Reviewed by Amy Susan Wilson
Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South is a much needed anthology of American Southern literature that calls attention to a diverse range of American Southern experiences and issues—primarily contemporary issues and experiences. Edited by Brian Centrone with art design by Jordan Scoggins, these stories and poems by both established and emerging voices paint a portrait of the American South that is haunting, lyrical, poignant, and at times, joyful and hilarious.
Each story and poem is paired with original art work by Florida artist Nathan Mark Phillips. These digital art designs pull at the underside of the stories and poems and bring a rich, satisfying interpretation to each work. Collectively, these authors—along with Phillips’visual works—make a fresh, bold statement about the South in the twenty-first century.
Interestingly, this literary anthology’s artwork also tells stories both in tandem with the writings, and on their own, independent from the text. The anthology cover features a rattletrap, 1930’s pickup parked in the front yard of a farmhouse, a lone peacock meanders on a patch of tired lawn in front of the truck’s grill. Positioned on top of the farmhouse’s roof—why a hen of course—and one fat barn cat nesting atop the rusted truck hood. A largesse matron wearing black plastic cat eye glasses stands to the right of the vehicle. While this aesethic alludes to the gothic stories and poems, stories of the reader’s own will emerge while viewing the cover and other fine art in this book.
What I don’t see in this cover artwork but know is there: the cat-eyed glasses wearing matron I’ve named Aunt June has just whipped up deviled eggs that chill in the ice box, those twenty-eight deviled delights glued to the hand-me-down white china plate. Aluminum foil stretches over each egg that she prays will—collectively—keep Uncle Bob sober. (Bob, called “Bob Cat” on account he once got a DUI for motoring to Tank ‘N Tummy for Pall Malls, driving the Bob Cat, but then smacking into a big brown utility pole). Bob Cat likes deviled eggs, he once said—likes deviled eggs more than vodka, but said it drunk, but still, he said.
Maybe Bob Cat won’t drink at the church pot luck this afternoon if there’s eggs, Aunt June reasons.
Beyond the rattletrap truck, the farmhouse, the book cover reveals a mythical, archetypal barn and I “see” kids play “Country Vet” in that barn after birthday celebrations and Sunday school lessons. Girls with brown ponytails are mares; boy cousins are DVMs and this is not child molestation, just silly horseplay.
The South that greets the reader inside this anthology ranges from the post-Katrina New Orleans world of Rose Yndigoyen’s “Long Gone Girls,” to the Cajun family clan of Hardy Jones’ worlds, who greet readers in the story “Vistin’ Cormierville” and in “A New Bike for Little Mike.” Racial tension in Eryk Pruitt’s “Them Riders” and Shane K. Bernard’s “The Phrenologist,” transports readers into the “Old South,” and dually, forces us to visit the subtle, stifling, frightening racism of this contemporary era. While not cliché, it is expected that an anthology of Southern literature would address race issues and these two stories add the necessary “race” ingredient to the collection. Yet, more than a statement about “race and the South,” these stories are literary jewels that speak of truth.
A diverse style of writing, themes, and conflicts ranging from the political to the intensely personal are also found in this collection. Emerging author Rose Yndigonyen’s short story “Long Gone Girls” captures the mood of a young woman who yearns for human connection so strongly that she invents an occupation for herself at a local museum while her lover attends the university during the day. And what museum would this be without a ghost? A Southern lady ghost from antebellum days past? Yndigonyen’s nimble, deft writing allows the story to resonate fully long after reading.
Traveling to Grandmother and Grandfather Cormier’s Cajun Louisiana homestead in Jones’ “Visitin’ Cormierville” takes the reader into the heart of good ole family dysfunction, grits and human conflict, Southern style. A mother and her young middle school aged son, Wesley, travel from Florida to spend time with Raynell Royal’s mother, father—Wesley’s grandparents—and to visit the extended clan, which includes the whole kit and caboodle of scrappy Louisiana Cajun cousins.
One of Wesley’s cousins is nicknamed Coon, and his younger brother is aptly nicknamed Hobo “because he’s always picking up cans and other trash from the side of the road and bringing it home and piling it by the back door.” During hilarious scenes that are both wildly poignant and humorous, young Wesley realizes an unexpected secret about his mother, and her side of the family. In turn, he learns about himself.
In the hands of a less capable author, this story might strike one as overly dramatic or cliché. Yet Jones’ intelligent, artful approach to writing about family relationships and dynamics is impressive and his prose meanders like a river leading to the mouth of the ocean, so you think, but Jones takes this family as extended-clan, and as individuals, to a less-than-expected place. Readers won’t be disappointed.
Two stories, “Them Riders” and “The Phrenologist,” explore race relations as only they can unfold in this American South. “Them Riders,” the first story of the anthology, by Eyrk Pruitt, introduces Wilbur Turgow, a disgruntled neighbor who greets his black, middle-aged neighbor lady with a verbal threat for not mowing the lawn to his expectations. The psychology of fear, victimization and the fundamental question of who has personal and societal power, as well as how we negotiate our personal and cultural power, is explored in this story, thus raising the question: What does racism look like in the 21st century South?
Like most readers, I do not read a story for a sociological theory or factoid. I read literature to be transported into a world besides the one I inhabit in my real life. Pruitt’s story took me to a place both ordinary and terrifying. From the first line of this story, I was in the world of a black middle-aged woman living in a white neighborhood, in 2014, with a white bigot at the front door, ringing the doorbell to make his demand. The story begins: “Wilbur Turgow dropped the dew-soaked newspaper and stared hell-fire toward the neighbor’s yard. Not a split second later he stomped across the rust-stained patch of lawn separating their houses.”
Likewise, in “The Phrenologist,” by Shane K. Bernard, racism is examined, but at the turn of the twentieth century. Obsession of the mainstream culture with the “brain capacity” of whites and blacks is the centerpiece of the story.
Other works in this anthology include Mark Pritchard’s “Instrument,” a short story which explores a young man’s experience at a revival. Authors Heather Bell Adams, Miranda Stone, A.G. Carpenter and others found in this rich collection present a vibrant, layered American South. If you are seeking a Southern read with all the necessary complexities, this is an anthology to add to your summer reading list.
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