San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage
$25.00 –224 pages
"How compliant are the dead. You can arrange them like cut flowers."
- Fenton Breece, 1951
In the realm of what literary critics choose to call “Southern Gothic,” readers will find some of our greatest writers: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Truman Capote and Cormac McCarthy. Most of us still remember a college encounter with Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” For those few readers who have actually read (and finished) McCarthy’s “A Child of God,” – all would probably agree that “you may not like it, but you will never forget it.” It is a novel that has much in common with William Gay’s ‘Twilight.”
What is Southern Gothic? At the risk of being challenged by learned folk who know better, I would risk stating that it is a literary genre that confronts the antics of humanity in its most surreal/grotesque aspects: James Dickey’s banjo-plucking idiot savant in “Deliverance;” Erskine Caldwell’s bestial characters in “Tobacco Road,” and the countless mentally and physically deformed denizens that inhabit the novels of Harry Crews.
William Gay’s works does not merely contain memorable examples of the Southern Gothic – it is a quality that permeates his work. His novels, “The Long Home” and “Provinces of Night” and his remarkable short story collection, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” – all are filled with unique (and often admirable) characters, bizarre encounters and dark humor. “Twilight” is no exception.
“Twilight” opens in a remote Tennessee town, called Akerman’s Field (circa 1950), where a crowd of stunned townspeople stare in disbelief into a wagon bed where an entire murdered family (including a dog with pierced ears and earrings) stare back at them. This, they are told, is the work of Granville Suttor, a demented bootlegger, who has been employed by the local undertaker, Fenton Breece, to recover certain “incriminating photographs.” It seems that Fenton has been secretly taking advantage of the dead for years. He has been arranging them (and himself) in artful (pornographic) poses. Eventually, we learn that the slaughtered family of five has no connection with Breece or his missing photographs. This hapless load of dead people qualify as “collateral damage.” They merely “got in the way.”
Even as Fenton Breece’s crimes are being discussed in hushed whispers, an armed posse and assorted vigilantes are venturing into a wilderness known as “The Harrikins” in search of Granville Suttor. The Harrikins turns out to be an eerie region where natural laws cease to work. Once inside its boundaries, a traveler encounters inexplicable storms, fluctuating temperatures, ghostly apparitions and a loss of direction. Despite the fact that it resembles “the dark wood” in a Grimm fairy tale, it is inhabited by a colorful group of characters, including witches, eccentrics and some decidedly unnatural animals.
However, the opening pages of “Twilight” begin near the end of the story. The narrative then reverts to the beginning in which two appealing teenagers, Kenneth Tyler and his sister, Corrie, have discovered that their recently deceased father has been buried without the customary burial vault that encases the coffin.
In addition, when they open their father’s grave, they discover that his corpse has been mutilated. When the two adolescents decide to open adjoining graves to see if their worst imaginings are true, the results bring them to the realization that they have “uncovered” desecrations that probably include hundreds of victims.
When Kenneth decides to confront Fenton Breece, he fails, but accidentally discovers the undertaker’s stash of incriminating pictures. Corrie naively believing that she and Kenneth can now “negotiate” with Breece and force him to make some kind of recompense to his victims. However, when she confronts him, the mentally unstable mortician responds by employing Granville Sutter to recover his photos … regardless of the cost.
The murderous Sutter decides to kill the teenagers and devise his own form of blackmail with the mortician. Thus begins a terrifying journey. After Corrie is killed in an accident (her body ends up at Fenton Breece’s mortuary), Sutter pursues Kenneth into the Harrikins – a place that seems to stimulate his madness. Although he has killed for profit in the past, he now begins to kill anyone who has the misfortune to get in his way.
Ken’s nightmarish journey through the dark woods is reminiscent of another classic flight in Southern literature. I found myself thinking of Davis Grubb’s “Night of the Hunter” (1955) – a novel that was made into a memorable film in which Robert Mitchum portrays a psychopathic minister who relentlessly pursues two children through night-haunted forests and down moonlit rivers. At one point, one of the terrified children says, “Don’t he never sleep?” Fittingly, William Gay uses this quote in “Twilight.”
Despite the morbid subject matter, this is a beautifully written novel. There are passages that are so cunningly composed, they seem to be the product of a gifted craftsman who hones and files each word and sentence until the narrative emits a dark luster.
Given the type of literature that currently appeals to the general public, I am sure that “Twilight” will not do well in the marketplace. That is a shame. If Southern Gothic is an acquired taste, then I guess I am a gourmet of sorts, and William Gay is a master chef. Although I felt that the conclusion of this novel unravels and ends a bit abruptly (like a sky rocket that failed to end in a brilliant burst of color), it is a minor flaw in a brilliant work.