The Madness of Art: Gothicism in my Short Stories

by Caroline Sanders

I tend to be unabashedly optimistic and cheerful. I wake up early every weekday morning to do work on my closed-in front porch with my favorite, bright yellow coffee mug in hand that reads: “You Are My Sunshine” (disclaimer: if it’s dirty, I drink out of a white one that reads “SMILE, SMILE, SMILE”). It’s annoying—I know—but I like it nonetheless. It’s interesting, therefore, that my favorite genre of literature is Southern Gothic, a genre known for its grotesque imagery and its emphasis on darkness, especially the darkness found within deeply flawed characters, ultimately revealing problems in southern society and the human consciousness. I’m not sure how it happened. All I know is that one day my high school English teacher introduced Faulkner and the next day I was hooked. The questions Faulkner and other writers like him deal with in their stories are the questions that draw me in inexplicably and make me question my own existence.

And so, I, like any bright-eyed, self-discovering student, decided to pursue my interests in this topic through researching and eventually producing my own work that I will compile into a senior thesis. Drawing inspiration from great writers is easy. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, inspires me to no end. I read her work and am floored by her brilliance time and again. I thought about the ending of Wise Blood for weeks after finishing the novel, walking around in circles on campus as I pondered the implications of “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” The final image in “Parker’s Back,” the one of Parker “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby,” had me crying as if I, myself, had seen and lost my first glimpse of faith.

Gaining inspiration is easy. Emulating O’Connor and her contemporaries is a whole ’nother story.

At first, I hesitated to try to write a gothic story. After all, I instinctively look on the bright side of things and had never attempted to write like my literary heroes before. I don’t tend to have neurotic tendencies or gothic fantasies, which puts me at a slight disadvantage. As I’ve written more and more stories, however, I’ve noticed gothic elements slipping in. In my latest story, tentatively titled “The Best We Can,” I decided to lean a bit more heavily on gothic themes and ideas. Some of these themes are confusion, darkness, figurative ghosts, and family secrets. In fact, the title and inspiration for the story came from a quote by Southern Gothic writer, Truman Capote.

Capote’s early works are written in the Southern Gothic vein. In a 1973 interview with Andy Warhol that was published in Rolling Stone, Capote said, “For me, every act of art is the act of solving a mystery…You know what Henry James says…let me see…it was one of the short stories of his…It says, ‘We live in the dark, we do the best we can, and the rest is the madness of art.’ To me, that’s always been my motto.” This is a paraphrase of James’ quote, but the essence of it lies in a kind of optimistic Gothicism—a kind of Gothicism that I believe O’Connor uses as well through her underlying themes of faith as a constant despite the darkness of the human heart. This is the kind of Gothicism I seek to employ in my own work.

I have encountered some problems with writing my own Southern Gothic stories. Perhaps the biggest roadblock I’ve run into is the great depth and breadth of things I want to say. Because I want my story to deal with concepts like dark family secrets, the pride and shame wrapped up in one’s past, mental illness, and race, I’ve become a little overwhelmed in telling it succinctly. What I intended to be a shorter story has turned into an epic of sorts and the organization and execution are proving difficult. I want the storyline to be confusing to the reader at first, but illuminated as one reads on. I want the themes to be accessible to all.

Now, after beginning to add gothic elements to my stories, I want to do more. I toyed with the idea of Gus McNeese, my protagonist in an earlier story entitled “Radio Man,” being a grotesque character, but now I’d like to emphasize that even further in my revisions. “John, the Baptist” has many gothic qualities as well that can be intensified. In doing this, I want to show characters who are grotesque projections of themselves, deeply hurting and deeply flawed. Penuel, the setting of my stories’ namesake, after all, is the place in the Old Testament where Jacob wrestled with God. In the end, my characters do the best they can and leave the rest up to “the madness of art.”

posted by R. T. Smith

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.