The Devil All The Time: Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin. Photo: Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020

America’s Southern Gothic Moment

Why is the American south still regarded as repository for all the shortcomings of America?

Artillery Row

Even before the adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel The Devil All The Time has streamed on Netflix, the plaudits for Robert Pattinson’s performance as preacher Preston Teagardin are mounting. Not least of all because the English actor has mastered a convincing southern American accent. Although the setting for the novel – and the film – is the midwestern state of Ohio, it was swiftly added to the canon of Southern Gothic literature. According to one review it read as if “the love child of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner was captured by Cormac McCarthy, kept in a cage out back and forced to consume nothing but onion rings, Oxycontin and Terrence Malick’s BadlandsLike Faulkner, Pollock sticks to a familiar setting. For the former it was the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, for Pollock his native Knockemstiff in Ohio.

The film arrives as themes synonymous with the Southern Gothic tradition are played out in the wider country as reality rather than fiction. Not that issues relating to race, religion, violence were exclusive to the American South, even though it was described as a repository for all the shortcomings of America. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote. Rarely has this been more apt, in a country adrift with the violence of those resurrecting historical grievances they never experienced, with scant knowledge of those that did.

For the unsavoury elements in the Black Lives Matter movement and the savagery they’ve been responsible for it’s as though 1865, never mind 1965, never happened. They behave as though their experience is akin to the Mississippi childhood of Richard Wright described in The Ethics of Living With Jim Crow (1937): “Negroes who have lived South know the dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighbourhoods after the sun has set. In such a simple situation as this the plight of the Negro in America is graphically symbolized.” Is the entire country having a Southern Gothic moment?

Historically, the “grotesque” has been central to this literature, something Flannery O’Connor cornered more than other purveyors of the form. Take a look at the police mugshots on social media of those arrested during the riots ignited by Antifa and Black Lives Matter, these have a touch of the “grotesques” O’Connor described decade earlier. They are without the crippled limbs, wooden legs, cross-eyes but have a spoofy inbred look, further disfigured by bad hair dye and askew tattoos on pierced skin the colour of cuttlebone.

The American South has been described as a repository for all the shortcomings of America

The grotesque in The Devil All The Time is manifest in the actions of the characters, rather than the infirmities that contrast the anomalous “freak” with upright locals sheltered by superficially pious lives. The characters in the novel take themselves to extremes to test their faith or find redemption. “It’s hard to live a good life,” says one character. “It seems like the Devil don’t ever let up.” The figure of Willard Russell returns from World War II haunted by his experience in combat. Among the figures surrounding him a serial killer who takes snapshots of his captured prey, and the predacious Preston Teargardin who preaches that delusion leads us to sin.

When Hilary Clinton talked of “deplorables” in 2016 she was riffing on the grotesque motif, applying it to the territory between the coasts. Joe Biden was thinking along similar lines but reduced it to just 15 per cent of Americans. In its literature, these anomalous characters haunt the stories of the Deep South as frequently as the ghosts rising from a past that refuses to be laid to rest. “Don’t you see?” says Isaac McCaslin in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. “This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse?”

Cover art for the novel The Devil all the Time (2011)

The post-war setting of The Devil All The Time is some way from the southern literature that idealised the pastoral landscape and side-lined the slavery and the violence; it’s some way from the dilapidated mansions and decaying plantations of the postbellum era. In a filmed interview in 1972, William F.Buckley asked the southern writers Eudora Welty and Walker Percy what made southern writing so distinct. Welty raised the importance of place and the history of the people. This was unique to a region granted a distinct view of the America beyond. Percy hankered for a southern literature that jettisoned the imagery of the past and recognised both cultures had merged in an age of television and the supermarket. The spectral horrors of slavery would then be laid to rest; the curse lifted.

Almost half  a century later a recent documentary on Flannery O’Connor provides a glimpse of that past, along with The Devil All The Time. A contemporary view of the South, or an aspect of it, is found in the TV adaptation of Katori Hall’s play Pussy Valley set in the fictional Chucalissa in the Mississippi Delta. The largely black cast play neither slaves nor servants but strippers. It’s a timely series, emerging as Cardi B scored global success with “WAP”, and the accompanying video became a hit with Pornhub fans. Following her interview with Joe Biden the rapper informed her 14 million Twitter followers: “Just like I can make millions of people pop their p*ssy, I can make millions of people go vote.”

How will they vote as the country struggles with its Southern Gothic moment? People are taking the knee or raising their fist in the air, as though enacting religious rituals; young middle-class white women seem possessed as they shout in the faces of black cops about racism; agitators repeat inane slogans when challenged, as if speaking in tongues. Buildings burn behind them – in neighbourhoods they’ve never lived and will never return to – yet they are devout in the belief they are the righteous. Preston Teagardin would declare it’s their delusion that leads them to sin.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover