Fans of the new S-Town podcast may have gotten a certain song stuck in their heads. At the end of every episode, “A Rose for Emily” by The Zombies plays. Beneath its bouncing piano and cheery vocal harmonies, “A Rose for Emily” is actually the perfect theme song for S-Town.
The song is an homage to the short story of the same name by William Faulkner, one of the foremost authors in the Southern Gothic genre. By including The Zombies song, S-Town positions itself within the Southern Gothic lineage and invokes the legacy of Faulkner’s macabre story — and not without good reason.
So where, besides being set in the South, does S-Town fit into all of this? The best way to answer that is with some music, as the podcast’s creators hint at with their inclusion of “A Rose for Emily.”
The song’s lyrics cast Emily as an aging, lonely suitor who can do nothing but watch as everyone around her pairs up, falls in love, and leaves. “Emily, can’t you see? / There’s nothing you can do. / There’s loving everywhere but none for you,” goes the chorus.
Already, some parallels to S-Town are apparent. Like Emily, the podcast’s main character, John B. McLemore, despises his town and everyone in it. “Shit town,” he calls the place (Woodstock, Alabama) as he watches those around him leads what sees to be backward lives. McLemore even loans a copy of the Faulkner story to journalist Brian Reed, the podcast’s host, for “bedtime reading” as he stays in a motel in Woodstock.
The thematic similarities between S-Town and “A Rose for Emily” become even stronger when considering the actual story.
Where The Zombies song focuses on Emily’s romantic isolation — certainly an integral part of Faulkner’s story — the full short story is far deeper and darker.
Split into five sections, the story opens (and later closes) with the events surrounding Emily’s funeral, which many of the townsfolk are attending. It then travels back in time to the death of Emily’s father. It took Emily three days to come to terms with his death, which left her scarred. At the end of the story, it is revealed that her father’s death engendered — or at least awakened — in Emily a murderous desire for a stable male figure and a proclivity for necrophilia. The townsfolk find this out after searching Emily’s house and finding the badly decomposed body of a suitor, dead for ten years, in a bed, as well as evidence that Emily had been carrying on a marriage with the corpse.
The morbid circumstances of her death aside, Emily is frequently referred to in Faulkner’s story as an institution unto herself. She lives in a mansion in a part her town that used to be full of wealth but now exists as the last vestige of that former glory. “Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town,” says the narrator. The same could be said of McLemore. Though something of a recluse, his personality was one-of-a-kind. Fans of the podcast, who had not known him and would never have met him, feel as though they do know him through his many talents, and they miss him all the same.
But the most striking similarity between S-Town and “A Rose for Emily” comes not from the characterization of their respective subjects. Rather, it is in how these stories are experienced by the reader/listener. In both cases, voyeurism, the act of looking in on someone else’s life to an invasive degree, is the mode of delivery. “A Rose for Emily” is told to the reader by an anonymous member of Emily’s community. S-Town is relayed to the listener by Reed. In neither case is the framing of events coming from the mind of the main character.
As a result, when consuming these stories, the audience can vacillate between the guilt of trespassing and the near-addictive need to know more anyway. Guided by our narrators, we get to root around among the fear, the doubt, the insecurity, the anger, and the humanity within.
If the hallmark of a successful Southern Gothic tale is that it shakes its audience unsettled, questioning their own motivations after a look inside the mind of someone who just as easily could have been them, then S-Town is a success. By cleverly appropriating The Zombies’s “A Rose for Emily,” the podcast carves out a space for itself among the darkest regions of American folklore.