Adjacent a busy, Western Kentucky highway, resides a forgotten memory—a true ghost town. Obscured by trees and undergrowth, passersby are scant aware of its existence, let alone its former significance.
Trudging through the mud toward the town's hotel is J.D. Wilkes. Donning a yesteryear, brown suit coat, he blends perfectly into the winteresque landscape both in terms of visuality and mood. One supposes that if this town suddenly revived to its former life, J.D. wouldn't be out of place. He is nearly a ghost himself, a shadow of times past projected onto modern society.
As he walks, he sees beyond the temporal, bringing the town back to life within his mind. "I let my imagination run wild. What went on here?," he ponders. "I probably imagine way more than actually did. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes truth is mundane. I would imagine there would be some cool stories if you could know them, but how could you? So I make it up. I like how forlorn it is. The whole place looks like a charcoal drawing. There's something magical about it. We have a culture and a history. I bask in it and wonder about it."
The town was once a center of rural activity with the hotel, a sawmill, a general store, and a few houses. Time and persistent flooding have taken it away. But in J.D.'s mind, there is still life. There are still stories to be told. His love of such landscapes inspired him to write his first novel, The Vine That Ate the South. Set in woods and ghost towns such as this one, J.D. brings to life these now forgotten scenes with tales he heard as a child.
"I took Kentucky and southern folklore and novelized it," says J.D. "It is my valentine to Western Kentucky and growing up in the south. It's like putting a frame around things like this and treating it special." J.D. also projects his own vivid, surrealistic imagination upon this canvas.
"It's partly all the stories you heard, you know, about things like the old man that lives in the house—Southern Gothic kind of stuff. But with some humor in it, too. I love Irvin S. Cobb and his writing, and it's important to have humor and not just horror and creepiness. And I got lucky, and a publisher was interested in it."
J.D. started the book nearly half a decade ago in a land far removed from Western Kentucky. "We were in the Arctic Circle in Norway," he says, "and it's like Middle-earth. It's so pristine, but everything goes dark when you go into these long, tunnel caves in the mountains, driving in darkness for thirty minutes. I cracked my laptop open for a light source, and I started waxing poetic about Kentucky because I was homesick. But I'm also in this Lord of the Rings frame of mind because I'm underground where dwarves or elves or dragons might live. I thought, we have our own monsters and crazy characters that are ours. They are southern. So what if someone did a Kentucky Lord of the Rings with our own folktales?"
In that, J.D. planted the seed for The Vine That Ate the South. "I tried to make it nice and lush, like the landscape and our culture," he says. The novel is a collection of tales with a narrative thread. "I wrote it out in such a way where it happens in a day, in a certain area, in a certain patch of woods, to a certain couple of characters. They experience the things I heard from my grandparents. Those things come to life in the woods when they get off the beaten path."' And true to J.D.'s style, the novel is illustrated.
J.D. has always been a fan of Southern Gothic, furthering the genre in his own work, whether it be music, art, or the written word. "Gothic means beauty in the grotesque," he says as he looks around at the ghostly buildings around him. "There's a beauty to this. It's a different color scheme. It's not the colors you'd find in a box of Crayolas. There are off colors that make up this scene. I like to paint with that palate. It's a darkness that helps you see the light even better. It's not doom and gloom. It's just another flavor. It's like Moby Dick to me. My white whale are the woods of Western Kentucky. My seven seas are the trails that cut through the woods."
J.D. resumes his walk through the ghost town, the past projecting images upon his mind. Even though no one else is to be seen, in his imagination, he is surrounded by people and bustling activity—products of J.D.'s knowledge of the past, products of the folklore and tales he grew up with. He has lived with these imaginings his whole life, and now, he's ready to share.
J.D. Wilkes is a musician, artist, and author. He is known as the rambunctious frontman of The Legendary Shack Shakers as well as a painter, comic artists, and historian, writing such books as Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky. The Vine That Ate the South will be released March 14.
Join the discussion