I’ve Got a Name – Jim Croce
When I first got serious about writing, I didn’t consider genre. I just wrote. And wrote. And when I got done, I wrote some more. Then I made the decision to publish. When a writer queries editors, agents, or publishers, he has to provide certain metadata; too, it’s impossible to know who to query without knowing the genre. That metadata includes the title and genre of the work and the wordcount. I agonized over the whole genre part. I had no clue. The more I researched, the more flustered I got. Eventually I chose “paranormal fantasy” and ran with it.
Jason Sizemore bought Midnight and gave me a lecture. We discussed “southern gothic.” I said, “Really?” and he whacked me over the head with a stack of Harlan County Horrors. So I brought my poor aching head home and did some hard thinking and even more research. And being the All-Knowing, All Seeing BossBorg he is, of course Jason was right.
So what’s this “southern gothic” and how does Midnight fit?
Well, what is “gothic” literature?
Gothic literature is easily summed up as a mix of horror and romance. It also contains some supernatural element, something chimerical, or of fairy tale quality. Think Bram Stoker or Anne Rice.
Perhaps one of the biggest pieces of gothic literature is the setting as its own character. The landscapes and the architecture will act as either a channel for foreshadowing, a carrier of secrets, or provide some connection to a character’s past. Too, it’s not unusual for the architecture or landscape (or both) to parallel the main character. This reflection can be perfect or imperfect and is sometimes both. In Midnight, as I’ve discussed before, Harlan County is a character. The poverty, the isolation, and the weather give the reader peeks into Sami’s (the main character) own psychological landscape.
Southern literature, on its own, encompasses the setting and lifestyle of the southern United States. The readers are treated to tales of family and community dashed with regional dialect. Think Tom Robbins or Barbara Kingsolver.
This brings me back around to “southern gothic”. This is regional fiction set in the southern United States. Along with decayed settings, the reader is treated to realistic people and events in their most desolate states. When portrayed well, these elements are meant to discomfit the reader. The characters in these stories are unsettling, their emotional and physical scars coming from poverty, isolation, and violence affecting all the various aspects of their lives. Just writing this makes me think of Tom Piccirilli’s Choir of Ill Children.
In Midnight, the reader sees the pain and grief Sami carries from her upbringing and from the domestic abuse she receives from the boyfriend she flees. This is “disorienting and disturbing” for readers who don’t have firsthand experience of chronic mental illness or abuse of any kind.
The genre also often has some supernatural elements. In the case of Midnight, those elements are Pagan religion and vampires.
Readers sometimes ask me, then, why Midnight isn’t classified as “urban fantasy”. The biggest reason is that urban fantasy is defined by place. That place is usually a large city in contemporary times. Think Tanya Huff. Midnight doesn’t fall into this genre because it takes place in an impoverished southeastern Kentucky county with a population of fewer than 30,000 souls. In fact, the town Sami moves to has a whopping citizenry of 766. This is difficult for most people to grasp, but yes, places that small (and smaller!) really do exist.
There’s also an element of realism in southern gothic that, I feel, is absent from urban fantasy. Southern gothic literature strives to present actual life. A picture that often is neither pretty nor clean. This is character at the worst possible moment of his life. This is character swathed in blood, sweat, and tears – not necessarily his own – as far down in the dirt as he’s ever going to be. Much of the story, then, depends on him learning how to dig himself out of it.
Note of warning: southern gothic stories don’t necessarily have “happy” endings.
So, the next time you sit down with your manuscript and writing group, discuss genre, see what comes up, and take notes. You might be surprised!
Mari Adkins is a fantasy/paranormal fiction writer from a coal mining community in southeastern Kentucky. Mari has lived away from the mountains and lived deep in the mountains. She currently lives in Central Kentucky with her lifepartner and their cat. She is the mother of two young men and is an avid supporter of kidney disease awareness. The mountains, their culture, their superstitions, their particular magics, will always be in her blood.