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What is American Gothic Literature?

Updated: May 1

According to Penguin Random House, American Gothic literature is a homegrown genre based in uniquely American settings—the frontier, the backwoods, and sometimes even the suburbs—that uncovers the darker elements of our country’s culture and history.

Beyond literature, when I think of American Gothic, I think of Grant Wood’s painting of the same title, I think of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson. I think of the Salem Witch Trials, the vast frontier, riverboat rides, Native Americans, and the Underground Railroad. I think of old, black and white westerns, Second Empire architecture, tenant farming, Jack Daniels, mid-century roadside carnivals, and needlepoint embellishments around the letter A. I think of B. B. King, Ma Rainey, Mick Kelly, wily gunmen, three-legged dogs, preachers with sweaty brows, harvest time, and fiddle strumming.

American Gothic themes, to me, underscore the works of Truman Capote, Emily Dickinson, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allen Poe, Alice Walker, Walt Whitman, and Tennessee Williams. I think of stories with eccentric characters and terrifying events, like The Birds and To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill.

A subgenre of American Gothic Literature, Southern Gothic is a style of storytelling inspired by rural and/or small-town settings characterized by macabre and fantastic details, people, and occurrences. From The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers to The Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Southern Gothic literature seeks to unearth the beauty in the ugly and grotesque, the innocence of the guilty, and the redeemable qualities of the damned. Born and bred from the South, although these were stories I enjoyed reading, they were certainly not the type I wanted to write.

When I first started writing more than thirty years ago, the last thing on my mind was exploring the South. My Southern roots and characterizing the people and settings I’d grown up with and around simply were not on my storytelling radar. What did I have to say about Alabama, Florida, or Georgia that was important or interesting? What could’ve been remotely noteworthy about gnarled woods and sugar beaches and blackberry pickin’ alongside the railroad tracks? How would I be respected and taken seriously as a writer if my dialogue was overrun by the lazy drawl of country folk dialect? And who in the world could relate to characters inspired by my Meme and PawPaw, Mama and Daddy, Brother Horn and Sister Cobb, Auntie Peggy and Uncle Crow, Jim Bakker and Dolly Parton?

I wanted to write about intelligent but over-it girls who fell in love with forbidden boys and then ran away together and lived happily ever after far, far away from the Stars and Bars. I wanted to write about folktale witches who were mean because they were lonely and hurt. I wanted to write about the bullied ingénue who transformed from the ugly duckling to the elegant swan and had the last laugh. I wanted to explore and understand things foreign to me, like unconditional love and trust and acceptance no matter what.

Not until after college did I un-shun the South and discover that I could write about where I was from and the stories I knew in my blood and bones without celebrating or condoning the hateful parts and ignorant ways. There was... is... so much beauty in the branches of these trees, so much honor and culture harvested from these fields, so much wonder and magic in these muddy waters. And ya know what? When I decided to write what I know, sharing authentically in a way that I might honor those who were oppressed or mistreated or lost, I noticed that my writing evolved. Storytelling became easier and I even finished first drafts faster.

Southern Gothic isn’t the only subgenre of American Gothic literature, however. What follows is a sampling of five types—Midwestern, Northeastern, Pacific Northwest, Southern, and Southwestern—and my thoughts around popular themes and titles for each. Who knows? Perhaps these ideas might serve as story starters that inspire you to write from where you’ve grown or from where you’ve been planted.

Midwestern Gothic

An abandoned barn staggers the middle of an old field; A barren gas station has only one pump and a single, mute, one-eyed attendant; Nobody dares ask what happened to his other eye; Is that the sound of women screaming? No, it’s slaughter time at the pig farm; At night, drumming sounds echo from the overgrown Native American burial grounds; There’s something in the corn...

Titles related to this subgenre:


Northeastern Gothic

Six loud crows perch along a rusted, wrought iron gate; A small Methodist church has a crowded graveyard where orbs float around at night; The deep, dark wood stretches for miles and miles; Dilapidated Victorian houses are shrouded in vines and fog; The lighthouse has a deranged hermit of a keeper; The roadside café is always open, but nobody is ever seen leaving; There’s something in the air...

Titles related to this subgenre:


Pacific Northwest Gothic

A seal carcass lies bloated and decaying on the rocky beach, its eyes plucked out and hollow; The petrichor hangs in the drizzly fog; Tiny, arched, wooden doors peek from between the roots of sky-stretching pines; That’s not a salmon, that’s a dead body in your fishing net; There’s a bloody streak down the cliff; At daybreak, the campground is missing a tent that was there just hours before; There’s something in the trees...

Titles related to this subgenre:


Southern Gothic

Tangled live oaks draped in moss are sparkling with fireflies; The hills are watching; There’s a small church up the road but there’s no singing and nobody makes eye contact; A bloody pentagram and animal entrails are found in the woods; The Devil made them do it; The old marsh woman is surely a witch; Let’s share a clandestine tryst in the fallen leaves of the gnarly pecan orchard; There’s something in the water...

Titles related to this subgenre:


Southwestern Gothic

Mysterious lights fly overhead; The small, deserted towns have animal skulls hanging from every post; But are they deserted?; The mountains have eyes; It’s illegal to smuggle those drugs, but the heat-drunk sheriff sees nothing; Shacks and tumbleweed and people pretending to be skinwalkers; A lone trucker barrels down the desert highway under the star spangled night sky; What’s that smell coming from his trailer?; There’s something in the fire...

Titles related to this subgenre:

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Did I miss a region? What about you? Where are you from and how have the settings, people, and situations back home infiltrated your writing style and storylines?

My newest novel, Only the Rocks That Float, is a Southern Gothic work of literary fiction about a pair of twins—one white and one Black—who are sent to live on a farm in Depression-era Alabama. What they experience is both magical and heartbreaking. The novel releases on Friday, September 9th on eBook and paperback. Click here to explore the book's landing page. Or, click here to pre-order your copy.

In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of literary, Southern Gothic, and women’s fiction under pen names A. Lee Hughes and Mandy Lee.

Mandy is the founder of Haint Blue Creative®, a space for readers and storytellers to explore, learn, and create. She holds a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, and she has worked as an instructional designer for nearly twenty years.

When she’s not writing fiction, Mandy enjoys the movies, theater, music, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, and binging The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to enhance creativity and foster wellness. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four sons, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.

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