In this essay, I want to explore the regional implications of Eudora Welty’s critical appraisal and creative appropriation of a particular fantastic genre: the early-twentieth-century “weird tale.” In the alienating style of weird fiction, its mythological roots, and its social awareness, Welty seems to have found a mode of storytelling oddly compatible with her own approach to the craft. The unsettling plots of her early tales and the sensational narrative strategies of her later civil rights stories suggest that Welty sometimes sought to shock the sensibilities of her southern readers, to make them question the racist and sexist societal norms historically associated with the region. In this respect, Welty shared the general goals of the social reformist weird fiction writers she read on occasion.
Given Welty’s prominent and somewhat staid role in the southern literary canon, this is a topic that might seem strange were it not for a rising interest in various forms of fantasy and genre in new southern studies. In Our South: Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature, Jennifer Rae Greeson posits, “The South that we hold collectively in our minds is not—could not possibly be—a fixed or real place. It both exceeds and flattens place; it is a term of the imagination, a site of national fantasy” (1). Similarly, Thadious M. Davis argues in Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature that intersections of race and space in the Deep South occur in an imaginary “landscape” of “broad geographical-social contexts and mediated symbolic structures” (2). These are useful studies for exploring how empirical space is deformed in literary discourses that address the South through calculated caricature: representation via misrepresentation or anti-representation. Though at present their critical terminology stages the discussion in Edward Said’s language of unreal cartographies, scholars like Greeson, Davis, and others are more and more evincing a general appreciation for traces of the fantastic in the southern. More to the point, a 2009 special issue of Modern Fiction Studies focuses exclusively on the topic of regional modernism, with many of the contributors encouraging new critics to reevaluate the influential role that syndicated popular media and fantastic genres played in shaping local literatures. Thus, a number of scholars in [End Page 75] several interrelated fields are recognizing that often the operative narrative mode of southern regional fiction, the category in which Welty is often considered, is not precisely realism but a mutant form that borrows provocatively from the speculative fiction genres of dystopia, fantasy, science fiction, and the weird tale.
Walker Percy’s Thomas More novels and Cormac McCarthy’s raw dystopia The Road are excellent examples of southern or semi-southern books in which the pulpy influence of the fantastic surfaces forcefully, but these works are prefigured in the surreal, sensational tendencies of earlier southern authors such as Erskine Caldwell and Flannery O’Connor, who peopled their dark fantasies of the South with grim grotesques. At bookstores today, consumers can gorge on the even more fantastic South of Charlaine Harris’s popular Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels, or they can tune in to HBO to catch True Blood, Alan Ball’s television adaptation of the series. Creators telling fantastic tales in new interactive media are also interested in appropriating southern settings as darkly imagined geographies. Valve Corporation, the company behind the popular Left 4 Dead zombie-attack-survival game franchise, opted to set the 2009 sequel Left 4 Dead 2 in the South. Undead monsters pursue the protagonists (one of whom proudly wears Louisiana State University colors) from Savannah to New Orleans. While the South appears to be emerging as an increasingly viable setting for works of fantasy, this modern trend merely underscores an enduring regional artistic indebtedness to the unreal, one that has arguably existed since southern plantocrats first took Sir Walter Scott’s chivalric fantasies to heart.
In the past decade, writers producing scholarship and criticism on Welty have worked hard to reevaluate her peculiar take on the southern fantastic. In doing so, they have clearly heeded Michael Kreyling’s 2004 call for critical strategies that might “free Eudora from the bondage...