Delilah S. Dawson: 25 Ingredients for a Kickass Southern Gothic

You know Delilah S. Dawson, yeah? She’s been here before. I’ll just let her take it away.

* * *

First of all, let’s get something straight. I’m Southern, and I’m slightly Goth, which makes me totally qualified to speak on this topic.

*puts on heavy black eyeliner, turns on The Cure, and prepares glass of overly sweetened iced tea *

Now, let’s get down to business. What is Southern Gothic? I’m not going to bore you with the entire Wikipedia entry, so let me sum it up: MACABRE SHIT GOES DOWN IN THE SOUTH. Whether you’re swooning with Flannery O’Connor or swooping around the graveyard with Anne Rice, Southern Gothic is a fun playground for stories that mix horror, history, magic, and opossums. YES, THEY HAVE TO HAVE OPOSSUMS. IT’S A RULE.

Now, don’t look at this list like my grandmother’s famous chocolate pie recipe, which is highly specific and involves candy thermometers and bezoars and assplodes the kitchen if done incorrectly. No, this is more like making a gumbo. Look at the list, toss in what appeals to you, and leave out what’s rotten or still twitching. We good, y’all?

Then I reckon it’s time to R-U-N-N-O-F-T.

1. THE SOUTH

Yes, okay, so this one is actually pretty necessary. If it ain’t in the South, it ain’t Southern Gothic. But where exactly does the South start and end? Is it everything below the Mason-Dixon line? Where is the Mason-Dixon line, and is it dotted or marked with caution tape? What about Texas? What about Florida?

Hellfire, son. I don’t know. If there’s a Waffle House in the area, you’re probably safe setting a Southern Gothic Story there. Here’s a map:

Point is, setting is a big deal. Old plantations, warped little towns, creepy homesteads in withering fields. You can’t write this shit in California. Not with all those hipsters and avocados classing up the joint.

2. A MANSION

Once upon a time, there was always a plantation. A beautiful, shiny white plantation. Everyone’s happy at the plantation—except the slaves who do all the work. Because Southern Gothic is all about irony and contrast. These days, the metaphor has more wiggle room. But every small town has a family that’s rich and beautiful and powerful but secretly corrupted and sinister. They might actually be snake people. I mean, I’m not sure. But they might.

3. A HOVEL

It stands to reason that the way to make a mansion seem even grander is to put it next to a trailer or a shotgun shack. That’s like putting a rusted Matchbox car with three wheels next to a souped-up monster truck. See, the weird thing about the South is that we have all these confusing opposites smushed together. Rich people and poor people, cheek by jowl. Rednecks and Yankees. Starbucks next to the cemetery. Yacht clubs next to the swamp. It’s a study in contrasts that allows the writer to explore social critique and magical realism.

Or, in Southern terms, GO HOME, GUSSY GOT-ROCKS.

I mean, that’s what my grandma says when I buy a new pair of shoes.

4. A WITCH

Or anyone who straddles the real world and the magical world. Maybe it’s an old voodoo lady or a child who has prognosticatory nightmares or a preacher who says mystical things and may or may not be a demon. But someone has to commune with the spirits. And judging by the Krispy Kreme bags we always find by the dead black chickens in my hometown graveyard, our particular hoodoo priestess likes chocolate iced donuts with her Santeria.

5. A SWAMP

There’s nothing like a swamp. Like, literally, because it’s this weird mix of land and water that you can’t find anywhere that isn’t a swamp. It’s alive, oppressive, treacherous, and hiding all sorts of nasty things under scummy, opaque water. GEE, I WONDER IF THAT’S A METAPHOR.

6. A CEMETERY

It’s hard to write a Southern Gothic that doesn’t involve a cemetery, a lone grave, or at least a nice, gnarly dead body. That’s partly because it’s hard to walk through a Southern town without finding tons of graveyards. Since the South is the oldest part of America, we got lots of dead folks. Especially once you get down into Savannah and the coast, every downtown is just full of curious headstones, mausoleums, and statues. And they’re all different and strange and crumbling. Of course something unnatural is going on down there. Didn’t you see the lady carrying the Krispy Kreme bag and the black chicken?

