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Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, ambivalent gender roles and decayed or derelict settings,grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence.
Elements of a gothic treatment of the South were apparent in the 19th century, ante- and post-bellum, in the grotesques of Henry Clay Lewis and the de-idealised visions of Mark Twain. The genre came together, however, only in the 20th century, when Dark Romanticism, Southern humour, and the new Naturalism merged into a new and powerful form of social critique.
The southern Gothic style is one that employs the use of macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American South. Thus unlike its parent genre, it uses the gothic tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South - Gothic elements taking place in a magic realist context rather than a strictly fantastical one.
Warped rural communities replaced the sinister plantations of an earlier age; and in the works of leading figures such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, the representation of the South blossomed into an absurdist critique of modernity as a whole.
The images of Great Depression photographer Walker Evans are frequently seen to evoke the visual depiction of the Southern Gothic, Evans claiming that "I can understand why Southerners are haunted by their own landscape".
William Gibson took an ironical look at the cult of 'Southerness' in his novel Virtual Light. Rydell, the stolid, southern anti-hero, is looking for a job at an LA shop called Nightmare Folk Art - Southern Gothic. The (northern) owner finds him unsuitable. "'What we offer people here is a certain vision, Mr. Rydell. A certain darkness as well. A Gothic quality....The Mind of the South. A fever dream of sensuality'".
Put out to find himself not southern enough for this New Englander, "'Lady,' Rydell said carefully, 'I think you're crazier than a sack full of assholes.' Her eyebrows shot up. 'There,' she said. 'There what?' 'Color, Mr. Rydell. Fire. The brooding verbal polycromes of an almost unthinkably advanced decay.'"