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Guest Post: 10 Things You Need for a Southern Gothic Horror Novel by Delilah Dawson

Today we are pleased to welcome author Delilah Dawson. Her latest book, SERVANTS OF THE STORM, is out today, and she is here at the Highway, sharing her thoughts on Southern Gothic horror...

The definition of Southern Gothic is---

You know what, y'all? Never mind. Chances are, you have a picture of Southern Gothic in your mind, depending on how old you are and where you're from. Maybe you think of Beautiful Creatures, or Flannery O'Connor, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or maybe you just wonder if Paula Deen ever barbecued people, because folks who smile like that are usually hiding something. Right?

I'm from Georgia. To be more exact, I'm from a northern 'burb of Atlanta that started as a mill and somehow managed to keep Sherman from burning our three Gone with the Wind-ish plantation homes. And my husband's from Savannah, and we met at the University of Georgia, and now we live in the mountains of Dahlonega, where an opossum shows up every night to eat the leftover cat food on the front porch. I named him Barnesy.

In any case, I have lived the grotesque beauty of the South, and I have written a book about the demonic half of Savannah, and I am therefore an expert on Southern Gothic Horror. And here are 10 things you simply must have in a Southern Gothic Horror story.

1. A cemetery.
And not the kind with uniform white marble tombstones in even rows with bright sunshine and carefully tended grass. No, this cemetery must be old, the gravestones slightly crooked and crumbled and mostly unreadable. There must be mausoleums and crypts and statutes of angels that might actually open their eyes when you're not looking. The fences are rusting, the greenery is overgrown, and you're afraid to step on the graves for fear cold hands will reach up through the black earth to clutch at your Chucks. Because Chucks are great for wearing to cemeteries.

2. Something supernatural, or at least haunted.
Here's where the horror comes in, or at least the macabre. Your book might have ghosts, paranormal creatures, a local monster, a serial killer, witches, or maybe an unexplained, mysterious web of magical realism. But there has to be something malevolent or threatening lurking under that small town Southern charm like a gator floating just under the surface of the swamp.

3. A strange cast of characters in a strange little community.
You need people of all colors and ages and backgrounds. Very rich people and very poor people and everything in between. Walking stereotypes. Boo Radley neighbors and old folks who see beyond. Old-fashioned gentlemen and evil groundskeepers and tow-headed kids who say the darndest things. Women in aprons and past-the-expiration-date beauty queens and rednecks and uppity grandmas on motorcycles. Point is? Nobody is normal or boring. And the ones who are? ARE HIDING BODIES IN THE FREEZER.

4. A once grand but now abandoned place.
Servants of the Storm was inspired by a photo set of Six Flags New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. You can see it here. I saw those photos and was flat-out haunted to create a book around them. I invented Hurricane Josephine and moved the story to Savannah, but the scene set in an abandoned amusement park is one of my favorites I've ever written. Not only because it feels dangerous, physically, as if each ride might break, each link in the chain rusted. But also because there's just something inherently terrifying about seeing the work of modern human hands ground away by disaster and time. It sets off our mortality salience, makes us realize that we can't live forever, and neither can most of the stuff we create. I have definite plans for a derelict plantation home in Servants 2...

5. Someone drinking sweet tea and eating barbecue and pie.
Because even if you've never been to the South, food is what we do. We drink our tea syrupy, and we like our pork slow-roasted with secret sauce, and we have hundreds of kinds of pies. My childhood is just a bunch of cut scenes of sweet tea and barbecue sandwiches and my grandmother's famous chocolate pie. My favorite barbecue place got shut down when I was a kid because they kept getting caught putting squirrel meat in the barbecue. We were more annoyed with the health department than the cooks, because that was great Q.

6. A prognostication or nightmare that foretells the future.
A big part of horror is foreshadowing as the protagonist's life starts to head down a dark path. They know something is wrong, that something bad is coming, but they only get it in hard-to-read prophecies, in snippets, in bits of song they can't quite remember. And they can't do anything to stop it. True story: Dovey's dream scene was the first scene I wrote in the book. The original first line was, “I part the Spanish moss like a veil and pass beyond, deeper into the graveyard.”

