By David Nilsen
There are literary motifs that are guaranteed to get me excited about a book: a rural setting, noir elements, backwoods religious deviants, abandoned locations, mythical beasts, sideshow grotesquerie. Show me wily hillbillies doing bad things in the name of Jesus, and I’m hooked. Throw in some elements of the macabre and I’m prepared to love you. Do it all with prose that is equal to its subject—poetic, sincere, unflinching—and I’m in the palm of your hand.
With all this in mind, I have rarely been more eager for a novel than I was for The Vine that Ate the South by J.D. Wilkes. Two Dollar Radio (my favorite fiction press) announced the book last spring, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a year now. I’m going to reproduce a good portion of the jacket copy below so you get an idea of how perfectly this book pushed all my buttons:
In a forgotten corner of western Kentucky lies a haunted forest referred to as “The Deadening,” where vampire cults roam wild, shrunken heads are on display, and time is immaterial. Our hero and his hillbilly accomplice set out down the “Old Spur Line” in search of a house of mystery…a country home where an elderly couple is rumored to have been swallowed whole by a hungry vine.
Their quest leads them face to face with albino panthers, snake-oil charlatans, and gun-toting property owners (plus just about every American folk-demon ever).
I mean, come on. Even now, I need a minute before continuing.
Okay, I’m ready.
I was really, really excited about this book. And then I read it.
The imagination of J.D. Wilkes is a wondrous, terrifying place, and the settings he creates and the characters and beings he populates those settings with are glorious, ghastly, and deliciously weird. The trouble comes with Wilkes’s pacing and tone.
So much seems to ferment in his mind and boil up from his imagination that he can’t fit it all, and so every page becomes a rapid-fire scattershot of images and adventures and fears and monsters. We’re never given enough time with any of them, and the book ends up feeling like a slideshow in which the timer is set too fast: we’re not done looking at everything in the last photo before a new one fills the screen. Because of this pace, there is little chance for mood or dread to build, and we’re left with a frantic litany of what would be fantastic scenes and explorations if they were allowed to develop. Wilkes clearly loves his homeland of Kentucky, and wants to tell its stories, which is understandable and admirable, but he’s so eager to make sure nothing gets left out that nothing ends up receiving the space it needs. The book needs to be either half again as long as it is or employ a significantly more efficient economy of images.
On top of this, the story is told in such a whimsical, folksy, aw shucks tone that these spooky vignettes feel more like jokes than something we should feel in our skulls. Wilkes employs a golly gee willikers, this is just how we tell stories down here writing voice that grates on my nerves and strips the potential impact of his gothic imagery. I felt the entire time like some hipster was about to pick up a ukulele and start singing the book to me. This might well be how tall tales get told in Kentucky, but it’s flatly the wrong tone for helping us appreciate those stories on paper.
There are segments of the book in which this let me spin you a yarn voice is dropped, and they are the book’s best. One particular chapter—Stoney Kingston—is heartbreaking. Our narrator remembers a party his impoverished mother threw for him when he was a child in an effort to help him make friends. Neither he nor his mother had a knack for people, and so such a party was doomed to fail. It does, and the social dynamics and cruelties of the event and the emotional aftermath between these two broken souls is truly affecting.
I wanted so badly to love The Vine that Ate the South, and there are enough moments of brilliance to show Wilkes had the ability to make this a great book, a southern gothic gospel for a new generation, but the vision got away from him. Maybe he’ll create that yet, but The Vine that Ate the South ain’t it.