Side note: Do you play the cow game? That’s where you count cows on your side of the car, and whoever gets the most wins. But if you pass a graveyard, you lose them all. No one ever wins the cow game at our house because you can’t get to our house without passing more graveyards than cows. And we live in cow country.

7. A TOWN

Well, obviously you need a town. But the thing is, in Southern Gothic, the towns are almost characters in and of themselves. The town has a flavor, a funny name, a history, peculiarities that make it different from other small towns. It’s most likely a caricature, a warped version of a real town. Think of Big Fish, of the shoes hanging from the lines and the lights strung across the green. If you’re writing a town of your own invention, go on and make it as strange as the ones you see in real life. Like the one twenty miles from me that thinks it’s a German village in the Appalachian mountains. Alpine Helen. Even the Denny’s looks like a damn chalet, and you can’t walk five feet without tripping on a bratwurst. IN GEORGIA.

8. SECRETS

Here’s the fun part. Your town seems quaint and pleasant, but it’s hiding something. Your plantation seems happy, but it’s rotten. Your debutante’s smile isn’t quite real. You have to paint a picture for the reader that squirms, just a little, underneath. And then, bit by bit, like a shovel uncovering a coffin, you reveal what’s down there, waiting. But it can’t be a trans-dimensional spider-clown, because Stephen King already did that. Pick something else.

9. A MONSTER

The monster can be real or magical. It can be a giant gator, a chupacabra, or a Civil War ghost. Or it can be a serial killer undertaker or a corrupt cop or a little old lady with especially bounteous tomatoes growing out of body-shaped dirt mounds. Point is, you want the reader to feel like something’s always watching from the other side of the bushes, waiting to pounce and claim another victim. But don’t write an albino alligator, because I just did that, and NEENER.

10. A CURSE

Much like a sprinkle of sugar in the creamed corn, it’s always nice to toss a bit of mysterious worry into your story. An omen, a head shake from the palm reader, a fortune cookie with only bad news, or a family ailment that claims all the first born sons when they turn eighteen. You have a monster waiting behind the tree, but the sword of Damocles is dangling over your head, too. It’s not something solid, not something you can fight. But it wears on you, chases you, keeps you from ever feeling safe. Like your own personal storm cloud full of angry bees.

11. A BOO RADLEY

Eccentric characters are a big part of Southern Gothic. Nobody’s normal, and anybody who pretends to be is hiding a body in the freezer. There’s almost always one peculiar character who’s actually harmless and helpful. Maybe the whole town’s scared of the cat lady, or maybe it’s the old man who lives alone in the swamp and brings a lost little girl home. But you need a friend, and it’s okay if your friend is a damn Sasquatch, so long as we learn at the end that they’ve been helping out all along. I suggest a beekeeping Sasquatch named ROO RADBEE who makes hand-dipped candles to light the way of lost orphans. I will now take 15% of your profits.

12. AN UNEXPECTED VILLAIN

Yeah, so every story needs a villain. And sometimes the villain is the monster, but sometimes the monster is the Boo Radley/Roo Radbee and the super nice mayor is the villain and he would’ve gotten away with it, too, if not for you kids and your Sasquatch candles. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s not. But mostly, you should get to the end, and your jaw should drop, because it’s been staring you in the face all along.

13. THE ELITE

Or the darling debutante of Dublin. Or a Mrs. Havisham. Or a Country Club Colonel. But almost every Southern town has a character known for putting on airs who’s secretly just as pathetic as everyone else. This is the lady wearing the flea-bitten fur coat in August or the fellow with the slicked back hair who can’t do without his Dapper Dan or the baton-twirling beauty queen with Vaseline on her teeth. The whole point is that someone has to represent how “the elite” is really just a dead conceit and Gussy Got-Rocks goes home and takes out her dentures and cries while she polishes her baton. Which is not as weirdly sexual as it sounds.

14. CREEPY PLANTS

There is nothing that says Southern Gothic like Spanish moss dripping off live oaks. Unless it’s a swamp filled with swoopy tupelo and cypress. Or a field of kudzu slowly marching onward and tearing down a weathered barn. Thing is, you can’t really stop plants in the South. Maybe you can hold ’em off for a bit, but they’ll keep coming back, digging in their tendrils and slowly reclaiming whatever folks try to build. They seem to reach for you—because they are reaching for you. Vines, branches, twisted roots cracking tombstones—they’re always in the background, painting a picture of inescapable decay and a return to nature, whether you like it or not. Trust me on this one: I once played a kudzu monster at an outdoor haunted house, and I made a guy piss his pants. BY BEING A PLANT.

