A Southern Gothic horror story with the structure of a fairy tale, Joelle Wellington’s powerful “COTTONMOUTH” is a southern-flavored gender-flipped riff on Koschei the Deathless, complete with a separated death, seduction, and imprisonment, alongside white men making the error of believing they own and can control a Black woman.
Grant Dixon’s small first crime was wanting to matter, wanting to be a hero. His second crime, a much worse offense, was telling himself that Inanna, the Black woman imprisoned in the attic, belonged to him. Initially, all he wants from Inanna is a story. This gives Inanna, a storyteller, an opening. She is also irresistibly beautiful and dangerously patient. What she isn’t, is stupid. She knows Grant is her ticket to freedom, she watches as he lies to himself, growing closer and closer to doing her bidding. She’s waited hundreds of years to be free, she can wait a few more days for this self-centered white boy to do exactly as she needs.
The reader will recognize Grant’s arrogance. He will never realize the story isn’t about him, at least not until it’s too late. Grant has no idea he’s just a footnote. He thinks he’s in this story to be a hero, to save the princess.
Inanna is teasing Grant, and she does need something from him. But in those scenes, I see something beyond the thematic concerns of a typical Southern Gothic tale. To be blunt, I see common male aggression where men go in an instant from being polite and charming to a woman to becoming pushy and demanding. The everyday occurrence of #notallmen but enough memorable men assuming that a woman who was kind to them now owes them something—a smile, a story, a date, a good enough answer to why she’s not interested in a date or a drink. While she’s polite to him, she’s a virgin, a Madonna. The moment she stops meeting his definition of polite she’s a whore.
Apparently, this story was a smidge triggering for me.
My reaction is one thing, but yours is more important to me. Are you a woman of color who lives in the south? I’m interested in your comments on this story. Are you a reader of any other background and location? I’m interested in your comments on this story. I’m interested to see how the comments are different based on the reader’s life experiences.
The opposite of a homebody, Wellington can often be found reading a book outside or writing fiction at a local coffee shop. A recent Emory University graduate, she has had articles published in Black Star Magazine and The Emory Wheel. Recently, she’s been learning a lot about bees. Follow her on Twitter at @joelle_welling for news about her new projects, fashion, and her opinions on everything she is watching and reading.
Wellington was kind enough to talk with me about where the idea for “COTTONMOUTH” came from, writing Southern Gothic fiction, her new projects, and what Inanna would do in the real world if she wasn’t trapped in a story.
Before we get to the interview, don’t you just want to read “COTTONMOUTH” again? Because I sure do!
Ok, you’re back? Let’s get to the interview!
Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead!
APEX MAGAZINE: Simplified greatly and the supernatural aspects set aside, this is a story about two white men who believe they own a Black girl, and they keep her imprisoned in the attic. What kinds of things were you thinking about when you wrote this story?
JOELLE WELLINGTON: When I wrote this story, I remembered wanting to write a fairy tale, if that makes sense. There’s a structure to fairy tales and, oftentimes, there’s a lesson that is sometimes obvious, sometimes isn’t. I wanted to write a fairy tale about Black women, who in this story is positioned as the princess, the monster, and the hero all at once, and the dimensionality to that role, despite not being the primary point of view character. I also wanted to write about the South—my family is from the South and I visited when I was younger, but living in Georgia was different. I loved Georgia for a lot of reasons, but I also … didn’t love it for other reasons. It was a weird cognitive dissonance. In Georgia, I lived in front of a Confederate graveyard. Just really random insidious things like that.
AM: What inspired you to write this story?
JW: It’s really funny because I wrote this piece in my final year of college (I graduated in 2020—right after the start of the pandemic) and I remember that when I was talking about it with friends who are also writers, I conceptualized it. At the time, I was very interested in the fairy tale aesthetic, but also had categorized myself as a Southern Gothic writer first and foremost. I sat down and realized I wanted to write a Southern Gothic retelling of the Russian folk story, Koschei the Deathless. Koschei’s death is also separated from his own body, but it’s so distinctly Russian, I reworked it for a Southern equivalent—particularly the peach pit because I was writing this in Georgia, the peach state.
