Little Sister Death, by William Gay: a classy, creepy slice of Southern Gothic

The Tennessee writer’s posthumous novel is rewarding and unnerving, channelling classic horror conventions into sweltering, lush prose

Sat, Nov 21, 2015, 00:54


Book Title:
Little Sister Death


William Gay

Faber & Faber

Guideline Price:

The novelist Ellen Glasgow, speaking to a group of librarians at the University of Virginia in 1936, referred to a “new and disturbing” trend in southern US fiction, one she associated with writers such as Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner. She christened it “Southern Gothic”, a term that would become shorthand for a literature characterised by biblical rhythms and phonetic vernacular, tales of hermits and misfits, of homicide, suicide, fratricide, patricide, infanticide, incest, religious fundamentalism and familial dysfunction.

The term has become synonymous with the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah and others. It’s about the malevolence of place as much as people: the malarial swamps and forbidding backwoods of Harry Crews’s Childhood: Biography of a Place or Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.

The modern incarnation of this tradition is exemplified by a passage from the Tennessee writer William Gay’s posthumously published new horror novel: “Binder had seen old pictures where the house itself looked ungainly and out of proportion, the original log structure added to seemingly with no eye for symmetry or even common sense . . . No angle seemed to be true to the eye’s expectation. The horizontal seemed slightly out of level, the vertical just a fraction out of plumb. Perhaps this very imbalance lay at the root of things: an eye perpetually beguiled and a brain constantly re-evaluating these images might draw insanity to it like a comforter. Yet he knew the evil predated the house . . . It was an evil perhaps indigenous to the slope and rise of the land, to the stark austerity of the woods surrounding the ruined plantation.”

Had he published earlier and lived longer, William Gay might have attained the status of a latter-day backwoods laureate on a par with Daniel Woodrell or Tom Franklin (who provides a fond introductory essay to this novel). A navy man and Vietnam veteran who made a living as a carpenter, house painter and drywall hanger, Gay was 57 when he sold his first book, The Long Home. He died in 2012, at the age of 70, of a suspected heart attack, leaving behind a small but distinguished body of work that included a number of “lost” unpublished novels. Little Sister Death is the first of these to see daylight, transcribed and compiled from notebooks and typescripts found in Gay’s archive.

If the author’s friends and editors laboured hard to assemble this work, the stitches don’t show. Little Sister Death is a Deep South Freudian folk tale infused with a quality the Germans call unheimlich: the uncanny, the queer. Apart from a Grand Guignol opening there are few cheap frights and only fleeting splatter shots. The body of the novel proceeds in an atmosphere of slow-burning dread (a bit like the synthesiser notes that Angelo Badalamenti uses to conjure tension in David Lynch’s films), culminating in a shockingly truncated but somehow perfect ending.

Little Sister Death was inspired by the 19th-century Bell Witch haunting in Tennessee, and the book is rich in period lore, although a thumbnail synopsis just as readily evokes The Shining’s trope of a blocked author in a haunted house. (It’s no surprise that Stephen King voted Gay’s Twilight his favourite book of 2007.)

The real voodoo, however, is in the author’s prose. Gay’s sentences mightn’t quite reach the transcendental heights of As I Lay Dying or The Violent Bear It Away, the point where words seem to liquefy into pure consciousness, but he certainly absorbed enough of Faulkner and O’Connor to forge a style that is bone hard and near baroque. He is a master of landscapes and natural-world detail. Furthermore, the dialogue is note perfect.

Little Sister Death is both rewarding and unnerving, channelling classic horror conventions into sweltering, lush prose. Any lover of southern literature, and a good scare, should be grateful that William Gay’s literary executors took the time to exhume these bones. Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River