“The Gone Dead” Conjures the Restless Ghosts of the Deep South

A murder in the Mississipi Delta reveals the effects of racism and slavery that continue through to the present

Mississippi Delta
Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

There was a point while reading Chanelle Benz’s debut novel, The Gone Dead, where I realized I wasn’t going to bed until I finished it all. And, it wasn’t just a few chapters toward the end, either. No, I was so deep into this Southern Gothic mystery that I was completely wired at 1 in the morning, knowing that I had to see who killed Billie James’ father, renowned poet, and why she went missing moments after his death thirty years prior.

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As we follow Billie, a grant writer from Philadelphia, return to the home she spent her childhood and where her father’s dead body was discovered, information is revealed to us in a slow, deliberate manner that is simultaneously heavy and dense with tension in the way I imagine the weather, and life in general, is the Mississippi Delta. Throughout the novel, Billie revisits her father’s and her family’s past through a cast of characters that reveal the complications of racism and slavery that continue through to the present, complications that also threaten Billie’s life in the same way they ended her father’s.

Benz is the author of the story collection The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, published in 2017 by Ecco Press. Long-listed for the 2018 PEN/Robert Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the 2017 Story Prize, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead was named a Best Book of 2017 by The San Francisco Chronicle and was one of Electric Literature’s 15 Best Short Story Collections of the same year. She teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

Chanelle Benz and I spoke about the Delta, Southern Gothic as a genre, and the ghosts of The South.

Tyrese L Coleman: What is your relationship to the Mississippi Delta and what made you want to write a book set in this part of America?

Chanelle Benz: I was living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi when I started to explore the state and found myself drawn in particular to the Delta. It was beautiful but desolate, strange, and its tangled history intrigued me. I had known I wanted to write about Mississippi because of the way my expectations had been overturned while teaching there. But when I started reading about civil rights era cold cases in Mississippi, I became obsessed. It felt important to be a witness to these buried stories, and in particular, to try and find out what happened to these families afterward—the victim’s and the suspect’s.  

TLC: Southern Gothic as a genre is intended to make real the consequences of slavery’s brutality via the grotesque and mysterious, the ghosts that haunt plantations and places like the Mississippi Delta. I described The Gone Dead to a friend as a ghost story with dead and living ghosts—dead being Cliff James, Billie’s father, and the living as all of the people Billie has to interact with to discover the truth about what happened to her father, and the ghost of the Klan, which is very much still alive. Would you define The Gone Dead as Southern Gothic?What writers or books in this genre have influenced your writing and this book in particular?

CB: I’m happy for the book to be included in the genre. I’m very much interested in the history and legacy of slavery and the mysterious, less so the grotesque. 

Zoom out, remove the self, and ask what makes life more difficult for black folks and work to end it.

When I was researching, one thing that I found intimidating and fascinating was how I kept having to go back in time to understand what had created present attitudes and circumstances in the Delta. To understand the torture and murder of Emmett Till, you have to understand the violent, white supremacist backlash that follows Reconstruction, or the rise in lynchings in response to black veterans returning from war, or the formation of White Citizen Councils after Brown v. Board. All of this has a direct line back to slavery. I mean, after the Civil War it’s not former enslaved people that end up being given land by the government, but former Confederates. And in some ways this history still feels secret, either mired in Lost Cause propaganda or conspiracy theories, or simply omitted. But the land has not forgotten; the dead feel very present.

As far as Southern Gothic influences, I would say William Faulkner and the poet Frank Stanford, but in terms of the book, the strange, haunting stories I’ve heard or read from the people of the Delta.

TLC: I love that your inspiration comes from the people themselves. And maybe that is what made me connect to the characters in this book so much that I wrote in the margins of one scene, “this is my world.” What about the people you met while in Mississippi arrested you the most? You mentioned that the place did not live up to your expectations. What were those expectations?

CB: I think it began with the students that I taught in Mississippi. Initially, they didn’t seem as sophisticated as my previous students, which I assumed was because many hadn’t really left the state, let alone the South. But it turns out that they had a maturity my other students didn’t because they’d experienced struggle, and not just hardship, but their family depended on them to help carry the weight, and their connection to their family was deep and gracious. 

I also met a few people who had weathered all sorts of trials and was struck by their incredible resilience—they knew their families, their communities needed them to do good in the world.

