It’s the witching hour. A dog barks, a wolf howls, a coyote shrieks. The piercing sound travels through the woods, bounces off the hills, echoes through the valleys. It shatters bones, reverberates through the body. It is an ominous, mournful, otherworldly melody that lasts for hours. Awake I lie, snug in my sleeping bag and safe in my tent. Or so I hope. It is my first night travelling through the national state parks and forests of southern Appalachia and I have never been this close to such a haunting call of the wild before.
Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley’s Devil’s Promenade is set in the Ozarks rather than in Appalachia, but from what I understand as a European outsider, the area is not too dissimilar ecologically, socially, and culturally. More importantly, it plays a comparable role in the American consciousness. Both regions represent what film scholar J.W. Williamson, in his book Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies, calls the ‘hilly sides of the American economy, the parts out of the mainstream.’ Both areas are tarred with the same brush as frontier territory, as being remote, isolated, violent, wild, and backwards. Anyone aiming to produce work within either region has to contend with that legacy, has to avoid reproducing the stereotypes, visually or otherwise.
So what have we here, then? Devil’s Promenade is nominally about what Shipley describes in her afterword as ‘an unassuming country road in the Ozark region of the Midwest, where a traveler might encounter a mysterious orb of floating light. It’s also a place where locals say the Devil lives.’ Tempted by this story, Dolezal and Shipley set off to investigate. And so the viewer encounters images of dark country crossroads, of trees aflame with light emanating from invisible sources. Eerie black and white pictures of canines starkly illuminated by flash follow suit, strongly reminiscent of Çağdaş Erdoğan’s photographs of dogs in his publication Control. And then there is the rather scary sight of bleached out birds perched on rustling tree branches set against a pitch black sky, not too dissimilar to Yoshinori Mizutani’s series Tokyo Parrots. The dead of night in these pictures looks hot, black and haunting indeed. And whilst Robert Johnson might have struck his deal with the Devil on a crossroads somewhere in Mississippi, one could easily believe that they might find the latter here too, waiting to snare other unwitting musicians in his traps.
Dolezal and Shipley’s uncanny pictures are interspersed with ephemera such as hand-drawn maps denoting the location of Devil’s Promenade and the light orbs, book covers such as Vance Randolph’s Wild Stories from the Ozarks, and archival pictures and postcards of searchers for the so-called spook lights. Randolph, as Dolezal relates in an aside, was an Ozark folklorist and historian who co-founded the Ozark folklore collection at the University of Arkansas, from which the majority of the archival material in the book has been sourced. Further archival images, obtained from local antique stores or flea markets, refer to other ghoulish goings-on. They include a picture of a two-headed dog and the photograph of a seemingly headless white horse. Dolezal provides the rationale for including such images by explaining that in local folklore a white horse means good luck, whereas a headless one invites misfortune. Devilishly ambiguous scenes indeed.
Devil’s Promenade is more than just an investigation into a natural or preternatural phenomenon. It is also a sideways look at a region where religion still plays an important role, and where talk of and belief in transcendental forces is still prevalent
But Devil’s Promenade is more than just an investigation into a natural or preternatural phenomenon. It is also a sideways look at a region where religion still plays an important role, and where talk of and belief in transcendental forces is still prevalent. And so the book contains contemporary black and white images of tent revivals, believers testifying, and engaging in blessing and faith healing. They are followed by depictions of facades and interiors of wooden church shacks and religious signs, complemented with archival photographs of river baptisms drawn from the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. The viewer also encounters more mundane imagery of teens frolicking in swimming holes during the height of summer, of tender interactions between young parents and their little ones, and quiet portraits of elderly folks. Alongside that we get a hint of a much darker side to the Ozarks, of bare-chested tattooed young men handling bottles of whiskey and staring menacingly into the camera, of thrill seekers tramping through the woods in the dead of night, of burnt tyre tracks left on the tarmac, of deserted log cabins deep in the woods and of bleached animal skulls perched on fence posts.
Images such as these can be seen as skirting around established stereotypes of the Ozarks. Indeed, fellow photographer Stacy Kranitz, who operates in Appalachia, has somewhat unfairly been lambasted by critics, such as Jeff Whetsone in the Journal of Appalachian Studies, for ‘updat[ing] the tired stereotypes of Appalachia as dangerous and deviant, fueled by shirtless youth with assault rifles, preachers with rattlesnakes, meth, moonshine, and lots of people wading around in rivers.’ However, the book’s focus on the spook lights, and the combination of contemporary images with archival material, mean that Dolezal and Shipley are able to avoid similar accusations.
Devil’s Promenade is a handsomely designed small hardback publication, with a layout switching back and forth between full-bleed and white borders, between colour and black and white imagery, between contemporary photographs and archival material, interspersed with the odd quote typeset at a slant. An interesting and bold feature is the book’s cover, showing a snake entwined around a cross, a wolf rampant and fruits and leaves of the Bois d’Arc tree native to the region drawn in black ink. The drawings are further embossed with radiant suns. According to Dolezal these elements do not only represent a battle between good and evil, they are also symbols found in Ozark folklore and history.
It is a gutsy move to design a photo book without a photograph on the cover, given that we often rely on a single image representative of the entire story to draw us in. However, given the variety of visual materials included in the book, the different genres utilised to relate the story of the Ozarks in general, and the spook lights in particular, not a single image can be said to jump out above the fray to fulfil this role. More importantly, the design of the cover pays homage to old-fashioned fairytale books, thereby directly signposting the contents to be found within.
At any rate, the book is the result of a collaboration begun in 2011 between Dolezal and Shipley, who both originally hail from the region. An earlier output of the project came in the form of three books self-published in a limited edition called The Spook Light Chronicles. The first volume, Dolezal informs me, focused primarily on the history of the floating light orb and the community’s relationship to telling and retelling the story of this preternatural phenomenon for over a century. The second and third volume centred around the Spook Light Museum and Ozark oral storytelling traditions respectively. The images for these three publications were produced between 2011 and 2014, whereas the body of work contained within Devil’s Promenade dates from 2011 to 2019. I understand from Dolezal that whilst there is an overlap in imagery between these publications and Devil’s Promenade, each book pursues its own course. My main criticism of Devil’s Promenade is that it is a fairly slim volume, given that Dolezal and Shipley apparently spent four to six weeks in the field each year with cameras and voice recorders collecting stories, and creating visual reinterpretations of such stories alongside shooting more documentary-style pictures and portrait photographs. Whilst received photographic wisdom is that less is more, my stance in this case is that I would have liked to see more, much more.