7. An opossum.
Because it's the most Southern animal on the planet.

Seriously. Have you seen a live opossum? They defy reality. They're marsupials with prehensile, bald tails. They have glow-in-the-dark eyes, they carry their babies on their backs, they eat trash but prefer cat food, and they can hiss like nobody's business. In lieu of possums, you can also have a loyal hound dog, a fussy cat, a pet pig, a wild bird that whistles back, a goat with a boring human name like Paul or Mildred, or a particularly bossy squirrel. Point is, the animals here are as weird as the people. 

8. Lots of “Yes ma'am”and “No, sir” and “y'all.”
Whether the accent is heavy or not, Southerners use old-fashioned manners and weird nicknames and obtuse idioms. Trust me on this: I have a cousin named Jaybird, and if I'd been a boy, they were going to call me Bubba. In the South, especially the places that suggest Southern Gothic, manners are a big thing, and our colloquialisms are hilarious. 

“Touch my pie and you'll draw back a nub.” 
“I'm hungry enough to eat the ass-end off a ragdoll.” 
“He's sorry as gully dirt.” 
“Kittypuss can't do dishes cuz she might mess up her nails.” 
When I was little and it rained while the sun shone, they told me “The devil is beating his wife behind the kitchen door.” 

The waitress will call you Honey, Sugar, or Darlin'. The men will open doors for the women. If you're over 14, they'll call you ma'am. Let's just say you'd best mind your Ps and Qs, or else someone will say, “Bless your heart,” the ultimate Southern insult.

9. It has to take place in the South and express a distinct sense of place.
There's a droopiness to Southern Gothic best exemplified by old trees dripping with Spanish moss. Which is actually a living symbiote and often has chiggers living in it, in case you didn't know. Point is, you've got to use those trees (and the entire landscape) to your advantage. In the creepy cemetery, the oaks are big and sprawling and dark against the sky, casting sinister shadows. Downtown, they line the streets. Characters might climb them, swing from their tire swings, or hide something among their twisted roots. Cobblestones are jagged, asphalt is crumbling, vines slightly cover the porch. Mother Nature is just waiting to help you disappear.

10. A main character who might start out a little confused but eventually kicks butt.
One of the things that makes Southern Gothic approachable is that the main character starts out as a normal person, just minding their own business. Sometimes they're new to the area, other times, they're an active part of it. Then, something changes. Sinister dealings are revealed, the main character sees something they shouldn't, someone comes of age or a mysterious happening inflames the small, sleepy town. Since it starts out normal, the reader gets to come along on the journey as the world twists and darkens and starts to fall apart. Much like a small town, a Southern Gothic story, especially a Horror story, begins by hiding its secrets, pretending that all is well and manners are good and everyone is welcome to a slice of pie.

And then... everything changes.

For Dovey, who's in a medicated haze after Hurricane Josephine killed her best friend, Carly, and nearly destroyed Savannah, that instigating factor is seeing Carly again... alive. If Dovey had had the good sense to keep taking her pills, there would be no Servants of the Storm. But she had to know the truth, and the dark underside of Savannah revealed to her prying eyes brings her into contact with malevolent forces beyond her understand. And a very hot boy. Okay, two hot boys. And a demon Basset hound.

I hope you'll give Servants of the Storm a try, y'all. 

About Delilah

Delilah S. Dawson writes Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult, Comics, Romance, and Geekrotica. She's the author of the steampunk fantasy Blud series for Pocket, including Wicked as They Come, Wicked After Midnight, and Wicked as She Wants, which recently won the Steampunk Book of the Year award and the May Seal of Excellence from RT Book Reviews. Her first YA, Servants of the Storm, debuted August 5 and is a Southern Gothic Horror set in Savannah, Georgia. Spring 2015 brings her next YA, HIT, a pre-dystopian about teen assassins in a bank-owned America. Delilah loves sassy boots, eating weird animals, painting, having adventures, and cupcakes and lives in the North Georgia mountains with her husband, children, a Tennessee Walking Horse, and a floppy mutt named Merle.


The opinions expressed in guest posts are the views of the designated authors and do not necessarily reflect those of YA Highway members.

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Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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Item Reviewed: Guest Post: 10 Things You Need for a Southern Gothic Horror Novel by Delilah Dawson Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn