The best contemporary Southern Gothic novels

Lee Rozelle Author Of Ballad of Jasmine Wills
By Lee Rozelle

The Books I Picked & Why

Wise Blood

By Flannery O'Connor

Book cover of Wise Blood

Why this book?

Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor makes me cackle and cringe at the same time. Her debut novel Wise Blood is rich with dark satire and cutting humor, disappointment with the modern world, and profound pity for it. After his release from the military, Hazel Motes turns atheist street preacher in an absurd and ultimately horrifying struggle with his own beliefs. To promote his “Church Without Christ,” a mummified dwarf is swiped by Enoch Emery, a troubled young man who impersonates movie star gorilla “Gonga” so that someone might shake his hand. 

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Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

Book cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing

Why this book?

Jojo in this novel breaks my heart. His mother neglects him, his father is in prison, and he must take care of his three-year-old sister Kayla on his own. He and the other characters in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi are haunted by drugs, poverty, and backwoods racism. They are also haunted by ghosts. Jojo’s mother Leonie sees the phantasmic presence of brother Given, and Jojo is followed by the ghost of a boy who was cruelly murdered in Parchman prison. Apparitions wait in the tall trees. 

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By William Gay

Book cover of Twilight

Why this book?

It’s fitting that the creepiest novel on my list begins with a wagon full of corpses and a rural graveyard pocked with exhumed caskets. William Gay’s Twilight revolves around the dreadful plots of Fenton Breece, a dapper, well-spoken mortician whose ghoulish habits will keep even the heartiest reader up at night. After witnessing the undertaker stealing a family burial vault, young Tyler and his sister Corrie discover that Breece has been mutilating the bodies of the people he buries. A blackmail plot ensues, an assassin hired. Then things get really, really bad. 

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The New and Improved Romie Futch

By Julia Elliott

Book cover of The New and Improved Romie Futch

Why this book?

I love this novel because it mixes Southern Gothic with speculative fiction in a hilarious epic struggle between man and hog. When middle-aged taxidermist Romie Futch becomes a research subject in the shady Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, he becomes both super genius and guinea pig, his middle-aged brain now brilliant beyond comprehension. Troubled by errant downloads that track his thoughts and actions, Romie turns taxidermy into pop art as he hunts down the legendary super pig “Hogzilla.” This is the funniest, wittiest book I’ve read in a long time. 

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By Jeff VanderMeer

Book cover of Annihilation

Why this book?

The first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is fascinating to me because of its treatment of natural environments. Uncanny elements found in decayed landscapes—frightening spaces that trouble the tales of Edgar Allan Poe—have been turned on themselves in a Southern Gothic world where ecological wounds are mysteriously disappearing. At the border of Area X, the land changes from postindustrial grotesquerie to a new posthuman freshness. Because of this expanding detoxification, the Southern Gothic landscape is not a source of horror but rather hope for our ecological future. 

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