15. AN INNOCENT

Here’s another one of those opposites: when you take an old, decrepit Southern town, you need a new person to really make it look crappy. Whether it’s an awkward and curious outsider from the big city or a sweet, naïve child experiencing the setting for the first time, it makes us aware that everyone who lives in the town is part of it, decaying with it, unable to escape it. Whereas the new person is fresh, unburdened by whatever’s dragging down the town. Bad news, sugarplum: they’re going down, too. But they’ll probably get a nice slice of pie before it happens.

16. A PECULIAR CRITTER

Everybody in the South is full of stories about weird animals. And I don’t mean a dog named Paul with funny markings that look like eyebrows. I mean that time when my cousin Jaybird put a toddler version of me on the back of a billy goat named Hercules and told me to grab onto his horns for as long as I could. And that is the story of how I was almost trampled and eaten by an angry goat with balls the size of mangoes. We take in pet opossums, feed cat food to families of raccoons, adopt three-legged hounds, and buy de-glanded baby skunks at the flea market. Critters are part of our community eccentricity, and every good Southern Gothic has at least one animal that’s too ridiculous to be true but is based on someone’s twisted childhood.

I might still be afraid of mangoes.

17. A TALISMAN

Southerners are a superstitious lot. We pick up pennies, carry rabbit feet, and rub stones we found by the river. A mysterious talisman or object is another way to add a layer of mystery to your story, whether through an antique ring handed down through the family, a coin found in the town’s last pay phone, or a music box found buried under a tree. Old Southerners in particular often consider themselves historians of stuff, keepers responsible for carrying on traditions and passing on stories. Over time and with enough embellishment, seemingly meaningless objects will be imbued with almost otherworldly powers.

Ask me about the time I slept in Jefferson Davis’s bed. No, don’t. It was super uncomfortable. The ghost of Jefferson Davis hates me.

18. MALAISE

Humidity + heat + everything is old and droopy + everyone is lazy = an overwhelming malaise characteristic of the South. Most Southern Gothic stories don’t take place in winter, when the mud freezes and everybody stays inside to burn books. No, it’s usually a summer night, and sweat glistens on everybody’s brow, and water beads up outside the iced tea glass, and the dogs pant, and the air seems to shimmer over the cracked ground. There’s a magic to the heat here, as if the buzz of the cicadas is just waiting for something to happen. It’s hammocks and porch swings and rocking chairs and slowly waving fans with church calendars from 1954 printed on ’em. Yes, I’m romanticizing it. August in the South is miserable, and our mosquitos are the size of vultures, and we all wish we were in Canada, playing hockey.

19. OLD SHIT

Yes, we’ve covered old people and old houses and old tombstones and old objects that old people can’t stop hollering about. But seriously: SOUTHERN GOTHIC IS FULL OF OLD SHIT. Wood is weathered, paint is peeling, the roof is missing shingles. The car has ghosts on the hood, and the old man’s slippers have holes in the soles, and this cast iron skillet has seriously been in my family for so long that a certain family member recently joked, “When your great-great-great whatever got disowned, they left her with this skillet and a slave. If only the slave had lasted longer than the skillet.” And then we all quietly threw up. But decrepitude and magnificent decay are a big part of Southern Gothic. Because no matter how grand and beautiful something used to be, it dies just like everything else.

20. WEATHER

You know how in Jane Austen, they say the weather was practically a person? It’s like that in Southern Gothic, too. You just don’t get humid heat like this anywhere else. There’s no smell like fat raindrops hitting the dirt during a drought. Tornadoes tear our trees up by the roots, and hurricanes pound our shores, and thunder rolling along on a summer night sounds like drums and cannons. When it rains while the sun is shining, we say, “The devil is beating his wife behind the kitchen door,” and then we realize what we’ve just said and wonder what the hell our parents were thinking and explain to our children that we just call it a sunshower and move on.

Oh, and when it snows? We all wear tube socks on our hands because we don’t own mittens, and we sled down the driveway on bent cookie sheets and get into insane traffic jams that lead to amazing sex. True story!

