July is an ode to sunshine in the Gothic, it is a trip down south to the sweltering southern states of America, and to the effect of geography on horror.
Under a Southern Spell, this month I am reading four short stories from the Southern Gothic canon, and invite you all to read along with me. Each Friday I will discuss the story both here and on Instagram, and announce what’s coming next. I have been sure to pick texts with free PDFs available to keep things accessible, and will share those along with the title announcement a week in advance of spoilery discussions.
Last week, we explored the foundations of the Southern Gothic, as laid by Edgar Allan Poe in the ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. This week I have selected a short story about leaving home, in ‘Drenched in Light’ by Zora Neale Hurston.
Born in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston (d. 1960) drew inspiration from her hometown of Eatonville, Florida – the oldest incorporated ‘black town’ in the USA, founded by former-slaves in 1887. Though a prolific writer, Hurston failed to make a sustained career as an author. Dedicated to capturing the “beauty of black expression and traditions and […] the psychological wholeness of black”, Hurston gave her voice to the Harlem Renaissance arts movement in the 1920s and 30s. It was not until the 1970s that her work began to gain widespread, posthumous popularity.
Hurston is remembered as a bold figure, amongst the first women to step out publicly in trousers, and is named as inspiration by a host of black female writers, all important in their own right, who have followed her over the decades. Today we meet Hurston in Isis, the protagonist of the semi-autobiographical short story, ‘Drenched in Light’.
Published in 1924, ‘Drenched in Light’ was Hurston’s first printed piece. Set in 1920s Florida, it is a location familiar in Hurston. Isis is 11 years old, expressive and optimistic in the safety of pre-Depression era springtime. This, I would argue, is a work of pre-Southern Gothic fiction, which introduces fundamental ideas and themes – just as Poe did. Would you immediately identify ‘Drenched in Light’ as Southern Gothic?
“𝕻𝖔𝖆𝖍 𝕲𝖗𝖆𝖓-𝖒𝖆 𝖓𝖊𝖊𝖉𝖘 𝖆 𝖘𝖍𝖆𝖛𝖊.”
Though Isis fears the beatings of her grandmother and widowed father, we quickly come to realise that her perspective is warped by early adolescence. To the adult reader, it is obvious that Grandma Potts will not appreciate her chin hairs being shaved during her afternoon nap, for example. Humour thus permeates the initial conflicts between the female relatives.
In the confines of her home, Isis is introduced as “[t]he small brown girl.” To the wider community, she is “Isis the Joyful,” interested only in the adventure that awaits in the world beyond. In her imagination, “[s]he r[i]de[s] white horses with flaring pink nostrils to the horizon, for she still believed that to be land’s end.” Whilst there is allure in this childish fancy, in gothic terms dread creeps into the gaps created by her ignorance. With this in mind, I return to the idea of ‘Drenched in Light’ as pre-Southern Gothic; that beyond the confines of its few short pages, the gothic is free to flourish on adult terms.
𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖒𝖆𝖑𝖑 𝖇𝖗𝖔𝖜𝖓 𝖉𝖆𝖓𝖈𝖊𝖗
Though the narrative is limited by Isis’ understanding, glimpses of a less sunny reality slip through the excitement that the carnival brings. Adult themes are introduced implicitly; take the following example:
“She picked a long-stemmed daisy, and placed it behind her ear, but her dress remained torn and dirty just the same.”
Poverty, a recurring theme explored in Southern Gothic literature, is introduced without Isis necessarily identifying anything beyond the fact that she must find a more carnival-appropriate outfit.
Soon, Isis is surrounded… Everyone is taken by “the small brown dancer.” As the momentum of the language dances along with the sunny young girl, Hans Christian Andersen’s horrific fairy tale ‘The Red Shoes’ prances across my mind.
In her lifetime, Hurston was criticised for reflecting the dialect of her characters in the spelling and grammar that she used for their dialogue. Her contemporaries worried that it perpetuated negative stereotypes against black Americans, particularly in the south. Hurston, however, was of the opinion that it represented their culture. It was something to be proud of.
Isis, on the other hand, takes no apparent pride in her regionalism. With developing awareness, she is entirely preoccupied with the journey down the road, the escape from home, reaching the horizon. All spaces into which the gothic elements begin to creep…
A white woman with ‘proper’ speech and pockets deep offers the horizon to Isis. Isis, whose name is borrowed from an Egyptian goddess famous for healing mortals with magical spells. Isis, who possesses a “sunshine” of the soul, which the white woman covets. Isis, the small brown girl that the white woman buys. And the horizon, which on closer inspection, Isis identifies as “the abyss.”
𝕾𝖍𝖊 𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖐𝖊𝖉 𝖍𝖚𝖓𝖌𝖗𝖎𝖑𝖞
The white woman is Helen, epitome of beauty and catalyst for war. In her arms Isis drives off into the unknown. In the dust, a variety of gothic suggestions surface:
echoes of slavery,
and the lingering poverty.
The horror of this short piece is Isis’ blind faith. She misidentifies the security of her family home as a threat, and instead chooses the ‘proper’ white woman whose final word just might expose her as untrustworthy or… as a gothic villain. Helen “looked hungrily ahead of her and spoke into space rather than anyone in the car. ‘I would like just a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul. I would like that alot [sic].'”
What do you think?
Is the sunshine of Isis’ soul pure?
Are the intentions of those around her similarly so?
Can a character be exposed as a villain through their speech?
How does ‘Drenched in Light’ fit into the Southern Gothic space?
Let me know in the comments, or join the discussion on Instagram.
WEEK 3: Our next Southern Spell Short Story Readalong text is A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner.
Read it here: PDF
Continuing on a historical path, I will be reading and discussing the impact of the Civil War, next Friday the 24th of July. Be sure to ‘Hex Yourself’ (or follow the blog) to be notified when the discussion post is live.
Continue reading with Southern Gothic Foundations: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, Guest Post: ‘Geek Love’, An Intimate Portrait of a Nuclear Family, and Hawai’i, History, & the Unexpected Gothic: ‘The Hala Tree Walks in Darkness’.
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