By Amber Lee
As a key figure in America’s literary tradition, Edgar Allan Poe made an exceptional name for himself by writing works that delved into the human psyche and the darker depths of life, death, and various states in between. An examination of Poe’s more famous works shows that he clearly possessed as much of a taste for the Gothic as his contemporary audience did, and one can find abundant evidence that Gothicism was his best-loved literary style. Although he dabbled in a number of different genres, including sci-fi and speculative fiction (Knight), his fascination with exploring the human mind drove him again and again to write tales of morbidity, melancholia, and monomanias. In doing so, he soon set himself apart as one of the foremost authors of Gothic fiction in America. It stands to reason, then, that traces of his influence can be found in the works of numerous other authors. Consciously or unconsciously, and regardless of whether they explicitly credited Poe, they drew upon the tropes and topics that he had mastered to serve their own explorations. Due to the widespread appeal of Poe’s writing, his style of description and the particular horrific imagery he favored wormed its way into the fabric of American literature at large. In terms of setting, his works often conjure up images of crisp autumn evenings in dreary towns, cities, or decaying manses that just might be located somewhere in New England. But unlike his more modern fellow horror author, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe was not particularly enamored with the New England states, neither as a specific location for his stories nor as a place to live. Despite his Baltimore birthplace, Poe ardently viewed himself as a bona fide southern author (Knight), holding a particular fondness in his heart for Richmond, Virginia. He even called the city his “home.” Given Poe’s love of the southern United States, perhaps it is only fitting that the south proved to be possibly the most fertile of fields for the seeds sown by his body of work. Political turmoil, class struggles, and deep-seated racial tensions were among the favored topics covered by southern authors who shared Poe’s predilections for the more horrific and despairing aspects of life. The likes of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor worked to weave a new, uniquely southern Gothic tradition from the threads of cultural traumas and dynastic dysfunctions that they were inspired by. But this blossoming flower of southern literature never would have seen the sunlight had it not been for the dark, tangled roots established by Poe. Newer authors who write Southern Gothic fiction also hold as much of a debt to him as they do to O’Connor and others of her literary school. The lasting influence that Poe bequeathed to Southern Gothic authors both past and present can best be seen in the genre’s grotesque imagery, its focus on misfits and the mentally ill, and sensationalistic storylines.
Although one of Gothic fiction’s hallmarks in general is grotesque and often disturbing imagery, Poe perfected a uniquely American approach to such an aesthetic. This was much in keeping with his desires to support “the health and prosperity of [America’s] literature” (Gordon 6). No longer would decaying English castles and gloomy Germanic settings be the sole stages upon which Gothic dramas could play out. Instead, Gothic aesthetics and principles, a world-weary and cynical perspective among them, were limited only by an author’s imagination as to where they could be set. American states, imaginary societies, and even the high seas were all fair game for this approach. Poe apparently believed that wherever mankind dwelt or ventured, Gothicism was sure to follow. Gothic literature’s aesthetics often incorporated ruined architecture and unpleasant natural settings, which is what partially bridges the gap between Poe’s stories and the work of future Southern Gothic authors. By setting foreboding introductory scenes that described environments and buildings where events would take place, Poe and these other authors constructed fitting narrative stages that would heighten the horror yet to come. Quoting the antebellum journalist and humorist Thomas Bangs Thorpe, Rebecca C. McIntyre points out that Thorpe’s travel writings aimed at residents of the northern states incorporated Gothic descriptions of the south, even down to its flora: “No imagination…can conceive the grotesque and weird forms…as the light partially illuminates the limbs of wrecked or half destroyed trees, which, covered with moss, or wrapped in decayed vegetation as a winding sheet, seem huge unburied monsters, which, though dead, still throw their arms in agony” (33). Considering this excerpt, one can see the early tendencies that would come to characterize the Southern Gothic genre’s own turns of phrase. Poe himself used similar natural descriptions in his stories. A standout example of such a description is included in a dream sequence in his sole novel-length work Narrative of A. Gordon Pym: “And the strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality, and waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair” (Poe 221).
