The Writer and His Lasting Message: Little Sister Death by William Gay

When William Gay died suddenly in 2012 he left behind a modest but powerful oeuvre of some of his generation’s most striking, original, and funny Southern gothic fiction: three novels, two books of stories and assorted prose, a chapbook, and rumors of (at least one) more work. By now, his unusual biography (by typical literary standards) and tales of personal eccentricity are the stuff of near-myth — but, just briefly, since Gay’s depiction of Southern life seems dredged as much from personal history as from a distinct literary tradition: as William Giraldi notes in his excellent survey of the author’s work, Gay was born in Hohenwald, Tennessee, served in Vietnam, returned home where he worked to support his family as a carpenter and dry-wall hanger, all the while secretly, or at least anonymously, slaving away at his stories and novels and facing years of literary rejection before being discovered, finally, in 1998 when he was 55, by The Georgia Review.

It’s a remarkable and inspiring tale — the backwoods artist toiling in obscurity until fortune allows that first break — but what is more surprising, almost unprecedented, is the quality of the work that appeared in such quick succession. First came The Long Home (1999) where, though it was his debut novel, Gay introduced us to the hallmarks of his narrative vision: the young men coming of age in the rural Tennessee setting, the potent tension between humor and grotesquerie, and the great narrative engine of a terrifying nemesis — all rendered in a distinct and exciting prose capable of making the most graceful register shifts between the biblically ornate and the Appalachian colloquial. It was a voice both bard-like and wry, fluent in prophetic declaration, slapstick hilarity, and classical irony.

Next came his most fully realized and profoundly comic novel, Provinces of the Night (2000), followed by Twilight (2006) — a dark, Southern gothic exaggerated into comic book proportions. Twilight reveled in sexual perversion, elements of the grotesque, the fantastic and the gothic intersection of the haunted present with the ghosts of the past, all bludgeoned with an over-the-top dose of macabre violence set against a wild and surreal Tennessee backdrop. For all its wild derangements, Twilight was not as accomplished a novel as Provinces of the Night, but it was a more interesting one. With its deft movement between picaresque and fairytale, between human and supernatural horror, in the way it took the gothic tropes that usually remained as subtext or set piece and vivified them as narrative devices (the wood is actually haunted, etc.), it represented the work of an author ready to revitalize conventions he’d so clearly mastered.

And then Gay went silent. After Twilight’s release, there were rumors of more books in the works, followed by rumors of why those books had yet to appear, but one way or another, Gay’s torrid pace had halted and he did not publish another novel in his lifetime.

Despite my suggestion that Gay’s last novel represented a formal redirection, he does not try to hide his influences, and it’s rare to find a discussion of Gay’s work without a reference to those other lions of the form — Faulkner, O’Connor, Crews, and of course, and most notably, McCarthy. (Although he is usually discussed solely in this southern company, Gay’s work, the way he combines rural and historical tropes with fairy tale motifs, has seeded some of the more recent iterations of the hardscrabble American Fantastic, as represented by Benjamin Percy, Matt Bell, and William Giraldi). Still, Gay was an open admirer of McCarthy, and in his novels, he seemed to pick up right where McCarthy left off after he published Suttree, abandoned his own Tennessee roots, and set out west. Indeed, several moments in Twilight read like dramatizations of, or conversations with, Suttree’s haunting final paragraph.

Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds
tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.

Sometime in the night he met a horseman…He didn’t know if it was Sutter or not, and he didn’t know if it was real or he had dreamed it, but he knew that something dread had passed over him in the night and gone on.

Both passages provide similar depictions of a sinister figure harrowing the roads of the world, and yet, where McCarthy’s huntsman — visible only in the narrator’s dream — is clearly metaphorical, Gay’s may well be actual: Gay’s protagonist, Tyler, is unsure whether the rider was Sutter, the villain on his heels, or a supernatural presence. In this moment, the boundary between dream and reality collapses — in Gay’s scene, whether the rider was real or dreamed does not affect his potency, his ability to do harm, or even, really, his presence upon the landscape. (Either way, Tyler knows the rider passed him on the road). While McCarthy’s passage perfectly exposes his grand vision of American apocalypse unfurling with the stylized iconography of a Holbein design, Gay strips the moment of its mythology in favor of a porous, fairy tale world of lived nightmare. The horror in this moment is much smaller than McCarthy’s, much less grand, but in its possible, even likely root in human action, so much more unsettling.

