Title

Fear of the Unacknowledged: The Weird Tradition in the Fiction of Cherie Priest

Proposal Type

Presentation

Additional Presenter Information

Associate Professor of English

College of Arts and Letters

English Department

Presentation Option

no

Keywords

Southern Literature, Cherie Priest, weird fiction, H. P. Lovecraft

Subject Area

English/Communications

Description/Abstract

In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft defines a new subgenre of speculative fiction: the weird tale or cosmic horror. This form of horror differs from more traditional horror tales primarily in scope. Instead of unavenged murder and ghosts, the weird tale focuses on an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces […] and there must be a hint [of] a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (23).

My essay draws an important distinction between the Southern and New England weird traditions. In the latter, the weird element is most often an element from outside such as voodoo rituals from the Caribbean or cosmic horrors summoned from other stars or dimensions. The heroes of these tales, usually learned men of an academic or scientific background, must then fight off these horrors in order to preserve their world from invasion or destruction.

With the weird South, though, the horrific elements are already here: connected to old family curses, Civil War ghosts, or crazy shut-ins. And while the true nature of the horror may be unknown, there's no secret that something strange is going on and has been since before anyone's memory. The horrors become symbolic of the worst aspects of Southern culture: things like religious fundamentalism, institutionalized racism, cronyism, political violence.

If the protagonist is a Southerner, he/she then comes to represent the positive aspects of Southern culture: a healthy appreciation of history/traditions, self-reliance, and adherence to a personal code of ethics, morals, or justice. These heroes, while often learned, are everyday people, and often from classes not usually represented in New England weird fiction: the poor, women, or minorities.

In other words, weird New England most often becomes a metaphor for the xenophobic threat of chaotic outside forces destroying our peaceful ordered world. The weird South, however, becomes a metaphor for our internal struggle to overcome the destructive aspects of our own natures.

This paper explores this aspect of the Southern weird, taking as its primary texts Cherie Priest’s first novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, about a young woman in Chattanooga haunted by three ghosts and destined to confront the heritage of an evil great-grandfather, and her novel, Chapelwood, in which a strange cult summons eldritch horrors in 1920’s Birmingham, Alabama.

In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft defines a new subgenre of speculative fiction: the weird tale. This form of horror, also referred to as cosmic horror, differs from more traditional horror tales primarily in scope. Instead of unavenged murder, ghosts, and clanking chains, he explains, the weird tale focuses on an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces […] and there must be a hint [of] a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (23).

My essay, “Fear of the Unacknowledged,” draws an important distinction between the Southern and New England weird traditions. In the latter, the weird element is most often an element from outside such as voodoo rituals from the Caribbean or cosmic horrors summoned from other stars or dimensions. The heroes of these tales, usually learned men of an academic or scientific background, must then fight off these horrors in order to preserve their world from invasion or destruction.

With the weird South, though, the horrific elements are already here: connected to old family curses, Civil War ghosts, crazy shut-ins. And while the true nature of the horror may be unknown, there's no secret that something strange is going on and has been since before anyone's memory. They become symbolic of the worst aspects of Southern culture: things like religious fundamentalism, institutionalized racism, cronyism, political violence.

If the protagonist is a Southerner, he/she then comes to represent the positive aspects of Southern culture: a healthy appreciation of history/traditions, self-reliance, and adherence to a personal code of ethics, morals, or justice. These heroes, while often learned, are predominantly everyday people, and often from classes not usually represented in New England weird fiction: women or minorities.

In other words, weird New England most often becomes a metaphor for the xenophobic threat of chaotic outside forces destroying our peaceful ordered world. The weird South, however, becomes a metaphor for our internal struggle to overcome the destructive aspects of our own natures.

This paper seeks to explore this aspect of the Southern weird by taking as its primary texts Cherie Priest’s first novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, about a young woman in Chattanooga haunted by three ghosts and destined to confront the heritage of an evil great-grandfather, and her latest novel, Chapelwood, in which a strange cult seeks to raise eldritch horrors in 1920’s Birmingham.