Aside from grotesque descriptions of natural scenery, Poe and Southern Gothic authors share an inclination for equally grotesque backdrops, especially those involving a protagonist’s family, in their stories. As Louis Palmer states in “Bourgeois Blues: Class, Whiteness, and Southern Gothic in Early Faulkner and Caldwell,” William Faulkner favored “flawed and partial subjects who demonstrate their own inadequacy in the face of the impersonal forces of history” (121) rather than obvious protagonists who triumph over similar impersonal forces; this was something he held in common with Poe. One of Poe’s famous short stories featuring such a protagonist, “The Cask of Amontillado,” took place in the vibrant setting of Italy’s Carnival season in an unnamed city. The tale also contained classically Gothic descriptions of a revenge plot with an ambiguous motive: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge…I must not only punish, but punish with impunity” (Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” 152). The execution of this revenge was grisly, as was Poe’s wont; Montresor chains Fortunato up and seals him within a crypt in the family catacombs, despite Fortunato’s “loud and shrill screams” (Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” 157). In the story, Poe seems to imply that although Montresor made a conscious decision to strike back against Fortunato for his alleged insults, he still was following an ancestral precept pressed into him by his upbringing as the scion of a vengeful noble line. The descriptive interlude about the Montresors’ family crest makes this clear:
“’The Montresors,’ I replied, ‘were a great and numerous family.’”
“I forget your arms.”
“A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.”
“And the motto?”
“Nemo me impune lacessit [No one attacks me with impunity].” (Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” 155).
The translation of the Montresors’ Latin motto suggests that retribution by any means necessary was enshrined as the family’s philosophical pillar long before the latest Montresor ever plotted vengeance against Fortunato. In light of this, it is ambiguous whether Montresor was truly “righting a wrong” through his own force of will, or simply carrying on a cycle that had begun long before he was born. It also begs the question of whether or not there are other bodies besides the Montresors’ and Fortunato’s down in the catacombs, left there by other murderers in the Montresor dynasty. The trope of dysfunctional, sometimes also murderous families is also not an alien concept in Southern Gothic fiction. Perhaps this topic most clearly shows Poe’s influence on the genre. For example, individuals being beholden to an irresistible familial destiny and the horrifying consequences it could entail was a favored theme of William Faulkner’s; so intent was he on tracking the rise and fall of his fictional families to the letter that he included a chronology, genealogy, and map relating to the Sutpen family in his novel Absalom! Absalom! (Howard 83). In Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury, the Compson family dynasty is in the process of falling from aristocratic grace, courtesy of its current crop of troubled heirs and their neurotic parents (Palmer 123-124). Palmer postulates that a primary feature of the novel is “a sort of family apocalypse that implies not only that nothing worthwhile is saved, but that nothing is left worth saving” (124). Beyond this, Faulkner spares nothing in describing the gritty depths of the family’s chaotic life. One of the family’s heirs, Jason Compson, declares during a conversation, “I have all the women I can take care of now if I married a wife she’d probably turn out to be a hophead or something. That’s all we lack in this family, I says” (Faulkner 247). A myriad of troubles hounds the Compson family, tearing them down from their previous high place in society and pushing them closer to their dissolution as a dynasty. In terms of Poe parallels, Palmer points out what could be seen as a similarity between the Compsons’ struggles and the events in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” namely the theme of a dwindling estate (or in the Ushers’ case, a traditionally Gothic decaying house) representing the dynasty that had long dwelt in it (123-124). So too does Poe describe the melancholy that Roderick Usher has sunken into since the story’s narrator last saw him: “For something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no less by his letter, than by reminisces of certain boyish traits, and by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament” (“The Fall of the House of Usher” 114). Roderick and his sister Madeline are the last of their family, and Madeline is expected to soon die of an illness, leaving her brother alone as the final Usher (Poe 115). Just as the Compsons’ estate is at last divided and sold off, according to an appendix Faulkner wrote (Palmer 124), so too does the Ushers’ mansion fall and sink into the nearby tarn after the siblings’ ultimate demise (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 128). It is these examples that demonstrate the wide range of applications for grotesque descriptions, as practiced both by Poe and by Southern Gothic authors.