Little Sister Death — Gay’s first of at least two posthumous novels (discovered in multiple notebooks and acquired last summer by Dzanc Books) continues the development initiated in Twilight of literalizing the horrific elements of the Southern gothic. Certainly, Little Sister Death represents, in form and direct subject, something of a departure for Gay — it does not adhere to a strict chronology but rather jumps around between 1785, 1982, and several points in between; its protagonist is a struggling writer; and while it still, in style and subtext, pays homage to McCarthy and Faulkner, it also riffs on Stephen King. Nonetheless, any reader of Gay will easily recognize his distinctive prose, worldview, and grim humor, and honestly — although this is an ostensibly plot-heavy novel — the plot of Little Sister Death, the site of much of the deviation from his past works, feels almost incidental. To summarize: David Binder, a displaced southerner living with his wife in Chicago, is struggling to write his second novel. More accurately, he has, following the success of his first novel, written a second novel that he finds lifeless and dull, a book without anything to say. He decides to quit on it, but needs money, so his agent suggests that since both of his novels have had “those overtones to them anyway” he should write a horror novel to sell to the paperback houses. Binder’s not sure if he can write a potboiler, but he goes to a used bookstore to research the occult and finds “that fate, coincidence, and synchronicity had played into his hands” in the form of a book on Virginia Beale, Faery Queen of the Haunted Dell, the notorious “haunt” of a Tennessee homestead that had fascinated him as a child. Binder is quickly captivated (“[h]e had to write a book about it”) and in keeping with the terrible choices the genre demands, decides to move down to Beale Station, Tennessee with his wife and young daughter to spend the summer researching and writing the book, while living, of course, in the recently abandoned, unsurprisingly cheap, and abundantly haunted Beale house.

As my quotations might suggest, Gay dispenses with these plot mechanics breezily and we can feel his interest perk up when the Binders get to Tennessee. The generic machine set, he relaxes into a voice dredged right out of Twilight. Here’s Binder’s first trip to the house:

The road kept branching off, steadily deteriorating until the Jeep seemed to be leaping from one raincut gully to the next, steadily ascending, the red road winding through a field promiscuous with wildflowers and goldenrod, leveling out when the cedar row began. He began to smell the cedar, faintly nostalgic, the road straightening and moving between their trunks, and then in the distance he could see the house…it seemed to have grown at all angles like something organic turned malignant and perverse before ultimately dying, for Binder saw death in its eyes…The house seemed mantled with an almost indefinable sense of dissolution, profoundly abandoned, unwanted, shunned.

This is Gay at his most comfortable, blending beauty with dread as he juxtaposes naturalism against oversaturated psychological gloom. While Gay describes the pastoral setting as an external reality, he mediates the house’s wickedness through Binder’s perceptions — its perversion and malignancy are referents of the word seemed. Beneath the usual generic set piece we glimpse Gay’s subversion: the source of the horror may well be Binder himself.

From this potent set-up, things begin to go badly for the Binders. Their world is haunted in the usual ways: knocks in the night, the appearance of fey apparitions and phantom dogs, cryptic conversations with old timers whose warnings go unheeded and serve ultimately as a commentary on the real nature of the haunting (“somebody start beatin on your door in the middle of the night you don’t have to get up and open the door, do ye?…What I’m tellin you is you let stuff like that in”). Interspersed through all this, Gay inserts the stories of the families who previously lived in the house — the nineteenth-century Beales driven out by a chatty poltergeist, and Owen Swaw, a tenant farmer from the 1930s, who, like Binder, moves into the doomed house with his family before, driven mad by the hauntings, he murders them all with axe and shotgun in a giddy eruption of violence where it’s like Gay has taken The Shining — though certainly Kubrick’s version — and given it the ending it always should have had.