When I realized that I wanted to write about the South, I recognized that meant working through the trappings of the South, the terribleness of white supremacy, and the way that religion can sometimes be used as a weapon. I use a lot of religious imagery in my work, particularly reworking Peter’s three denials of Jesus. That isn’t to say anyone’s fulfilling any of those particular roles but I just thought it would be interesting.
AM: The chains that bind Inanna are pewter, copper, and Iron. What is the significance behind those types of metal and the order in which they break?
JW: I can’t remember exactly why I picked pewter and copper. I know I picked iron for a good reason. I remembered visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture and seeing the iron manacles on the wall. I remember being greatly affected by that, and so iron always played a very large part in the work. It made it even more important when I realized that I wanted something else beneath the iron too.
The order was a little less symbolic, however. It just made sense to go from what is typically perceived to be the weakest metal to the strongest.
AM: Eugenia knows exactly what Grant is after. She even gives him some liquid courage. How many Dixon men has Eugenia sent into the swamp?
JW: I’d always intended Eugenia to be a vague figure. I think that Eugenia is someone that has inherited knowledge. I’ve never imagined that she was anywhere near as old as Inanna, but I do think Inanna is a story passed along, and each witch guards that story, whether out of jealousy or respect for Inanna. I don’t think any of them ever thought that Inanna would be freed either, which I think comes across well in Eugenia’s mockery: Be a hero, she commands. Eugenia understands that there are no heroes. Only monsters.
AM: After the story ends, how long do you think it will be until someone finds Grant and starts talking to him?
JW: Four hundred years.
AM: Time for a fun question! Inanna hasn’t been in the world in a while. What do you think her favorite modern technology would be? Instagram? Airplanes? Pedicures?
JW: Oh, I’ve never thought about this. I think Inanna would be fascinated with the smaller things. She’d have a Twitter account. She’d love getting her hair done. I think she’d do a million different things to it—dye it, shave it, braid it, wear wigs. I think she’d wear whatever she wants and gorge on every cuisine in the world, and take pictures of everything. She’d want to document her existence. A full demonstration of autonomy in every way possible.
AM: Who are some of your favorite writers and artists? How has their work impacted and/or influenced you?
JW: Toni Morrison. Her work has had an insane amount of impact on me. I own at least two editions of every single one of her works. It might be cliché but Beloved really ruined me. Faulkner is another favorite. I read Absalom, Absalom! as a senior in college and the cyclical nature of storytelling, the depiction of the same narrative over and over again from multiple POVs was just insane to me. Gabriel García Márquez made me realize the power of storytelling. I can honestly say One Hundred Years of Solitude changed my life. The Buendía family still has a hold on me, and I reread that book once a year to learn something new. And my love of fantasy originated with Neil Gaiman. It’s weird because I know how much I love Gaiman’s work, but I didn’t realize how much he impacted my work until someone pointed it out?
I’m also really driven by visuals. David Lynch is big for me, and Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Super creepy, surrealist, symbolic, and an inherent gothic romanticism to them. All things that really hit for me.
Joelle engages in her favorite pasttime.
AM: Do you have any current or newish projects you can tell us about?
JW: I can’t talk too much about my biggest projects because I have vague concepts that I haven’t told anyone besides myself when I’m trying to work through it out loud, but I can say that I’m in the process of outlining two horror novellas. One is about the actualization and physical manifestation of fear and the other is a pastoral folk horror about bees. Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about bees recently, and my friend actually told me that when a new queen bee is born in a hive already occupied with a queen bee, they fight to the death for dominance. It’s kinda insane but also weirdly satisfying. I didn’t know that, did you?
AM: You had me at “pastoral folk horror about bees.”