Southern literature frequently alternates between endearing and shocking. Characters can charm readers on one page and commit murder on the next. It may be the allure of juxtaposing Southern hospitality with brutality that causes so much of the region’s literature to end in bloodshed; it may be a reflection of the people who live here, showing that underneath the sweet tea and the barbeque, there’s a hard edge to Southerners, something primal left over from the days when the world was less civilized and life in these lands was a hard, uncertain thing.
There’s a rich history of stories set in the southern half of the United States, with classics such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being but two entries in the Southern portfolio. Flannery O’Connor famously wrote short stories set in the South that are dark and amusing. The following works of literature are some other examples of what the genre has to offer, written by both new writers and masters of the craft.
As always, this is not an exhaustive list, but a sampling of what Southern fiction has to offer.
The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott
This is author J. Todd Scott’s first novel, but it won’t be his last. The DEA agent-turned-writer has announced that this novel is the first of what will be the long-running Big Bend series. It opens with a boy’s confession that his father, the town’s decorated and beloved sheriff, murdered his mother, and only gets better from there. Characters include a former football star working as a deputy law enforcement officer, the sheriff himself, a young girl whose brother is a missing Border Patrol agent, and a young sicario working for a Mexican drug cartel. The book captures the harsh and unforgiving beauty of West Texas with its mesmerizing prose, and the story never drags, whether Scott is describing gunplay or the intricacies of small-town politics in the fictional Murfee, Texas.
The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard
Elmore “Dutch” Leonard is the kind of guy who should require no introduction, but he often does. If you don’t know who he is, you undoubtedly know some of his work—his writing has been adapted into films and television series including Justified (2010-2015), 3:10 to Yuma (1957 & 2007), and Jackie Brown (1997). He started his career writing Westerns, then moved on to writing modern crime novels with Western undertones. The Moonshine War is more like the latter, but set in 1920s Kentucky. It came out in 1969 and is about a guy named Son Martin who’s in possession of some quality Kentucky liquor during Prohibition. An old war buddy of Son’s who’s now putting in work for Uncle Sam wants the liquor—the only problem? No one but Son knows where it is. This is a short read that sets a man against the world and then follows its premise through to the only possible conclusion. There are explosions, gunfights, and moral dilemmas abound in this thrilling novel.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
This novel is the most accessible of McCarthy’s works and goes deeper than the film ever could into the psyches of its characters. Written by the legendary Cormac McCarthy and adapted into the acclaimed film of the same name by the Coen Bros., this novel’s pedigree is self-evident. This is the story of a man mixed up in events beyond his comprehension; of a sheriff haunted by past deeds; and of a force of nature known as Anton Chigurh, chasing the protagonist across the novel’s blood-stained pages.
Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron
Okay, you caught me—this isn’t prose. It’s a comic book series that’s so perfectly realized and relevant to this article that I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving it out. Aaron (writing) and his partner, Jason Latour (illustrating), have created a fictional version of the South that’s wildly entertaining and frighteningly recognizable to anyone who’s ever lived in a small Southern town. Set in Craw County, Alabama, Southern Bastards’ first volume is about Earl Tubbs, an old man with a big stick who’s determined to bring down the man running Craw County from the shadows: Coach Boss, the man in charge of the local champion football team. As the series progresses the scope widens to include the broken and disenfranchised citizens of Craw County, whose stories and lives are tragic and enthralling. The collected editions of this series include brief essays written by the creative team discussing their own views on contemporary Southern culture that are funny and insightful. This is a series you absolutely don’t want to miss.
Gone South by Robert McCammon
Written by an acclaimed horror novelist going for something a little more gothic, Gone South is about a man who does a bad thing. Dan Lambert is behind on his truck payment and haunted by memories of Vietnam; when he murders a loans officer in a moment of desperation, Lambert has to flee south toward the Louisiana bayou. There, he’s hunted by the law and some of the strangest and most memorable bounty hunters you’ll find in Southern fiction: an Elvis impersonator and a freak-show refugee. When he meets a girl with a horrifying facial disfigurement and learns about her quest for a faith healer known as the “Bright Girl,” his life takes yet another turn and the two of them set off on a dark and mysterious adventure in Louisiana. Gone South reads like some of Stephen King’s best work, with McCammon masterfully juggling the strange and the familiar to create a unique and enthralling tale.