The main characters of southern gothic stories are often strangers in strange places, small towns in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana or Georgia (as in the case of Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor's work) inhabited by the most compelling band of outsiders you ever thought possible.
Though Carson's third novel, The Ballad of the Sad Café is the most quintessentially southern gothic of all her works, there are several ways that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter fits the mold. Carson said of the book in her original outline published in her unfinished autobiography Illumination and Night Glare, "This [work] takes on the theme of man's revolt against his own inner isolation and his urge to express himself as fully as possible."
What makes this genre tick and how did McCullers use it in her most famous novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter?
In most southern gothic stories, there is a pivotal character or someone close to them who is set apart from the world by a disability or odd way of seeing the world. You won't meet very many "normal" characters in the writings of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote or Carson McCullers—and this is by design. This fascination with the outsider is in many ways used to show readers not only the individuality of the southern culture, but also to connect each reader to their own unique "freakish" nature.
This is often both literal and figurative. While many southern gothic tales include an incident where a character is sent to jail or locked up, there are also several gothic characters that live in fate's prison without hope of parole.
Southern gothic writers covered a period in the South's history when violence was particularly prevalent. After the bloodshed of the Civil War, and the period of reconstruction that followed, racial tension and fear ran high in many small southern towns. This plays its part in many of the stories of this genre.
Sense of Place
It wouldn't be southern gothic if you didn't feel like you'd been thrust in the center of a dusty, peach-scented, lonely downtown where porch-bound widows rock gently on creaky rockers, rusty pick-up trucks drive by filled with grimy farmhands, the general store is run by the town drunk, and flies and mosquitoes circle glasses of ice-filled lemonade. The sense of place is strong—awash in calm, pregnant heat, lost dreams and wayward souls.