Discovering the Southern Gothic

That day in third grade, on a winter day with its curious, early darkness that seems anomalous to life in the South, the record labored slowly and desultorialy at its task. She played the record that left a furious kiss on my heart amidst scratching fiddles and the conspiratorial flatness of banjos.

A thousand devils’ dulcimer hammers pounded the burning vengeful amalgam of those words, fury, fire and the tribulation meet to us by a jealous God into scalding, thin sheets and wrapped them around my child’s heart. I was baptized to the full, fatal fury of my birthright as a son from the Southwestern states. It was the Appalachian folk music that changed me that day.

The young aren’t supposed to know such things, much less suburban, affluent kids, but they know them sooner than their parents would wish. Carefree and incautious they find those words: “kill,” “die,” and “death” as unaware as when God came across Cain in his soggy field.

And (we) adults come upon them and their new vocabularies in the same way, the table now turned, we play the naïf: “Where is your brother Abel? Whither is that innocence you had just yesterday?”

Children with their perfect beauty and brutality don’t see that discovering those words marks the beginning of the end of their own innocence. But parents cannot keep them from these sinister, glittering, baubels of the end. I like to imagine that it’s because these little souls remember being pulled across the void too clearly, too recently to not want to talk about it. They remember the whisper-thin veil between the home of souls and incarnation having only just so recently been parted delivering them from unlife by the woman’s magic that turns dead, raw, and bloody unborn flesh into its alchemical opposite, the very promise of life renewed, a child itself.

Yet that day, that record, reminded all us children that that unplace and those words describing it were real, powerful, and eternal.

That day, Appalachian mountain music, the fiddles and furies of my grandmother’s childhood loped forth from the disc like the ungainly and fearsome monsters of those Appalachian folk songs: the liver stealer, the child poisoner, the abandoned barn, the fears and horrors of the mountains, the dark stranger, the songs for scared boys wandering the deep forest wastes to hum as they pretend that twig did not snap under the ghosts of yesteryear.

In that day my music teacher gave to me the interests that would define so much my aesthetic appreciation of life: Heavy metal, Milton, 16 Horsepower, Nick Cave and and the ponderous Goth music that grinds like an ox-drawn plow’s blade skimming an errant skull under fields’ topsoil. She gave me PJ Harvey’s “The Dancer” and Nick Cave’s “Weeping Song” and Portishead’s “Roads.” She gave me Leonard Cohen and his Catholic sadness. She gave me Neko Case’s lungs stealing every ounce of oxygen out of the room to echo like thunder on granite walls.

I hadn’t thought much about these tales and their influence upon me until I realized that so many of my favorite stories and films hinge on Gothic elements. As I traced the thread back I came back to that day we did a “folk music” study in school and I realized that it may have all started there.