Book Review
The Vine That Ate the South
J.D Wilkes
Two Dollar Radio, 212 pp., $10.87

Southern Fabulism: Old Monsters with Lingering Issues

In a post-Harry Potter and Twilight world, the idea of vampires, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures makes many cringe in embarrassment of their past obsession, squeal with adolescent excitement, or raise an eyebrow in confusion. Although these creatures once inspired fear or even reverence for their power, YA and other genres of fiction have romanticized and neutered these astounding beings into teen heartthrobs or scary movie tropes. But, these monsters have a history that predates even the invention of adolescence. Back then, they had literary substance, far from the latest trend to oversaturate an already-full marketplace.

Before YA made vampires sparkle, supernatural creatures were beings of myth created to explain what lurks in the dark. In a previous blog, we discussed Southern Gothicism and its use of the supernatural to touch on a darker truth. Southern Fabulism has similar roots in the literary tree, but it branches off by using the spectral to spark a conversation with the present. Springing from the same literary tradition, Southern Fabulism places fantastical elements into a realistic, everyday setting. As Amber Sparks from Electric Lit defines Southern Fabulism, “These fantastical elements are often cribbed from myth, fairy tale or folk tale. Strange things happen, and characters react by shrugging: animals talk, people fly, the dead get up and walk around. Time operates sideways, nature behaves mysteriously; fabulism feels like the kind of dream in which you look down and realize reality has forgotten its pants.” Unlike Southern Gothicism, however, there aren’t many Flannery O’Connors or William Faulkners, making the genre seem somewhat obscure. But, within this year alone, there has been a rise in published books, especially on the indie circuit.

The Vine That Ate the South is a recently published novel from indie publisher Two Dollar Radio. Written and illustrated by Kentucky-native J.D. Wilkes, the story follows two men journeying through a haunted forest called The Deadening to reach a house cursed with man-eating Kudzu. On their trip, the men encounter creatures from American folklore including an albino panther, vampires, and demon witches. The pair also meet people straight from normal Southern life including protective property owners and gossiping small townsfolk. Ultimately, the novel is a story of a young man’s internal quest to find out the truth about his father and his future.

The fantastical elements of Wilkes’s work intermingle with the reality that readers might have a hard time distinguishing the two; this is not a fault of the novel but rather an intriguing and mysterious aspect of it. The narrator warns early in the book that Carver, his friend, and fellow protagonist, is, in essence, a liar. Carver Canute spends the trek telling legends and stories about his experiences in the forest. As the story continues, Carver’s tall tales seem to take on a reality of their own, to the point that the narrator even starts to believe some of his stories. By the end of the novel, the fantasy-world the narrator thought Carver created became real.

Even though Wilkes spends a chapter defending the “Southern Fantasy Novel,” he takes the offense against what he called the “Age of Information.” The Vine That Ate the South is full of nostalgia for times before television and computers. The narrator laments the loss of “the old homestead ways of life” and the adventure of “manly conquests.” The novel’s ending feels like a critique of the present. At the end of the book, the narrator discovers that a rogue angel brought to Heaven to “create a more diverse heavenly populace” has been causing “wickedness from Heaven upon the various nations of white men.” The divine being chosen the narrator’s homeland to curse for the past thirty years with the townsfolk becoming “slaves to technology, greed, and progress.” By divine intervention from God, the creature is cast out of heaven with his wings sawed off and forced to take possession of a dog that can only run in circles around a pole. This event is said to wake the town up as Walmarts are burned down, and other retail stores are closed. Whereas this is an interesting critique on the modern age and the takeover of capitalism and consumerism, this criticism does feel like it waxes too poetically on nostalgia. Wilkes writes here of a New South that looks back on the Old South with an odd fondness and respect that comes close to coddling — a perspective that walks a dangerous line.

America is full of stories about things that go bump in the night, but there is something about the American South much darker and more mysterious. Perhaps it is the region’s recent history of real boogeymen and human monsters that feed into the lore. Southern Gothicism uses this mythology to expose the South’s transgressions and force it to cope with its shame and guilt. In contrast, Southern Fabulism places the supernatural into a modern day setting to make sense of the present repercussions of today. The decisions of the Old South are ones that still affect the New South today. Slavery and Jim Crow laws have led to industrialized racism and the prison industrial complex. Stigmas against the LGBTQ community and women persist in the norms of the Southern culture. Southern Fabulism allows for readers to deal with those present, continuing issues that linger from the past through monsters from old being brought into a whole new, everyday world with fresh new eyes.

 

 

Help us disrupt the Southern literary landscape.