Southern Tales of Mythic Proportions Come to Life in ‘The Vine That Ate the South’
Mandy Shunnarah reviews the new book by Legendary Shack Shakers frontman J.D. Wilkes and asks him about the Southern legends and folk demons that served as inspiration.
Going exploring in the woods and happening upon a haint or big cat or some mythic creature that supposedly doesn’t exist is practically a Southern rite of passage. Yet author J.D. Wilkes takes the Southern adventure tale to a whole new level in his debut novel, The Vine That Ate the South (out this week from Two Dollar Radio).
If you read Homer’s The Odyssey in high school and wished you could go on an epic undertaking like that too, this is a novel you’re sure to love. After reading The Vine That Ate the South, I’m not so sure Homer wasn’t reincarnated as the author and certified Kentucky Colonel, Wilkes himself.
Like any good adventure story, it starts with an everyday character on a simple mission—or rather, a mission that is supposed to be simple, but goes awry at nearly every opportunity.
The unnamed protagonist goes into The Deadening, a swath of haunted woods in western Kentucky, in search of The Kudzu House. Whispers of local lore say there’s an elderly couple who was eaten alive by carnivorous kudzu and you can still see their bones hanging from the vine, like beads on a ghoulish necklace adorning the forest.
With his salty companion and best friend, Carver, by his side, our unnamed hero encounters a variety of formidable characters. Some—like the vampires, witches, cats of unusual size and girls who ride Great Danes like horses—are said not to exist. But others, like the gun-toting shack dwellers and murdering Masons, are all too real.
While the risks are great, so is the reward. Our protagonist’s goal is to find The Kudzu House and live to tell it so he can charm his One True Love away from his sworn enemy, Stoney, whom he hates from his snuff-chewing mouth right down to his crap-caked cowboy boots.
It takes a master storyteller to craft a novel that is sure to be an instant Southern classic, and JD Wilkes is most certainly that. As the frontman of the rockabilly/punk band The Legendary Shack Shakers, he writes and performs songs that are essentially Southern gothic short stories. On top of that, he’s an accomplished filmmaker and illustrator, including rendering all the drawings for The Vine That Ate the South.
And while Wilkes is a debut novelist, he’s not new to writing. His first book was Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, published by History Press.
J.D. Wilkes eat, sleeps and breathes storytelling. I had a chance to talk to him about his writing process, his passion for storytelling and, of course, his love of the South.
MS: You were born in Texas and went to college in Kentucky, though it’s clear Kentucky is your true home. At what point did you start to fall in love with the state?
JDW: Both sides of my family are from Kentucky, so my being born in Texas was just a fluke. We moved back to the Bluegrass State while I was still a baby.
It’s all because of my dad’s line of work, which still kept us moving around a bit. We spent some years in Louisiana too. But we always seemed to wind up back in Kentucky. I guess I must’ve absorbed a lot of history and stories during all that moving around the South. Folklore, dialects and music.
MS: A lot of the Southern folk demons and even the real life characters like the preachers and country folk in the woods figure into stories many Southern children hear growing up. Since they made such an impression on you, I’m curious to know more about how you learned these folktales and what it was like hearing them for the first time.
JDW: Some stories were learned from firsthand experience, some from my elders and friends, and some were just dreams and misremembered tales picked up from who-knows-where.
In the acknowledgments I list as many folks as I can remember who have shared their stories over the years. My two biggest influences for this particular tale came from my raconteur buddies K. Layne Hendrickson and Michael Hagaman—musician pals who have long embraced history and culture and who turned me onto storytelling years ago.
Paranormal experiences and waking dreams have warped me too. Things the skeptical reader wouldn’t believe if I told them.
MS: Tell me more about your writing process. Did you know going into it that you wanted to make a Homeric tribute to the South and incorporate nearly every Southern legend imaginable?
JDW: I knew it would have to be a journey and that I would somehow have to novelize the various local interest stories into one narrative. But I didn’t think, and still don’t think, of writing as anything other than a way to entertain myself. It’s what I did as a rural, lonely kid and it’s what I’ve always done as a songwriter. I’m not interested in writing a “hit.” I just want to have fun inside my mind.
MS: Your writing style is what I imagine the future of Southern literature to be, and yet it fits nicely within the canon of stories like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’m curious to know what Southern writers influenced you over the years.
JDW: Irvin Cobb, Flannery O’Connor, John Faulkner … I also love William Gay, Cormac MacCarthy, historian Keven McQueen, Nick Tosches and many more. Herman Melville, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allen Poe have been influences too. And then there’s Washington Irving and even the songwriter Tom Waits!
And there’s still more to come from Wilkes: a solo album on the horizon, a new Legendary Shack Shakers album releasing next month, and, while it hasn’t been confirmed, he’s contemplating the character Carver’s next move for a potential future novel.
Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, PANK Magazine and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work on her website.