Flannery O’Connor never saw her fortieth year, but she made sure to leave her mark on literature, especially horror, before she died. One of the founders of Southern Gothic, she suffered greatly from lupus, a disease that also killed her father. This did not stop her from completing two novels and 32 short stories, when not painting and raising peacocks in her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia. A devoted Catholic, she was known even in her lifetime as a fearless and brutally honest writer who eschewed the fluffy platitudes of contemporary Catholic fiction for a far darker worldview. She was especially interested in the idea of God’s grace (which is always undeserved in mainstream Christian theology) being visited on those humans most resistant to it.
In her stories, the omnipresence of God did not mean the absence of shadows or ravening monsters within them. It is possible that horror’s continued love-hate relationship with Catholicism as the fallback religious position when facing monsters has something to do with O’Connor’s stories. She might have been Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, if Eleanor had possessed more brains and gumption.
O’Connor was not without warts. She strenuously denied writing horror, claiming that people saw darkness and grotesquery in her work when she was just being honest and clear, telling reality. Even so, it’s hard to miss that most of her protagonists are “hard-headed” (her words) Protestant evangelical or rational atheist Southerners, who are pretty brutally introduced to the Catholic “Thomist” form of grace and theology that O’Connor espoused. Not to mention that many of her characters were unstable to the begin with. Characters like the ill-fated protagonist of her first novel, Wise Blood (1952), find themselves running like hell from the terrifying prospect of God’s love, sometimes for their entire lives.
O’Connor claimed that she used these characters as examples of how the mustard seeds of grace could fall and flourish on even the hardest ground. Her writing has a distinctly satirical edge, and her imagery is both comical and grotesque. But the stories themselves have a sense of grim retribution for those who don’t believe in her version of Christ…even if the idea is that they all do go to Heaven, once the screaming stops.
O’Connor’s subtext wasn’t all that subtle, but it did lend itself very well to horror, her protestations aside. In her stories, God smacks you upside the head with your place in His creation by making you roadkill. Even though they were poles apart in religious beliefs, O’Connor and Lovecraft had a surprising amount in common when it came to how they perceived humanity’s place in the universe. I wonder what she would have thought of slasher films. Or of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Her most famous horror entry is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953). In this creepy and almost noncommital short story, a grandmother resents her family going on a roadtrip to Florida. She tries to manipulate them into visiting relatives in Tennesee, instead. In the process, she manages to get them all killed when they encounter escaped killers on the road. It is, to say the least, an exceedingly dark story, whose themes reach both forward and back in the genre. We can see its influence on movies like Deliverance, or even cheap horror films like Wrong Turn. But its roots also stretch back at least as far as Little Red Riding Hood. In this version of that classic story, Grandma gets the whole family killed and the Wolf (in the form of a convicted patricide called “The Misfit”) is left commenting at the end on her stupidity: “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
O’Connor was also an early writer of body horror. The grotesque form of the human body was omnipresent in her stories. This happens when you have things like a mummified dwarf being used as the Christ child in a Pietà scene in your stories. Her protagonists suffer considerable physical torment that brings about spiritual transformation. The obsession with this trope was probably a result of her chronic illness being sublimated into ascetic metaphors for Christ’s suffering.
As country western singer Mary Chapin Carpenter once put it, “Sometimes, you’re the windshield. Sometimes, you’re the bug.” In O’Connor’s case, all of her protagonists were the bug.