10 Books for Country Goths
Chavisa Woods breaks down the essential books for class-conscious readers who like their literature dark and rural
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I was born and raised in a small, rural farm town, and was a queer punky goth teenager. So, I know what it’s like to simultaneously feel right at home, and yet, totally alien. But the country is ripe with all sorts of contradictions. It’s a place of natural abundance, but many country-folk are just scraping by. The country is peaceful, but it is also known for unregulated violence. The country is a place of extreme isolation, but it is also a place where anonymity is impossible. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. People who live in the country are thick. And if you’re an outsider coming in, you are made quickly aware that everyone knows, you’re not from around here, are you?
My most recent book, Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country gives the reader a first-hand view of the lives of the rural working class and poor, and of the weirdos who find themselves somewhere they don’t belong, often, the places they were born.
Country people have lived in tight-knit clusters for generations, cut off, in many ways, from the rest of the world and from modern notions of what is and is not acceptable. Every severely rural village and hamlet has evolved in its own way, in isolation, and like the creatures of the Australian continent, who, cut off from the rest of the ecology of the planet, formed their own unique, seemingly alien genera, so the people of the countryside have evolved their own peculiar taxonomies. The peculiarities, at first, may not be visible to the prying eye of the out-of-town visitor. But if you stay too long, you are sure to discover the true nature of the place.
These are my favorite novels and short stories about the country. From the safety of your chair, you can stay a little too long in a place where the air smells sweet, and grass grows thick and green, and night is pitch dark, and the stars are bright white, but you can’t get a phone signal to save your life, and it’s hard to tell what people really mean, and when you walk into a bar, everyone stops for a minute, and turns and stares, to greet you? Is that what they are doing? Or is there something else going on?
1. A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews
A Feast of Snakes, is my favorite book. If you like reading dark and brutal stories, this book has it all: grueling dog-fighting scenes, people gone mad from watching too much television, suicidal-wife-beating-down-and-out-high-school football stars freaking out in trailer parks, rapist cops, and cheerleaders who like getting fucked on top of snake pits. It all takes place around an annual rattlesnake-hunting-and-eating festival hosted by a small town in Georgia in the 1970s, and makes me glad, at least, I didn’t grow up there.
2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is class-war-driven literary horror — and it’s the best horror novel I have ever read. This book left me wondering if maybe rich people hate each other as much as we hate them. It’s about three people who live in an isolated mansion on the edge of a small town. The only one who ever leaves is the 18-year-old, Merricat Blackwood, who travels into town occasionally to gather the basic necessities for herself and her family, only to be jeered at by the townspeople and assaulted by their children. What is going on? Read it and find out.
(The new edition with the cover illustration by Thomas Ott is a must-have for any armchair collector.)
3. So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away by Richard Brautigan
“I could see funerals in slow motion like old people waltzing in a movie.” This is a story about being a kid and being so poor you don’t even have a radio, and being so lonely your only friends are an undertaker’s daughter and some elderly alcoholics. And mostly, this is a story about multiple child-deaths and class shaming, and it’s the last thing Brautigan published before he ended his own life in 1984. If you like that sort of thing, read it. I loved it.
4. Fledgling by Octavia Butler
Fledgling is a sci-fi vampire novel, about a 53-year-old black vampire (Shori) who has the physical appearance of a 10-year-old, which makes for some very taboo sex scenes with her adult lovers. But sex isn’t the focus of this book. Shori is on a mission to avenge the murder of her family, who died at the hands of a group of white supremacist vampires. This book bears the hallmark of Octavia Butler’s signature style; thoughtful metaphors for political theory on race and class, packaged in the shimmering garb of a very, very awesome vampire story.
5 .The Fall River Ax Murders by Angela Carter
Found in the collection Saints and Strangers, The Fall River Ax Murders, is a doggedly-researched, highly poetic work of historical short fiction, detailing the little-known events leading up to, and the final brutal axe-murders, carried out by Lizzie Borden against the members of her household. Need I say more?
6. Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
Downtown Owl is a lot of fun, until it kicks you in the face. Set in a small town in North Dakota, the character development is so meticulous, you feel like you’ve sat in the diner drinking coffee with the good ole’ boys, gossiped about the lecherous high school teacher, been rejected by the stoic and handsome bar-fly, and heard the town punks torturing a cat in the alley. This book places you face-to face with its characters, which is why, what Klosterman does at the end seems unforgivable, at first.
7. The Iguana by Anna Maria Ortese
This surreal book follows a Count who becomes stranded on a forsaken farm on an island populated by noblemen. There, the Count falls in love with a very badly abused servant, who might be an iguana. This book is all about shifting. Perceptions shift with reality, which never gets in the way of an emotionally compelling story. Ortese takes the brutal treatment of the servant/iguana-woman and rends it with the desperate, guilty love of the Count, and leaves the pieces scattered, to be reimagined through her gorgeous language. American readers get a unique glimpse of an acclaimed Italian literary intellectual.
8. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCuller’s masterpiece, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is simply required reading. Most critics have focused on the relationship between the mute men who are “always together.” But the politically obsessive doctor and carnival worker’s relationship is what always slays me. McCullers has drawn a map of the most heart-wrenching pitfalls of attempting to cross racial barriers to fight a shared oppression. Full of queer undertones and Marxist overtones that frustrate even as they inspire, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a masterwork of 20th century American literature.
9. “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor
The Enduring Chill is part of a collection infamous for killing off most of the main characters. But a worse fate awaits the young intellectual and failed playwright Asbury. Asbury is sick and has left New York City and returned home to die. It seems that’s the only reason he would ever come back to this horrible little farm-town full of such base and ignorant people. He’s sicker than his common and doting mother will accept, and he is going to die. He has penned a Kafkaesque deathbed letter, and he welcomes the reaper. Any day now. Really, any time.
(When I read this at 21, when I’d just moved to New York City, I liked the main character. Re-reading it in my thirties, I was stunned to see him as a horrible snob. This is also Stephen Colbert’s favorite O’Connor story, and I highly recommend his reading on Selected Shorts.)
10. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved should be part of the curriculum in all U.S. high schools, that way, no teacher could ever tell their students what a couple of mine did: “Most slaves didn’t have it that bad. They were treated like members of the family.” Yeah, fuck that.
Beloved is often described as a horror novel. Don’t watch the movie. Read the book. Because where the movie lets the a ghost-baby carry the weight of the horror, the book deals with slavery as pure, blood-curdling, gut-wrenching horror, and the ghost-baby haunting is a sad (and yes, creepy) remnant of it. Set on the antebellum plantation Sweet Home, Beloved leaves no luscious foliage undescribed and never hesitates to dig the knife deeper and twist:
“And suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.”