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Flesh and Blood: The Inbred Grotesque and Queer Kinships in Rural Gothic Literature and Film

  • McAlpin-Levitt, Celeste
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2024
eScholarship - University of California
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This dissertation investigates the prominence of incest tropes in Australian and U.S. Rural Gothic literature and film of the late nineteenth through early twenty-first century. Through a comparative study of texts from and about Tasmania and Appalachia, regions of low-economic status historically imagined to be on the fringe of their respective nations, I trace how stereotypes about inbreeding among the white rural poor reflect an anxiety over state biopower that originated during the founding of these settler colonies. I argue that the fear of “failed” yeoman farmers, whose non-normative sexuality, gender, racial identity, and refusal of labor are understood to degrade the settlement from within, led to the creation of an “inbred” hillbilly figure that can be found throughout the media of settler colonial states. I coin the term “inbred grotesque” to refer to the aesthetic pattern associated with this stock character, whose prominent physical differences, deformities, and disabilities are designed to reflect their internal opposition to settler values. I examine how the inbred grotesque transformed incest into a form of cultural shorthand for alternative and queer kinship patterns that challenge the foundational unit of settler states—the patriarchal nuclear family. Throughout the dissertation, I outline how the hillbilly and inbred grotesque shaped and were shaped by eugenic theory, industrialization, and nationalist movements. In the first and second chapters, I focus on the literary and historical origins of incest stereotypes in Appalachia and Tasmania, taking as my primary case studies John Fox Jr.’s Virginian “local color” novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908) and Marcus Clarke’s Van Diemonian convict narrative For the Term of His Natural Life (1874). In my third chapter, I perform a comparative reading of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark (1968) and Louis Nowra’s play The Golden Age (1985), examining how these American and Australian writers harnessed the inbred grotesque to express their opposition to postmodernist challenges to reproductive futurism. In my fourth chapter, I move to the birth of the “killbilly” horror genre, the dominant form of the inbred grotesque from the 1970s to the present day, and consider how cult films featuring inbred cannibal families such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and House of 1000 Corpses (2003) have both sustained and challenged hillbilly tropes. Finally, in my epilogue, I discuss the fate of the hillbilly today, considering how this figure has played a key role in the rhetoric of the contemporary Australian and American far- and alt-right movements and how the Left might itself learn to embrace the inbred grotesque.

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