Burn, Witch, Burn! and Southern Characters

Friday , 14, July 2017 19 Comments

My whole life, I’ve had to put up with entertainment’s godawful Southern characters that are nothing like me or anyone else I knew. And sure, most of this would be forgiven with an offhand “bless their heart.” Particularly the actresses that couldn’t do Southern accents to save their lives. But it does get old when people like you are repeatedly cast as gin-soaked rednecks, synonymous with bigotry, ignorance, and whatever else this week’s Two Minutes Hate is banging the drum about.

People outside the South don’t invoke the Jethro Bodenes, the Andy Griffiths, or the Gomer Pyles in casual conversation, either. No, they drop quotes from Deliverance, not Cool Hand Luke. It wasn’t always like this. Turn back the clock to before the time when publishing was run by hateful city slickers, and the biggest science fiction hero of them all turns out to be a Virginian, even a former Confederate cavalryman. And the bad guys…? It’s amazing. As xenophobic as guys like H. P. Lovecraft supposedly were, he didn’t feel the need to gin up some sort of stock Southern character to play the role of the heavy. It’s crazy, but he actually had plenty of New Englanders of Puritan stock to fill in for that…!

A. Merritt was no different. But this supporting character in Burn, Witch, Burn is especially spot on:

This man’s name, I learned, was McCann. He was Ricori’s most trusted bodyguard, apparently wholly devoted to his white-haired chief. He was an interesting character too, and quite approved of me. He was a drawling Southerner who had been, as he put it, “a cow-nurse down Arizona way, and then got too popular on the Border.”

“I’m for you, Doc,” he told me. “You’re sure good for the boss. Sort of take his mind off business. An’ when I come here I can keep my hands outa my pockets. Any time anybody’s cutting in on your cattle, let me know. I’ll ask for a day off.”

Then he remarked casually that he “could ring a quarter with six holes at a hundred foot range.”

I did not know whether this was meant humorously or seriously. At any rate, Ricori never went anywhere without him; and it showed me how much he had thought of Peters that he had left McCann to guard him.

Gosh, there’s so much there. The sketchy back story. The bravado. The combination of loyalty and expansive generosity. And it’s just so clear…! I don’t turn on the television and see characters like that. I don’t get this from contemporary fiction, either. But pick up the sort of things that fantasy and science fiction fans were reading in the twenties and thirties and bam… you can’t get away from it.

We’ve heard so much over the past few years about how important it is that people be able to read books with characters that are like them. And I get where they’re going with that and all, but I have to say… I feel exactly the same way.

  • H.P. says:

    Part of the appeal of the pulps, I think, is the pluralism of them. You get stories written for working class, blue collar, flyover country families. You don’t see much of that anymore.

    • Xavier Basora says:


      Yup that a preceptive observation which many Castalia and non Castalia writers have lambasted.

      Today’s Literatur ™ is for the Circle of the Tolerant bicoastal elites (c)
      Because the rest of us are simply too crude to appreciate that Literatur(tm) isn’t to entertain but to indoctrinate
      And.we.must.never.impose.our.uncouth.tastes. and sully the virginal Literatur ™ with our boorishness


    • cirsova says:

      Not just for, but by.

  • M.C. Tuggle says:

    Yes, not that long ago, Southern characters such as John Carter could be accepted as heroic. But these days, it’s open season on everything American, starting with the South, the first American region. Look for Washington and Jefferson in the firing line soon.

    Anyway, you just convinced me which book to buy next.

  • flyingtiger says:

    Arizonians are not Southerners. They are Westerners. They are different.

    • deuce says:

      It’s revealed in the semi-sequel, CREEP, SHADOW! that McCann is actually a native Texan. He had merely worked cattle in the Copper State before making his way to the Big Apple. So, the gunslinger makes it under the wire.

      Texas has always occupied an ambiguous position when it comes to the South and the West. REH discussed it more than once with Lovecraft.

      • Andy says:

        East Texas has more in common with the South, West and South Texas are, well, more southwestern, and North Texas is somewhat closer to the Mid-West, but ultimately they each identify as Texan above all 🙂

  • Anthony says:

    There is one recently ended show with fantastic Southern characters -the late, great “Justified”. My all time favorite.

  • MegaBusterShepard says:

    True enough Jeffro. Now I might have been born up north but I’ve lived down here for twenty four of my twenty seven years so I’d like to consider myself a Southerner if an adopted one at that.

    Last time I saw a decent character from the South on tv was True Blood, of course it suffered from the problems of modern programming but it was decent enough.

    As for a noble, sympathetic portrayal of the classic Gentleman Southerner? Ain’t gonna happen. Closest we’ve gotten recently was Bohannon from “Hell on Wheels” and it’s a great show though at the end he does loose everything.

    Southern heroes these days come in two forms. Damaged or Texan (though depending on who you ask they might consider themselves more Western).

    Sorry for the miniature rant everyone, subject makes me bitter.

  • Andy says:

    I thought it was hilarious when the Walking Dead TV show started because the comics take place in the South but many don’t notice it because the characters are simply portrayed as is, Robert Kirkman being from Georgia. The TV adaptation? Frank Darabont’s original contributions to the cast were redneck stereotypes played by Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “the biggest science fiction hero of them all turns out to be a Virginian, even a former Confederate cavalryman”

    John Carter is a Martian.

    Not to knock his southern roots though.
    He is an ancient immortal. For all we know he founded Virginia.


    • John E. Boyle says:

      It would explain sooooo much.

    • deuce says:

      Carter, again and again, proudly proclaims himself a Virginian. Since he does not even remember how old he is and seems to have no memory of being anything other than a Virginian, why shouldn’t we take him at his word? He may be a highly assimilated Barsoomian, but even in the later novels JC reminds us of his Virginian — and Earthly — heritage. Perhaps, if he had forgotten his Virginianness like he had whatever earlier life he led, THEN we might call him “Barsoomian”.

      Carter was still something of an outsider, even in the later novels. It’s like saying that Tarzan *WAS* an “ape”. He was and he wasn’t. Tarzan and JC are both liminal characters, standing between two worlds.

      • Hooc Ott says:

        Pocahontas saved John Carter and he secured the peace for the founding of Jamestown and he lived in Virginia for over 200 years.

        Of course he is Virginian.

        But humans can’t lay eggs.

  • deuce says:

    Manly Wade Wellman had his John the Balladeer and David Drake had his Old Nathan. Of course, when it comes to weird lit, REH’s Sheriff Buckner (“Pigeons from Hell”) was there long before. A courageous, honest protagonist who doesn’t take the easy route and send an innocent Yankee to the hangman.

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