Gay handles all this deftly, summoning visions both beautiful and horrifying, while also having fun. This early description of Swaw, bounces with the wry, off-kilter comedy of his earlier novels:

Swaw was used to hard times. He had known no other. He was used to field peas and cornbread when he had them and he was used to not having it too. He was used to shotgun shacks you could have thrown a good-sized housecat through and floors through whose cracks a man could watch his chickens scratching for worms, if he was lucky enough to possess any chickens. In 1933 a man on Swaw’s status level was a good deal more likely to possess a housecat than he was a chicken, and Swaw was no exception.

Here we find Gay wryly performing a narrator who, like the title character from his story “The Paperhanger,” watches over the carnival of horror he himself has wrought with a bemused and “dispassionate eye.” Still, Gay can play it straight too, and while he sometimes doesn’t seem entirely comfortable writing about the supernatural (the word “evil” appears six times on one page), his lyrical descriptions imbue his landscape with a pulsing rot: “wild apricots ripened on their dying vines…withered globes of dusty gold, and the air was heavy with their musky perfume.” To this this fetid world he adds tone-perfect depictions of a mind in torment — and the effect is a stark, claustrophobic horror: “He hunkered to the wet earth. With his hand he parted the tall grass, saw only the rainwashed black loam. Hunkered there in the darkness, he felt before himself a door, madness already raising a hand to knock.”

In Sanctuary’s most famous moment, the scene where Popeye rapes Temple Drake with a corncob, Faulkner highlights Temple’s loss of agency. As Popeye enters the corn crib where she’s hiding, Temple says, “Something is going to happen to me” but — as if it’s occurring only in her head — her cry goes unsignaled by quotation marks and the whole terrible moment is vacuumed of any sound: Popeye’s gunshot, his footsteps, even the creaking door are silent. For Temple “it was as though sound and silence had been inverted” and when, during the rape, her screams do, finally break into quotation marks, the cries still vanish into the dense atmosphere of nightmare: “she screamed, voiding the words like hot silent bubbles into the bright silence about them…” Popeye, the murderer and rapist, is almost absent from this scene; instead Faulkner uses Temple’s loss of agency to express his larger gothic project: the inevitability of corruption in this fundamentally degraded Southern society. In Faulkner’s gothic universe, so great are the sins of the past that personal agency — whether as victim or victimizer — evaporates before the inexorable reckoning. (Joe Christmas, perhaps about to commit murder in Light in August thinks the exact same thing as Temple does here: “Something is going to happen. Something is going to happen to me”). Gay mirrors this moment from Sanctuary during Binder’s first apprehension of the Beale ghost, where he replicates both Temple’s notion of impending doom and the voided agency signaled by a sudden, impossible silence:

He found himself waiting, staring intently at the doorway of the toolshed… and he was thinking, Something is going to happen. He sensed a change in the air. It had grown denser yet, so that even the crying of the nightbirds could not pierce it. He seemed locked in a void of silence…He had fallen into a helpless, volitionless state, no longer a participant, but an observer, a person things happen to…

Gay’s homage to Sanctuary, Faulkner’s famous attempt to write a lurid potboiler for fast cash, makes it tempting to read Little Sister Death, with its blatant depiction of a struggling Southern writer slumming in the horror trenches, as a meta nod at a similar case of hack work — but this would be a mistake.

Instead, Little Sister Death provides Gay’s most experimental rendering of the gothic vision first expressed in Twilight: by highlighting the horror tropes usually relegated to subtext and intimation, the things his early books had “overtones” of, and then allowing them no narrative consequences, he privileges human action and human choice. In the novel’s stunning conclusion, Gay forsakes the ghouls to expose, instead, Binder’s own strange and ambiguous violence. By making Binder’s choices the real threat to this family, Gay presents a vision in stark opposition to Faulkner and the traditional gothic mode. Ultimately, then, Little Sister Death is not the glib meta-commentary on horror it pretends to be, but a personal glimpse at Gay’s own life, at the way a dedicated artist does not exorcise his demons — but seeks them out, and invites them in.

Little Sister Death

by William Gay

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