TLC: Billie James is a character that is unlike any other I’ve read. She felt very familiar to me being someone who was raised in the South and who now lives “up North.” I particularly love that she, in many ways, has not lived up to the legacy her parents created, especially her father. People often think that when you leave the South, suddenly you are a different person or “better off,” and I feel like The Gone Dead challenges that assumption with Billie. Did you intend to confront this myth or did the creation of an authentic character lead to this? What are you thoughts on this myth that life is better for Blacks outside the South?

CB: Certainly in Mississippi the jobs and opportunities are scarce and the rankings on infant mortality and education are bleak. But the idea that the rest of the country is less racist… well, surely that is debunked now under Trump. Rural communities can be more insular and the poverty in the Delta can feel stifling, but people stay and return because of family, because it feels like home, because they might not have a financial safety net but they have all these aunties and uncles and cousins and grandmomma’s who will do their best to catch them even with the most limited of means. I envy that. There’s also something powerful in staying and being the change from the inside since you have that unique insight. 

TLC: To switch to, honestly, one of my favorite characters ever, Dr. Melvin Hurley. He is an absolute delight to read. Dr Hurley, Cliff James’ biographer, is so self-centered and I was often afraid his personal interests, ultimately, would put Billie in danger when he decides to promote his biography. He is so perfect of a character, I have to ask whether he is based on someone and what you intended for his character to represent in all of the voices collected in this novel.

How do you love somebody, live with or next to somebody, and not understand that they want the dignity of equality?

CB: Ha! I’m so happy to hear he is your favorite! Few people have mentioned him so I love that you are asking this. In part, his language is based on a few academics I have encountered who actually talk in the erudite and baroque style in which they write, which can range from mesmerizing to hilarious. But also in thinking about those who have chosen some lone figure no one else is interested in and whose careers have been thwarted because of it. Their subject’s unrecognized brilliance becomes theirs. 

I wanted Billie to have a partner-in-crime, but also someone who knew more about the Black Arts Movement and might value her father’s writing even more than her. I also wanted another black character who is from the outside who sees Billie’s father not as a brother or friend, but as an artist.

TLC: I think Dr. Hurley stumbled upon a mystery rather than a biography in coming down to assist Billie. I kept thinking that in ten more years he would be on a podcast like Serial or This American Life recounting this entire story.

CB: Ha! He would be a perfect podcaster.

On the topic of voices, this book is told from multiple points of view. What made you want to approach it in this way instead of entirely through Billie’s lens?

CB: I realized that it’s not just her story. There are things she can’t know or tell because she wasn’t there at the time. And it wasn’t working to only see her and her father through her limited perspective.

TLC: People have this conception of the South that white and Black people live in two different worlds, which, yes, is true, but also not true. For example, the closeness between the McGee Family and the James Family. The almost familial type of existence between the two groups is a left-over from slavery that hardly anyone speaks about. As you started drafting this book, what was important to you in creating this relationship that you felt you had to get right? Why did you want to depict this type of relationship in The Gone Dead?

CB: It was one of the most powerful things I encountered. Not only historically, because so many of the people who are the perpetrators or suspects or witnesses know or have known the victims in the civil rights era cold cases/lynchings their whole lives; but also in the conversations I had with Black and white folks from the Delta about loving and losing these other families. It complicates what we may assume about race relations in the Deep South because how do you love somebody, live with or next to somebody, and not understand that they want the dignity of equality?  

TLC: Yes. And then the question is what is more important: love or race? Family or race? Would you say that the McGees choose race when down to the wire or that it isn’t so simple as such a dichotomy? Why and why not?

CB: Well, I want to say love, of course—love all the way. But then it makes me think of the people who have a black best friend, or black daughter or grandson, or work side by side with black people who insist because of this fact, and indeed this genuine love, that they cannot be racist. Or of a white family member of mine who loves me but has a hard time accepting, or doesn’t want to know the way in which the world can be hostile because of my race. I think that it’s less about love and more about fear—if I have to look at how these systems privilege and benefit me as a white person, then I have to admit that they hurt you, and I’m participating in that hurt, which isn’t about hurt feelings or 150-years-old wounds, it’s about hundreds of years of policies and laws that keep people in “their place” through violence and poverty. To right that is a radical kind of love because we’re asking them to zoom out, remove the self, the ego, and ask what makes life more difficult for black folks—from daily microaggressions, getting a loan, police brutality—and work to end it.       

The McGees chose not to question any deeper than they’d been forced to, to not want to know what the Jameses have to know.

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