The heady atmosphere of the southern woods is where macabre secrets lie ensnarled in webs woven by centuries old ghosts; where witches hang their hexes from trees; where killers lurk in abandoned houses. I just finished Twilight by William Gay, a Southern Gothic masterpiece which follows the story of teenagers Kenneth Tyler and his sister Corrie, who discover that the town undertaker Fenton Breece has a disturbing relationship with the bodies he buries after digging up their father’s grave.
There’s something altogether strange about one who takes advantage of a dead body – it’s part of our innate human nature to treat the dead with respect, something that’s at the root of our true beginnings of culture. The dead have gone on, and though their body is unoccupied, it is the last real symbol of that person. We burn them or bury them and give them their peace. When someone goes against this code, we immediately find them to be disturbed, as someone who threatens to taint the tangible, symbolic vessel of the living person we once knew and loved.
Fenton Breece is a plump, nervous, and peculiar man, and one of the best characters I’ve come across in some time. He enjoys sipping cognac in his silky house robe while conversing with a dead (usually female) body in the privacy of his parlor, and he is desperate to keep his borderline-necropheliac persona under wraps. When Tyler steals Breece’s treasured, nefarious photos for proof – photos of bodies he has mutilated and propped up like Voodoo poppets for his own pleasure – the undertaker hires the infamous outlaw and brute Granville Sutter to get them back.
A manhunt ensues. Blood stars to trickle through the town and into the backwoods, where it gathers into a bath. Bodies begin piling, all the while Breece hides out inside his private vault where he receives the bodies, scuttling about like a spider who’s too anxious to sit still until he gets his precious pictures back – if he gets them back.
There are no rules in the backwoods. No laws. There’s just the wild and guns. Sometimes there’s magic, and death is never more than a breath away.