Bringing to Life the “Undead Souths”

In Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture, editors Eric Gary Anderson, Taylor Hagood, and Daniel Cross Turner have assembled twenty academic essays which engage deeply with the Southern Gothic tradition. They aim “to make sense of the multitude of undead figures and figurations proliferating in southern culture over the past two centuries.” In the words of the editors, “Undead Souths considers literature, films, and other media that explore representations of death and deathways as well as figures returned from the grave.” Although it was originally published in 2015, the collection continues to stand out due to the quality of the writing in each essay and the timelessness of chosen topics, and the forthcoming trade paperback version will allow the book to reach new readers.

The usual “Southern Gothic” suspects are included – Poe, Chesnutt, and Faulkner are each under consideration in at least one essay – but the collection overall seeks to complicate notions of Southerness and of the gothic. Films ranging from White Zombie to Winter’s Bone, the fiction of LeAnne Howe and Shani Mootoo, as well as comic books like The Goon and The Walking Dead, and television adaptations such as True Blood are also discussed. Anyone with an interest in the diversity of Southern literature’s history will find this collection appealing.

Eric Gary Anderson’s “The Fall of the House of Po’ Sandy” appears early in the collection and effectively demonstrates the innovative approach of the essays in Undead Souths. Connecting the works of Charles Chesnutt with those of Edgar Allan Poe, Anderson considers the ways that both writers “stretch beyond” the gothic, particularly in their use of built structures within “Po’ Sandy” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The essay examines the works critically as well, placing them in their own historical context while acknowledging their failures to include American Indian histories and cultures. Anderson’s analysis helps to “map some of the hot spots as well as some of the limits of nineteenth-century southern undeadness.” Such nuance is not confined to this essay specifically.

The first half of the collection largely focuses on canonical and well-known texts, but there are a few surprises. “What Remains Where” by Elizabeth Bradford Frye and Coleman Hutchison considers poetry by Natasha Trethewey and William Gilmore Simms alongside photographs by Sally Mann and Alexander Gardner. The works by Tretheway and Mann are from the 21st century, while the works by Simms and Gardner are from the 19th century. The similarities in content make the connection across such a span of time effective in supporting Frye and Hutchison’s claim that “the memory of the American Civil War is indeed an emplaced experience” as all four artists “insist on the importance of place – of showing what remains where – to the ways the war is remembered and revised over time.” Other topics covered in the first half of the collection include works by William Faulkner, Herman Melville, and T.S. Eliot, and Sarah Hirsch’s “Topographical Ghosts: The Archival Architecture of Old New Orleans” moves the analysis from literature into the physical world, further emphasizing the role of place in conversations about Southern literature.

The second half of the collection prioritizes more recent and more diverse engagements with Southerness and the gothic. The turning point seems to be Amy Clukey’s “Monstrous Plantations: White Zombie and the Horrors of Whiteness.” In this essay, Clukey turns our attention to “plantation horror” as a film genre, using the 1932 film White Zombie as a case study. Further considerations of film are found in Leigh Ann Duck’s “Undead Genres/Living Locales: Gothic Legacies in The True Meaning of Pictures and Winter’s Bone.” Of course, the undead South is not limited to prose fiction and film, and the collection ends with Taylor Hagood’s particularly impressive essay “Going to Ground: The Undead in Contemporary Southern Popular Culture Media and Writing.” Hagood’s entwined analysis of the True Blood television adaptation and the Sookie Stackhouse novels on which it is based, The Walking Dead television show and comic series, and The Goon comic series dates the collection to some degree, but it also illustrates the wide range of creators who have engaged with the ideas this collection seeks to examine.

The re-release of Undead Souths so close to Halloween is quite fitting as well, offering a perfect opportunity to read or re-read the haunting literature that these essayists examine. The work of Undead Souths remains compelling and encourages readers to re-examine long-standing assumptions about “the Southern Gothic” and to “resist and dismantle inherited master narratives about the region and its gothic legacy.” While the academic tone may not appeal to all readers, the deep engagement with Southern literature and culture is a valuable resource for scholars, teachers, and other interested readers.

Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture
Edited by Eric Gary Anderson, Taylor Hagood, and Daniel Cross Turner
LSU Press
Originally published October 2015
Paperback published October 19 2022