J.D. Wilkes' Haunting Love Song To The South

BILL WOOD | JULY 16, 2020

The Vine That Ate The South art by Bill Wood.

Some folks just don't know when to stop. Take J.D. Wilkes for instance. He is the frenetic lead singer of The Legendary Shack Shakers, a band where he also happens to play banjo, harmonica and piano. He is also a talented painter and comic artist, responsible for visual gems such as Grim Hymns and The ABCs of American Cults. He also happens to be a legitimate Kentucky Colonel, as well as a noted historian of Southern tradition and culture.


And to top it all off, J.D. Wilkes is an accomplished author, penning one of the finer Southern Gothic novels in recent memory. The Vine That Ate The South is Wilkes’ love letter to the romanticism and folklore that permeates his local region of Paducah, Kentucky. It is a Homeric romp through backwoods and briars, through swamps and hollers. Like J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy authors, Wilkes borrows from local haunts and superstitions to craft a wildly imaginative world that is all his own. In dense, humid forests lurk age-old haints such as the White Thing, Bae Bae, the Goatman, the Hoofenogger, and Old Kate herself, the Bell Witch of Tennessee. And while this approach to creative writing is certainly nothing new, what sets Wilkes apart from traditional fantasy authors is the way he consistently peppers his grandiose adventure with life experience, personal reflections and good ol' fashioned self-deprecating humor. It's as if the kids from Stand By Me were mysteriously teleported to Mordor.  His gift for gab certainly doesn't hurt either, his extensive vocabulary and gift for lyrical narrative makes for a compelling read throughout.


The Vine That Ate The South recounts the fictional tale of Wilkes’ quest to visit an elderly couple in the woods. The catch is that this couple is rumored to have been long dead, their decomposed bodies appropriated and devoured by kudzu. With his companion Carver acting as both travel guide and comic foil, the two narrowly escape one mishap after another, all the while making their way closer to their quarry. Their voyage takes them through long-abandoned ghost towns, graveyards and Masonic temples, avoiding the shotgun blasts of local hillbillies, nipping whiskey and swapping tall tales of local legend. As it turns out, the backwoods of Kentucky are an enchanted realm where witches and warlocks actually co-exist with carny talkers and holy rollers, where the real-world Uruk-Hai are devoted consumers of Little Debbie and NASCAR. Wild dogs and water snakes aren't the most immediate danger, instead it is the lurking terrors that exist just outside the corner of the mind's eye.


Throughout his twisted trek, Wilkes' character pauses constantly to reflect upon his own tortured upbringing. This being a fantasy novel, the fictional Wilkes of the story has an ethereal past where he is constantly at odds with forces of the supernatural, not to mention the local yokels in the DQ parking lot. It is a fairytale yarn through and through, but at the same time, you can’t help but wonder whether some of these recollections have a more personal touch, and it is this approach to storytelling that makes The Vine That Ate The South such a compelling read. By placing himself as the protagonist in his own backyard in his own story, Wilkes is able to give more of himself than Frodo Baggins ever could. The story exudes an authentic love and deep appreciation for the South and her timeless charms, many of which have been recently sidelined in favor of some of the uglier truths that unfortunately still exist today. Wilkes readily acknowledges both sides of this flawed heritage, armed with the understanding that this is a way of life that may cease to exist within his time. Our overachieving hero defies adult complacency and modern convenience to partake in the journey of his lifetime, but he is also an astute observer, aware of the light and darkness, the love and hate, the progress and prejudice that surrounds him.


In this real world of ours, the American South of yore is in many ways becoming a faded memory. And while this is not the forum to make a case for what is and isn't "history-worthy", The Vine That Ate The South successfully preserves at least some of what’s being lost, it’s a dedicated “warts-and-all” odyssey that lays bare one man’s extensive knowledge of local history, geographical factoids and regional mythology. Like Tolkien and Miyazaki before him, J.D. Wilkes borrows extensively from research and experience to establish a moss-lined realm of ageless phantoms that is well worth visiting. - BW

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Twilight Zone poster art by Bill Wood.
The Vine That Ate The South art by Bill Wood.