Bio

Leverett Butts teaches American Literature and regionalism at the Gainesville campus of UNG. He is the author of a collection of short stories set in rural Georgia titled "Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories," and he is currently working on the third volume of his "Guns of the Waste Land" series in which the Arthurian legends are retold as an American Western published by Venture Press. He is also the editor of the "H.P. Lovecraft: Selected Works, Critical Perspectives and Interviews on His Influence," a critical reader of some of Lovecraft's most famous works, forthcoming from McFarland.

This document is currently not available here.

Share

COinS
 

Fear of the Unacknowledged: The Weird Tradition in the Fiction of Cherie Priest

In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft defines a new subgenre of speculative fiction: the weird tale or cosmic horror. This form of horror differs from more traditional horror tales primarily in scope. Instead of unavenged murder and ghosts, the weird tale focuses on an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces […] and there must be a hint [of] a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (23).

My essay draws an important distinction between the Southern and New England weird traditions. In the latter, the weird element is most often an element from outside such as voodoo rituals from the Caribbean or cosmic horrors summoned from other stars or dimensions. The heroes of these tales, usually learned men of an academic or scientific background, must then fight off these horrors in order to preserve their world from invasion or destruction.

With the weird South, though, the horrific elements are already here: connected to old family curses, Civil War ghosts, or crazy shut-ins. And while the true nature of the horror may be unknown, there's no secret that something strange is going on and has been since before anyone's memory. The horrors become symbolic of the worst aspects of Southern culture: things like religious fundamentalism, institutionalized racism, cronyism, political violence.

If the protagonist is a Southerner, he/she then comes to represent the positive aspects of Southern culture: a healthy appreciation of history/traditions, self-reliance, and adherence to a personal code of ethics, morals, or justice. These heroes, while often learned, are everyday people, and often from classes not usually represented in New England weird fiction: the poor, women, or minorities.

In other words, weird New England most often becomes a metaphor for the xenophobic threat of chaotic outside forces destroying our peaceful ordered world. The weird South, however, becomes a metaphor for our internal struggle to overcome the destructive aspects of our own natures.

This paper explores this aspect of the Southern weird, taking as its primary texts Cherie Priest’s first novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, about a young woman in Chattanooga haunted by three ghosts and destined to confront the heritage of an evil great-grandfather, and her novel, Chapelwood, in which a strange cult summons eldritch horrors in 1920’s Birmingham, Alabama.

In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft defines a new subgenre of speculative fiction: the weird tale. This form of horror, also referred to as cosmic horror, differs from more traditional horror tales primarily in scope. Instead of unavenged murder, ghosts, and clanking chains, he explains, the weird tale focuses on an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces […] and there must be a hint [of] a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (23).

My essay, “Fear of the Unacknowledged,” draws an important distinction between the Southern and New England weird traditions. In the latter, the weird element is most often an element from outside such as voodoo rituals from the Caribbean or cosmic horrors summoned from other stars or dimensions. The heroes of these tales, usually learned men of an academic or scientific background, must then fight off these horrors in order to preserve their world from invasion or destruction.

With the weird South, though, the horrific elements are already here: connected to old family curses, Civil War ghosts, crazy shut-ins. And while the true nature of the horror may be unknown, there's no secret that something strange is going on and has been since before anyone's memory. They become symbolic of the worst aspects of Southern culture: things like religious fundamentalism, institutionalized racism, cronyism, political violence.

If the protagonist is a Southerner, he/she then comes to represent the positive aspects of Southern culture: a healthy appreciation of history/traditions, self-reliance, and adherence to a personal code of ethics, morals, or justice. These heroes, while often learned, are predominantly everyday people, and often from classes not usually represented in New England weird fiction: women or minorities.

In other words, weird New England most often becomes a metaphor for the xenophobic threat of chaotic outside forces destroying our peaceful ordered world. The weird South, however, becomes a metaphor for our internal struggle to overcome the destructive aspects of our own natures.

This paper seeks to explore this aspect of the Southern weird by taking as its primary texts Cherie Priest’s first novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, about a young woman in Chattanooga haunted by three ghosts and destined to confront the heritage of an evil great-grandfather, and her latest novel, Chapelwood, in which a strange cult seeks to raise eldritch horrors in 1920’s Birmingham.