William Gay’s posthumously published Little Sister Death (2015) is a retelling of a Tennessee folk story laced with horror and obsession. David Binder, a Tennessee writer working in a Chicago factory, toils away on a novel that is eventually published with literary acclaim. Writers’ block consumes his second novel, and at the suggestion of his editor, he begins to work on a horror novel that will hopefully earn commercial success. David, his wife, and daughter move to Tennessee to lease the Beale home, where his obsession and the lore take on lives of their own and begin to unravel while they unravel him.
Little Sister Death is, at its core, an old ghost story set in Tennessee. At the same time, it is a charmingly poetic read. Gay’s prose is as mellifluous as each of his predecessors, but his inspiration never bleeds through to the showing. The title, Little Sister Death, comes from the Quentin chapter of The Sound and the Fury. So clearly steeped in McCarthy and Faulkner, Gay’s work calls on them as the ghosts that haunt each page. Rarely are their influences resting directly on the page, but their apparitions bleed through the space between each line. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawphic community—that judgmental, Calvinistic code—manifests in Binder’s tortured family and broken community. McCarthy’s nihilism, his stylistic balance of laconic terseness framed by pages of syntactic suffering, comes through in Gay’s dialog and bleakness. But they only haunt; the homage to McCarthy and Faulkner aren’t the novel’s raison d’être.
I’ve read I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down and several other works by Gay, and each narrative is held together by death, depravity, humor and lyric adjectives. Little Sister is by far his bloodiest and most directly horrific, but that becomes irrelevant as you read on. The haunting isn’t central to the characters or their lives, but how they suffer, connect and disconnect, and hate or loathe becomes the overwhelming driving force of the story. The tales are suspenseful, and the story has multiple tales embedded in the larger narrative. Binder’s story. Binder’s fictional story. The Beale haunting. The community’s development. Minor murder and major murder. You don’t pine to see the blood or feel the final dark shadow emerge when you turn around. Rather, the minor tales build Binder’s obsession. Yes, his obsession with the Beale haunting and the past writ large. But Binder’s obsession is a kind of Homeric reaching—the haunting is a greater evil, a tempting and supernatural evil, and at points, the novel’s plot is simply Binder’s drive to dominate or immerse himself in the tempting evil that surrounds the Beale lore. He’s ultimately consumed by this force, but this resolution feels irrelevant.
Morris Collins from Medium’s Electric Lit claims that the major success of Gay’s writing is the “distinct and exciting prose capable of making the most graceful register shifts between the biblically ornate and the Appalachian colloquial.” This is one of the aptest descriptions I’ve read of Gay’s style, which vacillates between old country lies and an epic poem pining for verisimilitude. For example, after a deep, haunting familial secret is revealed, the narrator describes day turning to night:
Dusk gathered first in the dell where lay the ruins of the old houseplace, and it seemed to Binder that dusk dwelt there always, crept out when the shadows lengthened like ink seeping into blotting paper… A moon of palest rose cradled up out of the hollow, cypresses darkened to red as the day waned. Dusk drew on and the moon turned the color of blood, fierce and malign, enormous, he felt he could rise and stretch his arms and touch it….
He crushed the cigarette carefully against the heel of his shoe and arose. He went through the old cemetery, mostly given now to scrub sassafras and sumac, marble tombs, graven angels and crumbling spires recumbent in poison oak rising out of the honeysuckle. (141)
I won’t bore you with more analysis of Gay’s diction. He was truly a beautiful writer, and the suspense of this short novel makes picking it up so worthwhile. The Beale family story is based on the Tennessee legend of the Bell Witch, a story we’ve all heard or had access to. The Blair Witch Project was based on the Bell lore in some capacity. Numerous books have been written about the novel, but none with Gay’s twanged lilt. I highly recommend reading one of the South’s most storied sons retell the story of the South’s most cursed family.