The best Southern Gothic novels that are dark and twisted

Jill Hand Author Of White Oaks
By Jill Hand

Who am I?

I’m a lifelong New Jerseyan married to a man whose family comes from Georgia. It gave me an opportunity to observe the white, Southern, upper-class weltanschauung, up close. To hear them talk, you’d think the Civil War had ended just a few days earlier, and if the Yankees had only respected states’ rights, none of that mess would have happened. My book is about a dysfunctional Georgia family who has far too much money than is good for them. Hijinks ensue.


I wrote...

White Oaks

By Jill Hand,

Book cover of White Oaks

What is my book about?

It’s hellishly hot and humid in South Georgia, down by the Florida state line. Things have a way of steaming down there, including tempers, and decades-long grudges. The Trapnells are world-class grudge-holders. Fabulously rich and more than a little crazy, patriarch Blanton Trapnell is a law unto himself, ruling over the town of Cobbs like a medieval king. When Blanton expresses the desire to kill someone with his bare hands as a ninetieth birthday present, his children get busy to make it appear to happen, without anyone getting hurt. Disaster befalls them when Blanton’s birthday present goes horribly, hilariously wrong.

The books I picked & why

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Blackwater: The Complete Saga

By Michael McDowell,

Book cover of Blackwater: The Complete Saga

Why this book?

I love a sprawling family saga set in a small town. My husband’s father came from a small town in South Georgia that was founded by one of his ancestors. My husband’s grandfather, after visiting Chicago and being impressed by the big department stores he saw there, decided that what his tiny little town needed was a huge department store of its own. He built one, and amazingly, it was a success for many years, with folks coming from all around to marvel at its architectural sophistication and its dazzling array of wares. Like the fictional town of Perdido, Alabama, where the action is centered in Blackwater, everyone there knows everybody else, and nothing secret stays hidden for long.

On Easter Sunday, 1919, a flood engulfs Perdido. Oscar Caskey, the eldest son of the town’s most influential family, discovers a stranger named Elinor Dammert waiting patiently inside a room on the hotel’s upper floor. She is the flooded building’s sole occupant and claims to be a schoolteacher. Oscar and Elinor fall in love, but Oscar’s mama is suspicious of the newcomer, as she should be, because her potential daughter-in-law isn’t completely human. When she sinks below the water of the Perdido River, Elinor turns into something terrifying, a nightmarish creature that the townspeople have whispered about in stories for generations.

Blackwater is a humdinger of a small-town melodrama. It spans five generations, and is a deeply Southern soap opera, full of powerful, domineering women, one of whom just happens to be a murderous aquatic monster. I recommend it based on my sympathy for Elinor, who endures decades of implacable opposition from her strong-willed mother-in-law. I, too, had a strong-willed, Southern, steel magnolia for a mother-in-law who just didn’t like me, and man, it was tough.


Swamplandia!

By Karen Russell,

Book cover of Swamplandia!

Why this book?

Amusement parks, and the people who work in them have always had a fond place in my heart. Growing up at the Jersey Shore, some of my earliest memories are of the carnival rides and the games of chance on the Boardwalk. One of my first “real” jobs during high school was working in a candy store on the Boardwalk. With the front door open to let in the ocean breezes and the sound of happy screams from the arcade next door, not to mention as much free candy as I could eat, it was the best summer job ever.

My summer experience working in the seasonal tourism industry made me intrigued by the exploits of the Bigtree family. They’re white people, originally from Ohio, who run a struggling Florida theme park on a 100-acre island in the Everglades, while pretending to be Native Americans. This is a bizarre, suspenseful, deliciously spooky book.


Lovecraft Country

By Matt Ruff,

Book cover of Lovecraft Country

Why this book?

I first read H.P. Lovecraft when I was in college. His Cthulhu Mythos instantly grabbed my imagination. Lovecraft was a large part of the reason I started writing horror. Even back then, his disdain for foreigners and Black people and anyone else whose ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, the way his did, was apparent. In recent years, Lovecraft’s racism has become a hot topic. That’s why I like this book: because it urns the usual Lovecraft trope of evil monsters from another dimension on its head by bringing the monsters closer to home, in the form of the horrors of the Jim Crow era. 


Child of God

By Cormac McCarthy,

Book cover of Child of God

Why this book?

When I worked for a daily newspaper, I covered the trial of serial killer Richard Biegenwald. Unlike a lot of serial killers, who tend to be loners, Biegenwald was married. He seemed fairly normal, except for his habit of occasionally killing people and burying them in his mother’s backyard. Serial killers, people who don’t kill in self-defense, or to protect someone from harm, but just because they like killing, have always fascinated me. Sitting in court, twenty feet from a real, live serial killer, was intensely interesting and not a little creepy.

Having covered the trial of a serial killer, I was intrigued by what would make someone do that. The serial killer in Child of God is a loner who’s lost his home and who constantly tries, and fails, to connect with other people. His struggles are as poignant as his deeds are gruesome. 


Moon Lake

By Joe R. Lansdale,

Book cover of Moon Lake

Why this book?

The action is set in the fictional east Texas town of New Long Lincoln, where Daniel Russell returns after a long absence. He was 13 when his father tried to kill them both by driving his car into Moon Lake. Now a drought has caused the lake to evaporate and the car’s been found, with the remains of Daniel’s father inside, as well as an extra body in the trunk. Daniel teams up with a childhood friend who’s become a police officer to untangle a web of old grudges and strange murders.

Drowned towns – ones that are deliberately submerged in order to build dams and reservoirs – fascinate me. There’s one in Sussex County, New Jersey, called Walpack. It was intended to be buried under a man-made lake in the nineteen-seventies, as part of a project to build a dam across the Delaware River. It was a cause célèbre in New Jersey when I was young. The dam was never built and Walpack became a near-ghost town. The fate of the original town of Long Lincoln, drowned to build a lake, is what piqued my interest in Moon Lake.  


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