21. A NIGHT MEETING

Oh, how I love to write night scenes in Southern Gothic. When you add up everything else, all the decay and heat and malaise and hungry plants and creepy critters and eccentric neighbors, then put it all in the pitch black with nothing but a moon hanging in the tree branches and some flickering fireflies… well, it’s magic. And also creepy. Just make sure your characters are wearing shoes for that meeting, or one of them is bound to step on a slug, which will scar them forever. FOREVER.

God, I hate slugs.

22. SOUTHERN FOOD

If the weather is a character, the food is pretty much a minor god. If you’re Southern, you know the catechism: grits, biscuits, banana pudding, gumbo, fried chicken, collards, field peas, creamed corn, fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese, chocolate pie, grass, chow chow, vidalia onions, squash casserole, barbecue, brunswick stew, cold ham, peach cobbler, green beans, apple pie, watermelon, butter beans, fried okra, jambalaya, dirty rice, fried catfish, Moon Pies. I could keep going. But I’m too hungry.

23. DRINK

If it’s tea, it’s sweet. If it’s carbonated, it’s Coke. If it’s alcohol, Lord, that’s a long list. We have moonshine, and we also have cheap beer and some mighty nice bourbon. Point is, if someone invites you inside on a summer day, they offer you a drink. What you ask for and what they have on hand says a lot about you both. But here’s one way that conversation might go differently than in other parts of the world:

Them: Can I get you a drink?

You: I’d be obliged. What do you have?

Them: Tea, milk, water, Coke.

You: What kind of Coke?

Them: Sprite, Orange, Diet, Dr. Pepper.

Because anything carbonated is Coke. COKE IS YOUR GOD NOW.

Did somebody say Pepsi? *stares* GO HOME.

24. RELIGION

If you don’t think religion is still a big deal in the South, then you haven’t seen the statue of the Ten Commandments that’s bigger than a Volkswagon Beetle outside our town hall. Most Southern families have a Bible the size of a coffee table that’s been around since the Gutenberg. The pages are so thin as to be transparent, the cover is cracked leather, and the inside flap includes carefully written names, birthdays, and deaths, often of people with names like Sister, Jules, Paralee, and Castleberry. If we’re talking deep South and small towns, chances are you’re looking at Baptists. There might even be snake handling Pentecostals or tiny churches where you can hear the singing down the road. Thing is, you can’t write Southern Gothic without old people, cemeteries, churches, and a deep-rooted belief that colors the perspective on good, evil, and the afterlife. And, oddly enough, there’s often some sort of hoodoo going on simultaneously.

25. COLLOQUIALISMS

Different parts of the South have different accents, different lingo, different idioms, but chances are we’re dropping our Gs and peppering our speech with turns of phrase that you just can’t fake. If you can’t properly use “I reckon”, I reckon you’d best let sleeping dogs lie. If you put the words “you guys” in an old Southern woman’s mouth, the Gods of Y’all will flutter down on mosquito wings and poke you full of holes. If you forget to say yes ma’am or no sir or please or thank you, we’ll know you’re from New York City and trying to sell us Pace Picante Sauce.

At the very least, watch some Duck Dynasty and just do whatever the guys in beards do. If they have their own line of wines at Wal-Mart, they must know what they’re doing.

Just as an example, if you haven’t watched True Detective, I recommend it. Fascinating, super sharp writing with compelling characters and a plot that keeps you guessing. And it has every single thing on this list. So does True Blood and the original Sookie Stackhouse series of books on which the show is based. So does Beautiful Creatures. And so does my YA Southern Gothic Horror, SERVANTS OF THE STORM, which is out now, set in a storm-ravaged Savannah, and guaranteed to make you think twice about eating collards.

So y’all go on out and write some creepy Southern Gothic. And then y’all come back now, y’here? And when y’all come back, bring me some chocolate pie, cuz I’m hungry enough to chew the ass end out of a rag doll.

* * *

Delilah S. Dawson is a native of Roswell, Georgia, and the author of the paranormal romance Blud series for Pocket, including Wicked as They Come, Wicked as She Wants, and the upcoming Wicked After Midnight, as well as two previous Blud novellas, The Mysterious Madam Morpho and The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance. 

Delilah S. Dawson: Website | Twitter

Servants of the Storm: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound