Whispers In The Walls: Contemporary Gothic Romance

Whispers In The Walls: Contemporary Gothic Romance

Southern Gothic Romance is a subgenre that emerged in the 18th century and reached its peak during the 19th century.

It combines elements of gothic genre with it’s settings, themes, and characteristics specific to the American South. While the exact origins of the subgenre can be debated, it began to gain prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This genre is characterized by its ability to evoke intense emotions, alternating between fear and desire, uncertainty and suspension of belief.

One of the earliest examples often cited as a precursor to Southern Gothic Romance is Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Ligeia," published in 1838. Poe's work is not set in the South, but it contains elements that later became characteristic of Southern Gothic, such as the use of decayed and decaying settings and a focus on dark, psychological themes.

However, the subgenre as we recognize it today didn't fully emerge until the 20th century. The novel often credited with establishing the foundations for genre is William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," published in 1929. Faulkner's novel is set in the American South and explores themes of decay, family, race, and the complexities of the human psyche. It's considered a cornerstone of Southern Gothic literature. Other notable authors who contributed to the development of Southern Gothic Romance include Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. These writers, along with Faulkner, helped shape the subgenre with their dark and introspective narratives set in the South.

Southern Gothic Romance, with its unique blend of eerie atmospheres, complex characters, and exploration of the South's cultural and historical complexities, remains a distinctive and influential subgenre within the broader realm of Gothic fiction and American literature.

I recently started reading horror and Southern Gothics again, and it’s fun to be back in this creepy sexy world. Before I made the hard shift into writing contemporary romance, I had serious designs on writing speculative fiction. Those stories are demanding to be told lately and this has lead to a deep dive into reading within the genre and collecting all the craft books I can.

So if you’re interested in writing a contemporary southern gothic romance, this article is for you!

Key Elements of Gothic Romance

1. Eerie Settings: The settings in gothic romance are essential to creating the mood. Dark and decaying castles, labyrinthine mansions, and remote estates shrouded in mist contribute to the atmosphere of unease and suspense.

2. Atmosphere and Mood: Gothic romance relies heavily on creating a palpable atmosphere. The mood can be melancholic, mysterious, and even chilling, immersing readers in a world where the unknown and the uncanny are just a heartbeat away.

3. Supernatural and Uncanny: Whether it's the presence of ghosts, unexplained occurrences, or a touch of the supernatural, these elements heighten the sense of mystery and tension in gothic romance.

4. Dark Secrets and Unresolved Pasts: The past often casts its shadow on the present in gothic romance. Characters may grapple with hidden secrets, tragic histories, and unresolved conflicts that influence their actions and relationships.

5. Emotionally Complex Characters: Protagonists and antagonists in contemporary gothic romance are multi-dimensional. They're often plagued by inner turmoil, haunted by their pasts, and torn between their desires and their fears.

A Literary Analysis of One of My Fav Contemporary Southern Gothic Romances.

Any one knows me knows that Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches is one of my problematic fav trilogies. Admittedly, I probably read this when I was far too young to digest the dense text and everything Anne was doing with it, but it’s a favorite that I reread often because it hits all the key elements square on.

Here are some  elements I feel Anne Rice excelled at in the Mayfair Witch books:

1. Complex Characters: Rice created a cast of deeply complex and multifaceted characters. From the enigmatic Mayfair witches to the tormented and morally ambiguous Lasher, her characters are memorable and undergo significant development throughout the series. Their inner conflicts, desires, and flaws make them relatable and intriguing.

2. Mystical and Supernatural Elements: Anne Rice's ability to infuse the supernatural into her narratives is a hallmark of her writing. The Mayfair Witch series seamlessly blends the mystical and the real, creating an immersive world where magic, spirits, and the unexplained coexist with the everyday.

3. Intricate Family Saga: The Mayfair family's intricate and intergenerational saga is a central pillar of the series. The rich history, secrets, and rivalries within the family add depth and drama to the narrative. The exploration of the family's legacy and the consequences of their supernatural powers is a driving force in the storytelling. I’ve often lamented the fact that we didn’t get individual novellas that focused on the life and death of each other witch. The Witching Hour did a good job of introducing them but I wanted more!

4. Evolving Themes: The series tackles a wide range of themes, including power, morality, family, identity, and the search for knowledge. These themes evolve and become more nuanced as the story progresses, inviting readers to contemplate deeper questions about life, death, and the human condition.

5. Elegant Prose: This is easily the thing I loved most about the trilogy. Anne Rice's writing style is known for its elegance and lyricism. Her descriptive prose brings settings, characters, and emotions to life. It's both atmospheric and emotionally resonant, enhancing the overall reading experience. It’s just super-fucking lush and evocative — even in moments when you wish it wasn’t. 

6. Sensual and Erotic Elements: Rice's exploration of sensuality and desire, while not explicit erotica, adds a layer of intensity and emotion to the romantic relationships in the series. It's a hallmark of her writing style and contributes to the passionate and often tumultuous connections between characters.

7. Historical and Cultural Richness: Beyond the supernatural, Rice weaves historical and cultural elements into her narratives, particularly the rich tapestry of New Orleans and its Creole heritage. This adds depth and authenticity to the settings and characters, making them feel grounded in a specific time and place. I can tell Anne did a lot of research and I shines through on the page. 

8. Complex Morality: The series grapples with questions of morality and ethics, especially in the context of the Mayfair witches' actions and the consequences of their choices. It challenges readers to consider the gray areas of right and wrong. She doesn’t always handle it well, and at points she even seemed to be struggling with her own relationship with Catholicism and feminism. 

9. Strong Sense of Place: Anne Rice’s ability to vividly portray New Orleans and other settings is a hallmark of her writing. Her descriptions of the city’s lush gardens, decaying mansions, and atmospheric streets make New Orleans come alive as a character in its own right. The city’s unique culture, history, and mystique are integral to the narrative, providing readers with a rich and immersive experience. Rice’s portrayal of New Orleans makes it feel so alive and familiar that it felt like a second home the first time I visited.

The Mayfair Witch series excels in its portrayal of a strong sense of place, but it also stands out for its complex characters, supernatural elements, intricate family saga, evolving themes, elegant prose, sensuality, historical richness, and exploration of complex morality. These elements come together to create a captivating and enduring narrative that has left a lasting impact on the genre.

But let me be clear, this is not a recommendation. While trilogy is often celebrated for its intricate storytelling and exploration of various themes, it's important to acknowledge that Anne struggles with handling race, class, and other problematic themes at various points in the story.

Here are some my criticisms in these areas:

1. Racial Stereotypes: She often relies on racial stereotypes, especially in its portrayal of African-American characters. It's important to note that the book is set in the American South, where racial tensions and stereotypes have deep historical roots. Hell, the setting is New Orleans which is one of the Blackest cities in the United States. Considering that Anne was born and raised in a city steeped in so much Black culture, the absence of well rounded Black characters and dismissal of spiritual practices in favor of centering the Mayfairs is glaring to me with every reread. She later wrote a book about one of mixed Mayfair descendants, Merrick Mayfair. While I loved that book, it  doesn't do enough to challenge or subvert these stereotypes.

2. Class Disparities: The series does delve into class disparities, especially in the context of the Mayfair family's wealth and privilege. However, it doesn’t fully address or challenge these disparities. The Mayfair family's wealth and power are often accepted without question, and the consequences of this privilege are not thoroughly explored.

3. Romanticization of the Past: Anne Rice's novels often involve elements of historical romance, but in doing so, they can sometimes romanticize aspects of the past that were marked by inequality and injustice. This can be problematic when it glosses over the harsh realities of certain time periods or perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

There are also some themes and tropes that are fairly common in older Southern Gothic novels that are included Anne Rice's Mayfair Witch series. She leans heavily into themes related to incest and pedophilia. In fact, the plot relies heavily on it.

Here’s how I address these concerns while considering the context in which they appear in the narrative:

1. Incest: In this series, there are multiple instances of complex and incesteous relationships within the Mayfair family. These relationships are often intertwined with the family's mystical history and selective breeding practices to create stronger witches. However, I want to be very clear, these themes are presented in the context of a Gothic and supernatural narrative. They are not meant to endorse or glorify incestuous relationships but rather to add layers of mystery and intrigue to the Mayfair family's history. Nevertheless, reader discomfort with these themes is valid. It’s also served as a lesson for me as an author to be aware of their impact our words can have.

2. Pedophilia Themes: In The Witching Hour, Anne does a deep dive into the Mayfair family history. While the presentation is compelling, and in my opinion, compulsively readable, these elements can be uncomfortable for some folks to read, especially when young girls are portrayed as sensual and seductive by the men in the family. These themes are troubling for readers, as they may evoke concerns about consent and power dynamics. For me, it serves as an important reminder to be sensitive to these issues and to address them thoughtfully in their narratives, especially in the context of romantic relationships.

In my opinion, these criticisms highlight the importance of handling sensitive and potentially controversial themes with care and consideration. As authors, we have the responsibility to explore complex subjects in ways that contribute to the narrative without causing harm or discomfort to readers. Or if we intend to use sensitive, controversial, and problematic themes, we should be sure to alert our readers to those narratives so they can make the decision to read it without reading the book. Readers, too, have the right to engage in discussions and critiques of these themes in literature, fostering a broader conversation about their portrayal in storytelling. This is why it’s I like to approach these criticisms with a nuanced perspective, recognizing that literature, especially works from the past, can reflect the biases and perspectives of their time. However, it's also valid for readers to critique how these themes are handled and to expect more thoughtful and inclusive portrayals in contemporary storytelling.

As an author, I find it interesting and beneficial to explore these themes and issues in published works, and consider fresh perspectives that address these concerns in a way that aligns with my values and intentions as a writer.

The more I read this subgenre mash-up of horror and romance, the more I love them. What are some of your favorite contemporary gothic romances?

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