner writes of an impoverished family dragging their mother’s corpse through the countryside.

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Lineage and tradition are important in the South’s mythology. The lineage of Southern Gothic traces back to European Gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th century, and of course the great American—and Virginia-raised—Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe. There was a sense of loss and nostalgia in European Gothic too. The name itself is taken from medieval-era architecture. Gothic fiction’s secluded manors and dusty castles, surrounded by their misty moors, are quite different from the crowded towns and dirty shacks of much Southern Gothic work. If the Gothic was ethereal in England, it became earthy in the South. Where Emily Brontë writes of mythic lovers in candlelit parlors, William Faulkner writes of an impoverished family dragging their mother’s corpse through the countryside. While Van Helsing battles ancient unholy evil in a dusty castle, Lester Ballard drags murdered corpses through muddy Appalachian caves.

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While Southern Gothic does have its hints of the supernatural—and certainly True Blood, American Horror Story, and The Walking Dead are overtly supernatural—the witches and vampires of the small screen Southern Gothic works are more horrific for their racism, sexism, and general shittery than their unholy powers.

Horror is watching the monster devouring your mother; terror is the sounds of the monster outside your door.

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In classic Gothic literature, the most important—and intertwining—concepts are terror and the sublime. Terror here is the subtler cousin of horror. Terror “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,” the Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe said. This awakening fills the reader with a sense of the sublime.

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In Southern Gothic, the most important concept is the grotesque. With the grotesque, reality is distorted into ugly and absurd shapes. “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear,” Flannery O’Connor once said. By exaggerating reality, we are able to actually see it. The grotesque is a balance of contradictions. It creeps and crawls between repulsion and attraction, the real and the unreal, and humor and horror. The sublime floats in the mind, but the grotesque is experienced in the body—in turning stomachs, goose bumps, and sweat.

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In art, the grotesque frequently manifests in physical or mental deviations. In addition to vampires and voodoo, shows like True Detective, American Horror Story: Coven, True Blood, and The Walking Dead are brimming with characters that have been injured or twisted into parodies of humanity. This is true of both the villains and heroes. In True Detective, Rust Cohle—with his drug-induced hallucinations and constant spouting of pessimistic philosophy—is as grotesque as the scarred, incestuous serial killer.

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The contradictory nature of the grotesque seems appropriate for the South. Here is a region obsessed with traditional masculinity that names its sons Ashley, Carey, and Stacey. It is a region whose history is defined by struggles of race, class, and violence, alongside the glossing over of these facts in “polite conversation”—and yet its artists speak more openly and honestly about these issues that their peers. It is the birthplace of the GOP’s racist “Southern strategy,” a land where confederate flags are ubiquitous and new anti-choice measures are introduced every year—and yet is home to a great wealth of black and female artists and writers, many of them working in the Southern Gothic tradition.

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“Tradition” can be a dirty word in literary fiction. “Find your voice,” the MFA professor says, and the student takes it to mean “have no influences.” Most writers want to, at most, admit to a style. The silliest claim they don’t even read other writers. But Southern Gothic tradition is still kicking around in American letters. William Gay, who sadly passed away in 2012, was a master of the art, and you can see its influences in such contemporary greats as Karen Russell and Jesmyn Ward.

You can write crime and shadows anywhere. You can’t write Southern Gothic away from the South’s swamps, ex-plantations, backwoods moonshine stills, or kudzu fields.

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A lot of reviewers complain about what they see as clichés in these Southern Gothic TV shows. You saw this especially with True Detective, which quickly became the Internet’s go-to show to argue and speculate over. While all four shows have their share of problems—some more than others *cough*American Horror Story: Coven *cough*—too often critics confuse tradition for cliché. The presence of dirty backwoods shacks, crumbling Southern mansions, physical deformities, and corrupt preachers—whether in fiction, film, or a TV series—are not marks of lazy writing by themselves. These are the chess pieces you play with. The difference between amateur and grandmaster is in the deployment on the board.

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There are a plethora of great American literary traditions, but the Southern Gothic may be the only one still rooted in geography. You can write postmodernism, K-Mart realism, or hardboiled fiction about anywhere. Take, for example, Akashic Books’s popular Noir series that includes Cape Cod Noir, Dallas Noir, and Portland Noir, among others. You can write crime and shadows anywhere. You can’t write Southern Gothic away from the South’s swamps, ex-plantations, backwoods moonshine stills, or kudzu fields.

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Kudzu’s consumption of the South was helped along by the U.S. Government, which distributed seeds in the 1930s in an effort to preventing soil erosion. Before that, it was used as decoration and shade in Southern houses. Southerners would sit beneath the green leaves eating BBQ and cornbread between sips of mint juleps and sweet tea.

Flannery O’Connor: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

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Yes, I am aware that I’m mythologizing the South, but the South is myth.

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Then again what even is the South anymore? The very geography is shrinking, being lost. Since I have moved north, people balk at the suggestion that I’m Southern. “Virginia isn’t the South, is it?” “Isn’t D.C. in Virginia?” D.C. is not in Virginia, and yet the suburbs of the Capitol have over taken the northern half of the state, spreading down with the green leaves of lobbyist bills. Maryland, which lies below the Mason-Dixon Line, is long gone from the concept of the South. Southern Florida, if it was ever the South, is now its own unique mess. Texas is, as ever, its own mythology. While describing this essay to a colleague, I was told that Louisiana—the setting of three of the four TV shows mentioned here—wasn’t really the South. “They speak French there!” There might only be four states left you could reliably call Southern.

