Southern Gothic stories are tricky to pull off. On the one hand, they can be atmospheric in mood and tone. On the other hand, these stories can be the scene of high camp. An example of the latter would be the admittedly tongue-in-cheek Sookie Stackhouse mystery novels. A wonderful example of the former is Seed, the first novel by Ania Ahlborn. The novel is steeped in religious metaphors and the darkness some believe exist within and outside of the human mind.
Considering the author is not a native of the American South (or America at all), I was pleasantly surprised that she was able to perfectly capture the quintessential elements of Southern Gothic. Ahlborn uses magic realism in her choice of setting, which is the backwoods of Louisiana and Georgia, and leaves doubt in the minds of her characters (and the audience) as to whether the events are actually happening, at least in the beginning. Much of the novel deals with unseen forces. There is also a significant amount of ambiguity initially of whether or not these forces influence the character’s actions.
The American South is a landscape rife with storytelling possibilities. A deeply religious and superstitious region, the South allows an author free reign to use supernatural elements without sacrificing realism. The violent history and dilapidated conditions of the rural South serve as popular metaphors for moral and spiritual decay (two hallmark topics of Southern Gothic stories). Ahlborn uses hints of violence and downtrodden physical locations to highlight and emphasize the downward spiral of one family into a hellish nightmare. The real violence toward the end of the novel is not over-the-top but a natural progression of the story that Ahlborn has painstakingly built up to.
Ahlborn centers the action on a small family in the so-called “Dirty South” of Louisiana. Jack Winter is a man with very little recollection of his past. The scenes between him and his wife Aimee are deftly crafted, relying on the signals and feelings a long-married pair of opposites would probably develop. The marriage is written as a genuine partnership (with the usual hassles couples of modest means encounter). Their children, Abby and Charlie, are two precocious, precious little girls written with just enough maturity to be believable children without sounding like adults wearing children’s faces. From the start Ahlborn thrusts the family through a jarring experience and doesn’t relent from ratcheting up the suspense and dread with each successive chapter. She also allows for moments of normalcy throughout the novel (particularly the beginning chapters), creating empathy in the audience for this family.
One staple of Gothic literature is the Grotesque, the character who engenders both sympathy and disgust from the audience. It’s a precarious balance and any author must provide that give-and-take proper deference. Ahlborn creates a magnificent Grotesque and keeps the weights of sympathy and antipathy in proper proportion right up to the very end. The sinister nature of the events lend the Grotesque character plenty to work with and Ahlborn takes full advantage to create moments of unsettling and growing madness in her characters.
One pervasive notion I found is the absence of quintessential good in the story. Evil permeates every sweat-soaked fiber of the story’s setting, even crossing generations in fact. But there is no sense of evil’s opposite attending or even being aware of the proceedings. Ahlborn also draws on the biblical notion of evil from a prior generation returning to haunt the current one. There’s a strong notion that Heaven or God is indifferent to the events of the story, never taking a direct or indirect hand. In this regard, Ahlborn harkens back to similar situations in Shakespeare’s tragedies (particularly the equally bleak King Lear) where characters cry out to heaven for respite but receive no response.
Seed manages to capture the best aspects of the Southern Gothic genre and combine them with a taunt story. There’s no fluff to this novel, either. It’s been pared down to the essentials, giving the novel direction and strength. It’s a fast read but it never feels rushed. Rather, the novel is an invitation to a headlong rush into the abyss. For anyone who enjoys horror with gothic sensibilities, I recommend this book. Ania Ahlborn’s first novel shows her to be a talented writer to watch for the future.