[GUEST POST] Steve Rasnic Tem on Southern Gothic and the Appalachian Weird
In Steve Rasnic Tem‘s 30 + years as a professional writer he has published over 300 short stories, three collections, and four novels, as well as hundreds of poems, essays, articles etc. He is a past winner of the British Fantasy Award, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, and International Horror Guild awards, and had been nominated for the Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, and Theodore Sturgeon awards. His latest novel is Blood Kin, out this month (February 26th) from Solaris.
by Steve Rasnic Tem
My new novel Blood Kin, a dark study of ghosts, snake-handling, and the Great Depression, is set in two Appalachias. The first, a sepia-toned vision of the impoverished thirties, is full of characters. The people are poor, but there are a lot of them. The other Appalachia, seventy-odd years later, is a greener vision, but it’s the green of rot and moss and kudzu vine filling the empty spaces of a much-diminished town. It’s like an Iris DeMent song with the sun going down and the town fading into little more than a memory.
I’m one of many who moved away. I needed book stores and movie theaters and the university. But despite the poverty, despite the sadness I feel when I see all the empty stores and abandoned houses, I still find it to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.
As a native, I bristle at the Appalachian stereotypes–their ignorance, hygiene, violence, eccentricity. Natives will eagerly relate stories about extraordinary kindnesses they’ve witnessed, acts of generosity and bravery. They will tell you about the intelligent and creative people they know. Like everywhere else in the world, the people there aren’t always exactly what they seem.
But there is that phenomenon we call Southern Gothic, and it isn’t some fantasized confection. Many of the social and political dynamics we see at play in the South today come out of its long and at times unpleasant history, and, with its particular mix of terrain and crumbling architecture, some people bred in this environment have stories which fit nicely into the Gothic sensibility.
I’m not one to seek out subgenres but it’s apparent that so-called “strange” fiction set in this locale tends to have its own identity. It’s not just “Southern Gothic,” it’s “Appalachian Gothic.” The mountains and hollows of the poor create an isolation more profound than in the rest of the South. I grew up in Lee County, Virginia–less than 26,000 people over its 437 square miles. I knew people who had never ventured beyond the county lines. The outside world was just something you saw on the nightly news, Walter Cronkite for our house-he might as well have been talking about Mars. Such isolation breeds eccentrics, and we had our share. Maybe I was one of them.
The thick woods covering these mountains re-energize that old idea of a gothic forest. And the geology hidden within the terrain suggests mysterious gothic chambers with its rock outcroppings as sculptural as cloud, interweaving layers of coal with a limestone karst riddled with sinkholes and caves, many used as bone chambers by vanished tribes, many unexplored. My parents were told of a cavern deep under my childhood home. My mother feared that some night the earth would open and swallow us. We didn’t know if the story were true or not, but drainage in the area was unpredictable, and there were signs of more than one underground stream, and when I was in middle school a giant rat lived in our basement. We couldn’t figure out how such a creature had gotten there, but my dad reckoned it had come up from “the cave.” (I told this tale in an early short story, “Rat Catcher.”) And recently, after all these years, an old friend confirmed the cavern’s existence-he’d actually been inside.
The presence of such mysteries, and the mountain folk’s almost desperate interest in magic healing and fervent backwater religions, tend to encourage a darker version of the Gothic, I think. It’s as if the Gothic had made a sudden left-turn into horror, and I find it interesting that the variety of Southern Gothic written by some contemporary regional writers tends to blend the two. Woodland Press out of Chapmanville, West Virginia, has published a number of stories in this mode, in anthologies assembled by such writer/editors as Michael Knost, Brian Hatcher, and Frank Larnerd.
Blood Kin plays out in a similar universe. You’re likely to find echoes of Faulkner within its pages, and Flannery O’Connor, but bits of Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King as well.
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