Even a brief perusal of Poe’s bibliography reveals that he tended to incorporate misfits and mentally ill characters as either protagonists or even bit players in his short stories; this is a trait his works share with what is often considered to be the “typical” Southern Gothic story model. Carson McCullers’ works tended to focus on misfits and those who were not well-suited to the roles in life they were meant to play. Aside from toying with the malleability of gender and sexuality in her works, as seen through a focus on Frankie’s wardrobe and in Berenice’s anecdotes of the effeminate man, Lily Mae Jenkins, in Member of the Wedding (Adams 560-561), McCullers also looked at the concept of those who became misfits via rejection, whether by society or by family. In her short story “Sucker,” McCullers focuses on the relationship between the teenager Pete and his younger cousin-turned-adopted-brother Richard, who earned his nickname “Sucker” due to his gullibility and willingness to do whatever his adoptive brother said (McCullers 1). When Pete takes out his frustrations on Sucker after he is rejected romantically by his classmate Maybelle Watts (7-8), Sucker undergoes a frightening metamorphosis. He begins to wear different clothes and associate with rougher boys, completely destroying his previous sweet and naïve image (9). By the end of Sucker’s transformation, Pete is not only calling him by his real name most of the time, but he is also certain that “if Sucker could he would kill me” (10). As a result of being rejected himself, Sucker retaliates by drawing inward and exchanging his previous great love for Pete with hatred. In the wake of this development, Pete comes to realize the full weight of his words earlier in the story: “If a person admires you a lot you despise him and don’t care – and it is the person who doesn’t notice you that you are apt to admire” (2).
The rejection and ill-treatment of misfit characters having violent or unpleasant consequences is a theme also explored by modern Southern Gothic authors Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, creators of the comic series Southern Bastards. The story arc contained in the first trade paperback volume Here Was a Man follows aging Vietnam veteran Earl Tubb. Earl Tubb left corrupt and violent Craw County some time ago, wanting to get away from his law-preserving sheriff father and make his own way in the world. However, circumstances centered on the covert criminal activities of local football coach Euless Boss force Tubb to take up his father’s famous weapon and obtain answers, despite the fact that townspeople repeatedly tell him to “Go on back to Birmingham” (Aaron and Latour, Here 90). Ultimately, however, Tubb loses his life in a last stand with Boss (98). But the second trade paperback volume, Gridiron, elaborates on the fact that Boss was once as much of a misfit in Craw County as Tubb became. Despite the fact that it costs him a one-sided relationship with his shiftless, disinterested father (Aaron and Latour, Gridiron 65), Boss forges a bond with his mentor Big and claws closer to the top of the Craw County hierarchy through football and criminal involvement. Misfit identity and the disillusioned violence it may lead to characterize the world of Southern Bastards, establishing the series as a variation on the time-worn Southern Gothic theme. A Poe story that may have had an impact on this trope is “Hop-Frog.” In that work, Poe depicts the jester Hop-Frog as both a physical and ethnic misfit in the court he was pressed into the service of; he is described as “being also a dwarf and a cripple…from some barbarous region” (“Hop-Frog”). His friendship with his countrywoman, Trippetta, who also has dwarfism, is his only consolation in a life filled with personal insults and injustices. Though she is more highly favored than he is, Trippetta still suffers at the hands of her captors. It is when the king “[pushes] her violently from him, and [throws] the contents of [a] brimming goblet [of wine] in her face” that the jester is inspired to take revenge on the court (Poe, “Hop-Frog”). During a grand masquerade that he was enlisted to plan, Hop-Frog is able to exact a fiery and cruel vengeance upon the king and his seven advisors before escaping with Trippetta to their shared homeland (Poe, “Hop-Frog”). Although Paul Christian Jones suggests the tale may have been a satire of the sympathetic abolitionist literature that Poe was familiar with during his day (249-250), “Hop-Frog” could also be seen as a precursor to Southern Gothic cautionary tales of the sometimes-steep price of rejecting those who are different.
Turning to mental illness, Southern Gothic authors are as comfortable with the topic as Poe is. A prominent mentally-ill protagonist in the Southern Gothic genre is Benjy Compson, one of the four Compson heirs in The Sound and the Fury. He is the narrator of the book’s first section, and it is his view of the world that allows Faulkner to set the experimental tone for the rest of the novel. Faulkner’s prose in the first section is interspersed with Benjy’s various disjointed observations and feelings: “They held me. It was hot on my chin and on my shirt…They held my head. It was hot inside me, and I began again. I was crying now…and they held me until it stopped happening” (Faulkner 22). Through this writing style, Faulkner establishes the difference between Benjy’s perspective, informed by his unnamed mental condition, and the points-of-view of the other characters in The Sound and the Fury. Poe’s method of establishing mental illness in his characters, by contrast, is a touch more lurid than Faulkner’s. In one of his famous short stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe makes it clear that the narrator is mentally ill from the start, through the narrator’s insistent denial of it: “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them” (172). It is the narrator’s obsessive tendencies, particularly his fixation on the old man’s “Evil Eye” (Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” 173), that lead him to commit murder. Considering these examples, it could be argued that Poe and Southern Gothic writers share a flawed vision of mental illness. Rarely do they write a character as mentally-ill “just because,” and rarer still do they allow such characters to exist solely as sympathetic, or even as unsympathetic actors. Instead, mentally-ill characters are doomed by their various neurological conditions to serve only a narrative function, commit a violent act, or play a plot device in another, “neuro-typical” character’s arc. On the other hand, Poe and Southern Gothic authors do have an open willingness to depict such characters with depth and detail, rather than rendering them as essentially “objects” as authors in some genres have done. In conclusion, Poe and Southern Gothic authors share a pronounced, if at times problematic predilection for writing stories that include misfits and mentally-ill characters; this is one important thematic aspect that unites their literary canons.
Sensationalistic storylines were Poe’s bread and butter, and Southern Gothic authors have delighted in serving these to their readers since the genre’s very beginnings. In fact, it was this sensationalism that caused some critics to reject the budding Southern Gothic style. Among these critics was Ellen Glasgow, who in her criticisms of the then-current work of authors William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell declared their writing to be anathema to “true” Gothic fiction, claiming that the style they showcased was “irresponsible, crude, childishly morbid, and akin to fairy tales” (Palmer 120). Interestingly enough, this seems to echo the contemporary criticism that Poe received during his career as an author; a view among some of Poe’s critics was that he had to be some sort of madman to write as he did, or at the very least a drunk, a drug addict, or some other type of person they would group with the miscreant class. This browbeating of Poe only served to make him more popular, as many avid readers of the time were thrilled by the thought of reading an evil man’s works. As Poe’s contemporary popularity shows, sensationalism often draws readers in instead of repulsing them, and early Southern Gothic authors undoubtedly took note of this. Flannery O’Connor in particular reveled in sensationalism. Her works often featured con men, ill-intentioned travelers, and even murderers, alongside self-satisfied and moralizing Christians. Greed and desperation characterize the respective motivations of the characters in her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” The old woman at the homestead that drifter Tom Shiftlet comes across is, according to O’Connor, “ravenous for a son-in-law” (53-54), so much so that she essentially pays Shiftlet to marry her deaf daughter Lucynell (57-58). However, he goes on to simply abandon Lucynell in a diner, coldly telling the boy behind the counter that she is only a hitchhiker (60). As this incident demonstrates, drifters were not heralds of good fortune in O’Connor’s fictional world, typically leaving destruction behind them in their travels. Another of her stories focusing on a chaos-causing drifter is “Good Country People.” In this story, a supposed Bible salesman with a heart condition, Manley Pointer, wreaks havoc on the life of smug, disabled intellectual Hulga, nee Joy, Hopewell. He leads her to believe that she has seduced him, only to steal her prosthetic leg and flee the hayloft where they were trysting (O’Connor 190-194). Despite this depiction of sensationalistic violence and wrongdoing, Doreen Fowler describes various theories proposing that O’Connor’s real intention here is to express the way such violence works to preserve social hierarchies (Fowler 128). However, though Pointer apparently dominates Hopewell, it would seem that this is a small, insignificant triumph; it is implied by Pointer’s “panting” (188) from the minor exertion of climbing into the hayloft that his heart condition is a very real thing. His casual sociopathy and “[belief] in nothing ever since [he] was born” (O’Connor 194) and the actions this philosophy goads him into are pointless, due to the very real possibility that he “may not live long” (178). It might also be suggested that the theft of Hopewell’s leg and abandonment in the hayloft could be a form of divine retribution for her pride. With this view in mind, a parallel between “Good Country People” and Sophocles’ Antigone, the source of the title of Poe’s short story “Mellonta Tauta,” can be observed. Dimitrios Tsokanos quotes Martinez Lopez’s description of Antigone’s conclusion, which expresses that “although the gods punish the proud, punishment brings wisdom” (Tsokanos 49). Despite the trauma of the encounter, Hopewell is left with the newfound wisdom that Pointer’s horrible, criminal behavior is the logical result of the nihilistic philosophy that she previously professed. This conclusion, of course, is influenced by O’Connor’s devout worldview as a Catholic southerner. As a result, it may not ring true to all readers of all philosophies, though perhaps it was not meant to. O’Connor may have intended only to give an eloquent argument for her own philosophical perspective through the story. In sum, it would seem that both Poe and Southern Gothic authors do not indulge in sensationalism for its own sake. Rather, they attempt to simultaneously appeal to their audiences’ sensibilities while expressing truths that they personally feel to be important.
As the various examples covered here will hopefully show, the Southern Gothic works of authors past and present owe an enormous debt to America’s premier Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe. If it were not for Poe’s unique approach to grotesque imagery, his depiction of societal misfits and mentally ill individuals, and use of sensationalistic storylines to engross and influence readers, Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, and the rest of the early Southern Gothic school would not have as vivid a tradition to draw from in concocting their tales of a decaying, despairing south. And without that Southern Gothic literary foundation, Aaron and Latour would not have been able to infuse as much menacing cultural, philosophical power into their depiction of corrupted Craw County and its sordid domestic dramas. More or less, America’s Gothic fiction in general bears the legacy of Poe. But it is only fitting that some of the darkest pieces in American Gothic fiction took flight like a proverbial raven from the southern states, the region that Poe himself fondly called home. After all, history has left the south a number of dark events, deaths, and destruction to deal with in its wake. The Southern Gothic literary genre was produced by authors who felt the region’s cultural demons were best revealed and perhaps more easily exorcised through writing’s power. Just as Poe drew attention to the realities of mental illness and other often unpleasant subjects through his writing, so too did Southern Gothic writers seek to draw attention to the idiosyncrasies, flaws, and tensions within southern culture. Perhaps Poe would be proud to know that just as he never forgot the time he spent in Richmond, Virginia, authors in the southern United States never did forget him. The very existence of the Southern Gothic genre, if nothing else, proves this to be so.
Aaron, Jason, and Jason Latour. Southern Bastards, Volume 1: Here Was a Man. Image Comics, 2014.
—. Southern Bastards, Volume 2: Gridiron. Image Comics, 2015.
Adams, Rachel. “’A Mixture of Delicious and Freak’: The Queer Fiction of Carson McCullers.” American Literature, vol. 71, no. 3, 1999, pp. 551-583. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/222410193?accountid=15152.
Christian Jones, Paul. “The Danger of Sympathy: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and the Abolitionist Rhetoric of Pathos.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 35, 2001, pp. 239-254. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/195664959?accountid=15152.
Fowler, Doreen. “Flannery O’Connor’s Productive Violence.” The Arizona Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, 2011, pp. 127-154,179. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/899273854?accountid=15152.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 1st ed., Vintage Books, 1990.
Gordon, Adam. “A ‘Condition to be Criticized’: Edgar Allan Poe and the Vocation of Antebellum Criticism.” The Arizona Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2012, pp. 1-31. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1924948132?accountid=15152, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/arq.2012.0010.
Knight, Dean. Interview. By Amber Lee. 14 Oct. 2018.
McCullers, Carson. “Sucker.” Collected Stories of Carson McCullers. Introduction by Virginia Spencer Carr, 1st ed., Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, pp. 1–10.
McIntyre, Rebecca C. “Promoting the Gothic South.” Southern Cultures, vol. 11, no. 2, 2005, pp. 33-61,113. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/217825908?accountid=15152.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. 1st ed., Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981.
Palmer, Louis. “Bourgeois Blues: Class, Whiteness, and Southern Gothic in Early Faulkner and Caldwell.” The Faulkner Journal, vol. 22, no. 1, 2006, pp. 120-139,210. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/219136068?accountid=15152.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Hop-Frog.” PoeStories.com, Robert Giordano, 2006, https://poestories.com/read/hop-frog.
—. Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, edited by Stephen Marlowe and Regina Marler, Signet Classics, 2006, pp. 212–400.
—. “The Cask of Amontillado.” The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, edited by Stephen Marlowe and Regina Marler, Signet Classics, 2006, pp. 162–169.
—. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, edited by Stephen Marlowe and Regina Marler, Signet Classics, 2006, pp. 117–137.
—. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, edited by Stephen Marlowe and Regina Marler, Signet Classics, 2006, pp. 183–188.
Tsokanos, Dimitrios. “Hellenic References in Edgar Allan Poe’s Critique on Contemporary Society.” International Journal of English Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 45-59. ProQuest, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1856858242?accountid=15152.