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The Southern fear of being consumed meets the white Southern fear of African-Americans in Barry Hannah’s darkly comic story “Eating Wife and Friends.” Instead of foreign kudzu covering the South, northern blacks return to the South to literally eat it: “Five thousand of them came through Maryland, eating three or four swamps around Chesapeake Bay, stripping every leaf, boiling and salting all the greenery in huge iron cauldrons they pulled along on carts. Those blacks hit Virginia and ate a senator’s cotton plantation.”

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In the South, the sense of loss and ruin is combated with the faint whispers that “the South will rise again.” A few years ago, the Onion ran an article titled “South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year.”

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Southern culture does rise again and again, most recently with Southern hip-hop dominating the charts of the ’00s. In hip-hop, the South becomes “the Dirty South,” Mississippi is the M-I-Crooked Letter, Atlanta is filled with ATliens, and in Virginia—as Clipse say—“ain’t shit to do but cook / pack it up, sell it triple price, fuck the books.”

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Dirty South hip-hop rises from the same soil as the Southern Gothic. Rappers like Mississippi’s David Banner populate their songs with the grotesque contradictions of the South. Banner’s “Cadillacs On 22s” is one of most beautiful and moving songs you will ever hear. “Cadillacs on 22s. I ain’t did nothing in my life but stay true / pimp my voice and make these beats / and pray to the lord for these Mississippi streets,” he croons on the chorus. On the songs preceding it, he spits violent threats and misogynistic lyrics in a guttural bark.

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David Banner’s third album is subtitled “Baptized in Dirty Water,” a phrase that makes me think of Flannery O’Connor’s characteristically bizarre story “The River” in which a young boy drowns trying to baptize himself in a river. When testifying to congress about the violence and sexism in hip-hop lyrics, David Banner said this: “I can admit there are some problems in hip-hop but it is only a reflection of what’s taking place in our society. Hip-hop is sick because America is sick.”

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“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” Flannery O’Connor once said. Another time she noted: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

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Flannery O’Connor is both America’s most celebrated Catholic writer and its greatest practitioner of the Southern grotesque. This makes her yet another Southern contradiction, given that the South is overwhelmingly protestant and evangelical Christians would likely cringe at O’Connor’s view of grace. In O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South, you reach God’s grace grotesquely: when a fake preacher runs away with your prosthetic limb or an escaped convict shoots you in the face for talking too much.

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The long-standing Southern feeling of loss is spreading out—like the kudzu vines that have already made their way into Northern and Midwestern states—across America

In many respects, the South deserves its legacy of racism, intolerance, and backwardness. At the same time, it has always been easy for America to push all its racism, intolerance, and backwardness on the South. What percentage of TV or film characters spouting racial slurs do so in a Southern drawl? It’s comforting for Americans to see bigotry in art and entertainment confined to one ever-shrinking area. It allows us to admit our sins while simultaneously distancing ourselves from them.

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Stuffing all of America’s sins in the South also increases the pressure in the kettle, twisting and intensifying them—at least in artistic representations—into ever more grotesque shapes.

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Why is the Southern Gothic making a comeback on TV (currently the dominant cultural art form)? One part is pure economics: many Southern states are friendly to production crews. But I do not think it is a coincidence that so many horror and dystopian shows are set in the South. The long-standing Southern feeling of loss is spreading out—like the kudzu vines that have already made their way into Northern and Midwestern states—across America. You can see it in the primal whine of the Tea Party and in the fretting of academics. China is taking over, or India is, or Russia, or we are simply an Empire in decline with the rot spreading from the inside.

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The most unrealistic part of The Walking Dead is that the entire state of Georgia hasn’t been overrun with kudzu with no one left to fight it back with chemicals and lawnmowers. The zombies should all be trapped in vines, growling impotently into the soft leaves.

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Kudzu is grotesque. It spreads at rate of around 150,000 acres a year. A patch can grow a foot a day. It ruins buildings and kills other plant life by smothering them from the sun with gigantic leaves. Its roots are gigantic tumors that are almost impossible to remove.

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And yet there is something very beautiful about a field covered completely with lush green leaves. I haven’t been back to the neighborhood where I grew up in some time. Maybe they figured out a way to kill the vines. Still, in my imagination everything—every backyard, every neighbor’s house, every driveway and mailbox—has been covered in a blanket of green.

Lincoln Michel’s essays and stories have appeared in The Believer, Oxford American, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

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2 comments for Lincoln Michel: Lush Rot

  1. Comment by Lyn LeJeune on March 17, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    I am a writer of the New Southern Gothic genre, and I am no longer Christ-Driven. Lyn LeJeune … google me

  2. Comment by jrd on March 17, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    Wonderful essay. However, I do feel like it needs to be pointed out that the names Ashley, Stacey, and Carey have evolved from surnames (referencing the regions in England and Ireland) to given names, first for male children and later in the 20th century for females.

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