Queerness and the Southern Gothic: Review of Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
Summer Sons. By Lee Mandelo. Tordotcom, September 28, 2021
Since the early days of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, Gothic works (and, later, horror literature) have linked queerness and monstrosity. The Southern Gothic is no different. Whether it’s Faulkner’s haunted plantations and war-torn landscapes, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers’ grotesque and marginalized characters, or the more recent explorations of otherness in HBO’s True Blood, issues of gender and sexuality are at the heart of both gothic and horror writing set in the South. Lee Mandelo’s debut novel Summer Sons provides a twist on the preoccupations of the genre: acceptance of queerness and the community it brings leads its characters out of horrific landscapes, rather than into them.
At the beginning of the novel, Andrew is newly arrived in Nashville for graduate school after the death of his best friend and adopted brother, Eddie. Eddie left Andrew everything: money, a fast car, a house off campus, a roommate, and his research in folklore at Vanderbilt. Eddie also left a terrifying family legacy that allows Andrew to commune – imperfectly – with haunts, which now include Eddie. His ghost insists on taking over Andrew’s consciousness at the worst moments. Though Eddie’s death seemed to be a suicide, Andrew is convinced that he was murdered, and begins investigating Eddie’s life in Nashville to find his killer: his research, his friends, his participation in street racing, and his relationships with his graduate student mentor and overbearing thesis advisor.
The heart of the novel is Andrew’s relationship with Eddie: his struggle to come to terms with Eddie’s death, find a deeper understanding of their relationship, and accept his own queerness, all of which are deeply entangled. The novel does an excellent job laying out Andrew’s mental state: grieving Eddie’s death and deeply wounded by Eddie’s choice to start graduate school early and leave Andrew behind. As he slowly uncovers the life Eddie built without him, Andrew also comes to terms with his own sexuality through connecting with Eddie’s roommate, Riley, and Riley’s cousin Sam. Riley is trans, and Andrew and Sam begin a relationship over the course of the novel. Through accepting his attraction to Sam, Andrew learns to let himself see the world and his connections to people in a new way.
While the novel makes it clear that the cursed family lands have a history as slave plantations, the South functions as more of a symbol than a highly specific setting. The history and landscape of Nashville and middle Tennessee aren’t much discussed. Similarly, Vanderbilt could stand in for any number of fancy private universities that value themselves and their legacies highly. Like Andrew’s inheritance of Eddie’s family legacy, this keeps the focus on the present. For all that the ritual that bound them included a blood transfer, Andrew doesn’t have to be a direct descendant to inherit the curse or the ability to see haunts. His presence as part of Eddie’s life, and as a white man in a landscape rife with privilege, involve him in the realities of the present, direct descendant of enslavers or no.
This places Summer Sons alongside recent works in horror and fantasy like Lovecraft Country, Ring Shout, The City We Became, The Ballad of Black Tom, and Get Out, which depict whiteness and white supremacy as the source of horror. Summer Sons focuses more on white characters than those works. It has some sharply observed moments that make it clear how fraught race is in this world for people of color, like the ill treatment of a Black graduate student or a character’s refusal to attend parties where she knows she would encounter racism and sexism. But the novel focuses on entanglements with the toxic legacies of white family pasts, as well as the way privilege, including racial privilege, manifests itself in modern academia.
However, the novel doesn’t end with Andrew accepting Eddie’s family legacy. In doing so, Summer Sons opens up the possibility that the way we currently conceive of our connections to land – as property, something to be owned and passed down through families – needs to be severed, in favor of connections to people and a very different kind of community. Andrew’s newly forged connections to Sam and Riley help him resist Eddie’s toxic inheritance, both the power from the family land and Andrew and Eddie’s past refusal to acknowledge their own queerness.
In classic gothic works, horror is often rooted in the fear of deviation from normative social expectations of gender and sexuality. In Summer Sons, embracing one’s identity and forming new communities – even if they are not traditional or expected – becomes a way to fight the legacies of slavery, whiteness, and internalized homophobia. Andrew breaks from those toxic legacies by accepting his own queerness and choosing his relationships with Sam and Riley instead of violent power over life and death.
Ellie Campbell (she/her) is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Reference Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She holds an M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, an M.A. in American Studies from King’s College London, and a J.D. and an M.L.I.S. from the University of Alabama. She is very grateful that none of her American Studies professors tried to murder her when she was an undergrad at Vanderbilt. Ellie tweets at @ecampbell535.
This review was commissioned by editor Sabrina Mittermeier in June 2021 from a hard pitch, and edited by Jake Casella Brookins. The author and editors were acquainted through a previous ARB publication. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tor.