Southern gothic is a term that gets tossed around in literature, film, art, and even music, but what does it mean? Southern gothic is a sub-genre of gothic literature that began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, post–American Civil War. The first pieces of southern gothic literature were direct social commentary of the cultural shift happening in the south. Unsettling and engrossing, southern gothic exposed the myth of the idealized antebellum south. Modern and contemporary southern gothic tend to be reflective of the past, warily looking toward the future.
Distinctly different from its cousin, southern gothic usually features eccentric, flawed characters, sinister events, elements of the supernatural or fantastical, and themes relating to race, class, decay, violence, and isolation. Magical realism and social commentary are staples of southern gothic literature. The grandiose mansions of traditional gothic literature are replaced by derelict plantations, swamps and bayous, lonesome deserts, and small towns that act as independent societies. Southern humor is known for being ironic, dark, and even macabre. The lines between good and evil will often be blurred, with either an unreliable narrator, or a sympathetic villain. These novels are just a few of these incredible, thought-provoking books in the southern gothic canon.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
When the court wouldn’t remove “illegitimate” from Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright’s birth certificate, she became the bastard child of her South Carolina family. After Daddy Glen came into their lives, things were supposed to get easier, but they didn’t. Bone is caught at the center of it all. Bastard Out Of Carolina is a bleak, semi-autobiographical novel.
The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
For seven generations, the Howlands have lived on the same Alabama land, building up the community around them. When secrets about their family history come to light, Abigail is left to deal with the fury of their neighbors alone.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
12 years after Robin was murdered in his front yard, Harriet Dufresnes is determined to spend her summer uncovering the truth of her brother’s killer. Expressive and languid as a Mississippi summer, The Little Friend is a layered mystery full of southern eccentricity and buried sorrow, with an examination of race and class in the deep south.
The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan
At the height of the Civil War, a wounded Union soldier is found and brought to a girl’s boarding school in the remote Virginia woods. While he recovers, the girls and their teachers wait on edge, trapped by the fighting that surrounds the school. Preying on their kindness and southern hospitality, the soldier begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, dangling freedom in front of the women for his own gain.
Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
At 13, Jojo is caring for his little sister, ailing grandparents, and drug-addicted mother, Leonie. When Jojo’s father is released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Leonie packs the kids up for a road trip full of ghosts. At once an epic and an intimate family portrait, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a prime example of contemporary southern gothic.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
In the mountains of Tennessee, an isolated man named Lester lives outside society after being released from jail. Lester becomes part of the mountain’s mythos, becoming increasingly more volatile to nearby residents. This darkly comic novel explores the roles of morality and society through extreme violence.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
This dark novella plays more into the fantasy side of southern gothic, set in 1920s Georgia. When a spell opens between worlds, the demonic powers of the hateful Klu Klux Klan spill into America. Maryse, a bootleg whiskey seller and monster fighter, has her friends at her side and a magic sword. Horrifying and fantastical, Ring Shout is an incredible historical adventure.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
After the loss of her ancestral home, troubled southern belle, Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans to live with her younger sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley. The apartment is too-small for the growing tensions between Blanche and Stanley. Over the course of this two-act play, Blanche’s mental state continues to deteriorate as Stella tries to maintain her grasp on her happy little family.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Summer in Savannah, Georgia, 1981, under the sweltering heat, antique dealer Jim is put on trial for the murder of his employee and lover, Danny. The eccentric residents of Savannah make up a Greek Chorus, as prejudice, old money, class, race, and voodoo, intertwine in this masterful nonfiction novel.
The Boatman’s Daughter by Andy Davidson
Miranda makes her living ferrying contraband across the bayou for a preacher. She keeps to herself, to protect a witch and a child she promised to care for. When the preacher demands something more from Miranda, it forces her to take risks that could ruin everything.
When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen
More than a decade after leaving her segregated hometown, Mira finds herself attending a plantation wedding. Mira hopes to reconnect with old friends and make amends. Despite a makeover, the plantation remains a horrifying testament to its past, with its ghosts waiting patiently for their turn. Past and present blend together to create a terrifying scene.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Vern, a pregnant teenager with albinism, escapes Cainland, the cult where she grew up. Deep in the woods, she gives birth to twins. To protect herself and her new babies, Vern must face the violence America has inflicted in its history.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This ground-breaking epistolary novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, detailing the lives of sisters Celie and Nettie in rural early 20th century Georgia. Separated in childhood, the sisters write to each other, and to God, sharing their secrets, their wishes, their pain, and their joys.
The Toll by Cherie Priest
Newlyweds Titus and Davina decide to take canoeing trip in the Okenfenkee swamp, but are met with a dangerous one-lane bridge. When Titus wakes us alone in the middle of the road, Davina is nowhere to be found, and the car’s engine is still running. The closest town has their own legends about the bridge, but can Titus determine how to safely pay the toll and save Davina before it’s too late?
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
As I Lay Dying features multiple points of views, intersecting and overlapping, as the Bundren family travels across Mississippi to bury their wife and mother. Shifting in tone from darkly comic to dramatic anguish, with elements of the supernatural and macabre, As I Lay Dying is one of the foundation blocks of the southern gothic genre.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
After a disturbing tragedy shook their small town, boyhood friends Larry and Silas lost contact. Twenty years later, Larry is blamed for a girl’s disappearance and turns to Silas for help. Confronting their past and their mistakes, Larry and Silas work together clear Larry’s name. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is about the loneliness, prejudice, and profound melancholy that can be found in rural America.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Caren has worked as a manager at Belle Vie historic plantation for years, but when a dead body turns up, everything changes. The past can’t lie undisturbed anymore in this atmospheric crime novel.
The Past is Never by Tiffany Quay Tyson
The old rock quarry is supposed to be cursed, the devil’s place, but it’s hotter than hell in the Mississippi Delta. Siblings Bert, Willet, and Pansy can’t resist the cool, dark water. When 6-year-old Pansy disappears beneath the surface, she doesn’t drown, she’s just gone. Years later, Bert and Willet follow clues that lead them to the Florida Everglades. Even if they find answers, will it be what they’re looking for?
Beloved by Toni Morrison
While most of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel takes place in Ohio, it begins in the south with classic southern gothic elements. After escaping slavery 18 years ago, Sethe is haunted by her past, and the complexities of her freedom.
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
Ambitious and hopeful, Jay moves his family to a small plot of land in Mississippi to run a sustainable farm. Within a year, the land is ruined with flood and disease and his wife and son have left for town. When Jay discovers a corpse on his land, he is sure that he is being framed. Paranoia, dark comedy, and environmental themes play together in this contemporary southern gothic.
It doesn’t matter what side of the Mississippi you’re reading from, just bring your own blanket and find a shady spot under the Spanish moss. Have you read any of these classic or contemporary southern gothic novels? Want more? Check out 12 of the Best Southern Gothic Books.