women in horror: flannery o’connor

With just over 24 hours remaining in Women in Horror month, I’m continuing with my project to write about the women writers of horror fiction who most influenced me early on. Now, you’re either looking at that name up there and thinking “Flannery O’Connor–a horror writer??” Or you’re thinking, “Yes, of course.”

Horror, the grotesque, the gothic–call it what you like, but a vein of horror runs through the fiction of many Southern writers: William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, to name a few. And I like all those writers, but Flannery has always been the girl for me, ever since I first encountered her as a teenager. I think it’s her humor, her ear for dialogue, that first entranced me. It’s not that I had never read a Southern writer before–but listening to Flannery O’Connor’s characters talking was an awful lot like sitting around in the kitchen listening to my relatives.

Flannery’s sense of humor is on the pitch-black side; she was also a devout and literal-minded Catholic. Rubbing shoulders with the New York literati in the early sixties, she snarled at Mary McCarthy’s comment about some element of the Eucharist being a nice symbol that “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” From Flannery we get the enduring image of the South as “Christ-haunted.” Christ-haunted, what an amazing turn of phrase. I wish it were my own. In Flannery’s fiction, religion may often be a locus of hypocrisy but the real deal, God and Jesus Christ and the angels, are terrifying. There is something almost elemental, something entirely inhuman and remote about the deity, and the world in which humans reside feels capricious and absurd.

Flannery made me look at the place and the people around whom I’d grown up with fresh eyes, and she showed me the ways in which everyday life is shot through with horror and humor and that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Her own life was as tragic and absurd as that of her characters: she spent the final weeks of her life dying in a room in Milledgeville, Georgia, all the while continuing to write,  and lupus claimed her before her fortieth birthday.

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