Down The Highway of the Damned: American Gothic

Perdition’s Teeth borrows from many sources — it is consciously formatted as an epic, it draws from Hardboiled and Road Fiction (most obviously Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and — indirectly, Whose Names are Unknown, by Sanora Babb, the woman who did all of the research for both novels.) That said, the one well that Edgar and I kept coming back to is that of regional American Gothic.

North America is a vast continent, spanning thousands of miles — the tag line comes from the distance between Oklahoma City (where the second episode begins, at the chronological beginning of the series) and Goldfield, where the first episode begins in media res. Between these two places, the heroes meet dangers both mundane and fantastic, and it is in this borderland that the gothic thrives — the tension between two poles, and the irreconcilable conflict between them.

Prayer meeting house. Hale County, Alabama. Frank Tengle's farm . Photograph by Walker Evans, FSA.

Prayer meeting house. Hale County, Alabama. Frank Tengle's farm. Photograph by Walker Evans, FSA.

Southern Gothic

The first articulated regional American Gothic (though there is an old tradition of Gothic stories in the North East, reaching back to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, all of which are reasonably characteristic of the area, but which was not conceived of as New England — and possibly not even as American.) Southern Gothic is concerned with decay and decrepitude, with social mores and boundaries — their enforcement and their transgression — and grotesque people and situations.

Some luminaries of Southern Gothic are Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and Joe R. Lansdale.

I’m tempted to gloss over it, in all honesty, because of how prevalent it is in culture: if you’ve seen True Detective or The Night of the Hunter, or read “A Rose for Emily” or “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” in a high school literature class, you’ve encountered Southern Gothic. And in our second episode “The Shamus”, we had aimed for a more Noir feel, but landed square in Southern Gothic.

A Cornfield in Central Iowa, image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Picture taken by Christiane Tans.

A Cornfield in Central Iowa, image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Picture taken by Christiane Tans.

Midwestern Gothic

Arguably, Perdition’s Teeth doesn’t pass through the Midwest, but we’re from Kansas City, so it crept in. Midwestern Gothic is something like Southern Gothic, but also shares a certain aesthetic similarity to English Folk Horror. The North American Continent was once home to hundreds — if not thousands — of indigenous cultures, and every regional American Gothic has the consciousness that this land is a graveyard. In the gothic fiction of the Midwest, this knowledge is juxtaposed with the horror vacui of the vast empty spaces of the great plains. This is the gothic fiction of absence and emptiness, and the things that we paint upon it — nostalgia, eternity, and of the outside breaching into the inside, often in a more violent and dramatic fashion than one finds in Southern Gothic.

Perhaps the preeminent work of Midwestern Gothic is Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, a beautiful work of poisonous nostalgia that wrestles with an invasion of the grotesque and eldritch into the everyday.

More recently, John Darnielle — of the band the Mountain Goats — released Universal Harvester, a novel that was fundamentally (in my reading) about the horror of Not Knowing. It was about someone encountering something disturbing and inexplicable spliced into the everyday and trying to make sense of it.

As far as films go, the closest I can think of is “Fargo” by the Coen Brothers: the invasion of violence into the small town context, the attempt to puzzle out the events. It is somewhat more mundane than most of my other examples, but it is certainly an example of Midwestern Gothic.

Our fifth episode, “Homestead” — originally given the somewhat on-the-nose title “Murder Farm” — is prime Midwestern Gothic, though with some reversals necessary for the conventions of the show. The actual events draw somewhat on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the Hinterkaifeck murders, but the framing and tone are our love-letter to this slice of Americana.

Photograph of the sign of the Tonopah Clown Motel, taken by Patrick Connolly for the  Las Vegas Review-Journal .

Photograph of the sign of the Tonopah Clown Motel, taken by Patrick Connolly for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

—T.S. Eliot,

“The Waste Land”

Southwestern Gothic

I have attempted, in the above juxtaposition, to sum up the feeling of Southwestern Gothic, the blend of threatening kitsch and philosophical depth, the mixture of cultural elements that blend like oil and water.

Southwestern Gothic is much more aesthetic-minded than the other two examples I have detailed here. Don’t get me wrong, there is a great deal of style to Southern Gothic, and a fair amount in Midwestern Gothic, but Southwestern Gothic is something that you can identify on sight. You can tell it in your gut, as easily as you can tell you don’t want to hang out in a Clown Motel in a small town in Nevada that was built next to a 600-occupant cemetery filled primarily by people who died in mine collapses. It’s stolen Pueblo and Navajo artifacts; it’s old mission churches left to the desert dust and Old West ghost towns; it’s trailer parks full of people just trying to scrape by; it’s a lake of green glass in the desert from a nuclear test; its the sickly, strange lights flying at super speed over the highway, visible in the rear view mirror of your car.

Despite going everywhere and getting in to everything, the X-Files is often Southwestern Gothic. Portions of the video games Fallout 1, Fallout 2, and New Vegas, are Southwestern Gothic. Cormac McCarthy’s novels — including No Country For Old Men and Blood Meridian — are often Southwestern Gothic.

Our current duology — the Malpais episodes, which start with “The Crooked Man” and end next week with “The Crooked Road” — are our own attempts at Southwestern Gothic. We’re going to spend some more time in this mode as the narrative plunges deeper into the desert.