Southern Gothic: The Scary, Unusual, But Empowering Truths You Need To Know

BY Sarah Rexford | Feb 28, 2023 | Fiction, Learning, Writing


The term writer is extremely broad, so categorizing it into genres and subgenres, such as Southern gothic, provides clarity for both writers and readers. Imagine walking into a bookstore hoping to find an adventure story, but not knowing where to begin looking. 

Genres serve as placeholders that represent a template of what to expect in various stories. In this article, we cover the subgenre of Southern gothic. 

  • Southern Gothic, Defined 
  • Its Tropes And Conventions
  • Famous Southern Gothic Examples

You’ve likely familiar with genres such as fiction and its subgenre dystopia, or romance with its subgenre of contemporary or historical romance. Southern gothic is another such subgenre, and one that many of the classic authors wrote in.

Southern Gothic, Defined 

Southern Gothic writing is a style developed in the 19th century and used by many American writers who lived in the South. The characteristics of Southern gothic writing include:

  • Grotesque
  • Macabre
  • Fantastic

You may recognize some classic authors who are known for their Southern gothic writing style. Some of these well-known writers include:

  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Tennessee Williams
  • Truman Capote
  • William Faulkner
  • Carson McCullers

While this style of subgenre can focus some of its attention on the supernatural, most Southern gothic writing centers on its characters and their delusional or grotesque characteristics. 

Its Tropes And Conventions

Genres have tropes and traditional conventions, and Southern gothic is no different. If you love writing anti-heroes, focuses on the flaws or disturbing aspects of your characters, and angst, Southern gothic may be for you.

Edgar Allen Poe is a prime example of what it means to write in this style. Although his writings are not blatantly set in the South, his characters demonstrate the disturbing conventions of Southern gothic writing.

If you choose to write in this subgenre, readers will likely expect you to include at least one of the following tropes:

  • Violence and crime
  • Desolation in the setting 
  • Oppression of characters 
  • Eccentric or exceptionally characters 

Conventions that are commonly associated with Southern gothic writing include, but are not limited to:

  • Foreboding thoughts
  • Intensity of emotion
  • Distressed victims
  • Daring heroes 
  • Dark humor

Some stories may come to mind as you simply read through the above lists. Maybe you think of the horror or gothic parts of The Phantom of the Opera or the classic tropes and conventions of Southern gothic used in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Let’s move on to famous examples of this unique literary genre. 

Famous Southern Gothic Examples

Before we dive into different examples, keep in mind that like most genres, Southern gothic is not a cookie-cutter subgenre that every writer should follow. As you will see with the following examples, some writers follow the tropes and conventions more closely, while others do not. 

Pay special attention to the last example and especially how the author uses traditional Southern gothic tropes but places them in a unique context. Keep this in mind as you move into writing your own book. 

Examples are meant to inspire and teach, and subgenres are a guide that can help us determine what to include (as well as exclude), but at the end of the day, creative writing is subjective and up to the individual writer. 

#1 – Beloved, Toni Morrison 

Published in 1997 as nonfiction, you’ll soon find this classic resembles fiction in its writing style.  Jim Williams lives in Savannah, Georgia, and works as an antiques dealer. However, the quiet life of an antiques dealer is not what this story covers. Jim is put on trial numerous times for shooting his employee, Danny Hansford, who is also a male prostitute. Was it murder, or was it self-defense? 

#2 – Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn

This fictional story covers protagonist Camille Preaker, who is not just a journalist but a scarred journalist in many ways. She returns to her hometown with the purpose of investigating two murders, but more is revealed than just the murder investigation. Camille’s past enters the stage and paired with this murder mystery, will keep you turning pages. 

#3 – Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

This 2011 book features an alligator wrestler named Chief Bigtree who is in charge of a theme park in the Everglades. A good bit of the novel takes place in the point of view of a little girl named Ava. At just 13-years-old, Ava’s distinct voice can be likened to a secondary character holding the book together. 

#4 – Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

This 2016 novel is a mashup of many subgenres, including pulp science fiction and Lovecraftian mythology in addition to its Southern gothic flare. Protagonist Atticus Turner is a Black Korean War veteran. But rather than stay in the South, Atticus’ goal is to make it through the Jim Crow South in order to reach Chicago.

#5 – Mexican Gothic, Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

If you take tropes associated with gothic fiction such as an old mansion, depraved family, and too many secrets to count, and move them to the Mexican countryside, you have Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. Filled with a tension-filled plot and a scary climax, this book is a great example of how to use tropes and place them in various settings. 

What did you notice reading through these examples? What tropes or conventions of the Southern gothic genre stood out to you? Which ones do you feel excited to try, and which ones do you know you’ll need to put more effort or research into using? 

Southern Gothic: Your Next Dark Adventure 

Now that you understand more about Southern gothic, what it is, how to use it, and have examples of how famous authors have used it in the past, it’s time to try your own hand at writing in this creepy subgenre.

Before you sit down to write, ask yourself the following questions. Feel free to use these questions as a launching pad to brainstorm your plot, characters, and the overall tone of your novel:

  • What experiences did I go through as a child that could influence my writing? 
  • What do I know about the South and what do I need to learn about it?
  • What specifically draws me to this subgenre, and why? 
  • What types of characters have I written in the past?
  • How will this subgenre push me in my writing abilities

Next, consider how you can educate yourself in this genre and in surrounding genres:

  • Are there classes, coaches, or other training I can invest in to help me in this genre?
  • What authors write in this genre and which of their books have I read?
  • What can I learn from the classic Southern gothic books?

Once you have your answers to these questions, it’s time to sit down and begin your next great adventure in writing. Yes, this may have romantic aspects, some comedy that isn’t as dark in some parts, or a character that feels more relatable at times, but it will also have the violence and eccentricity that comes with the subgenre.

Be bold in getting your feet wet, and remember you can always edit later (in fact, you should!). Feel free to reach out to your writing friends for feedback or engage with beta readers. And as always, don’t forget to enjoy the writing process itself!

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