Lucius Shepard may have flown under your radar; he certainly flew under mine until now. For an author who has won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, not to mention Nebula and Hugo Awards for his novellas and short stories, Shepard has been one of those authors about whom much has been said, but until this past month, I never bit. I wish I had before now, because his latest short novel, Softspoken, is a gorgeous piece of writing.
Instead of being a work of magic realism or cyberpunk, two subgenres in which Shepard has written many stories over the past twenty years, Softspoken starts as an updated Southern Gothic novel. Set in rural South Carolina, Softspoken opens in the third-person point of view of Chapel Hill, NC transplant Sanie Bullard, who has been dragged south to the land of pretentious snobs (Charleston) and woefully-ignorant rednecks. As she bemoans her fate, she reveals that her apparent dullard of a husband, Jackson, has moved back to his family's decaying, ramshackle ancestral home. While this might sound like a rather stock opener, Shepard's use of descriptive language and situational irony (as the opener to chapter two below shall reveal) make for a gripping opening experience.
Like many people from North Carolina, Sanie considers most South Carolinians to be either snooty and pretentious (Charleston types) or low-class and ignorant (the rest). The irony attaching to this point of view is not lost on her, yet she adheres to it, and the next morning, in keeping with her attitude, she wriggles into a pair of cut-offs and a raggedy T-shirt, Daisy Duke redneck-slut drag, prior to walking to Snade's Corners, a general store and gas station that lies at the end of the dirt road leading to the house. She means to engage the citizenry in visual terms to which they can relate and thus bridge the cultural divide. She seeks to infiltrate, to access secret hick lore that may come in handy for the grad-level creative writing workshop she intends to take once she and Jackson return to Chapel Hill. But either her disguise is ineffective or some behavioral tic gives her away, because when she reaches the store - a one-story structure of brown-painted boards, with a peaked roof that extends out over the gas pumps - and steps to the counter to pay for her Diet Pepsi, the cashier, a thirtyish, prematurely balding lout with a potbelly the site of a watermelon and a face remarkable only for an unfortunately Fu Manchu and soul patch, says, "You Jackson Bullard's wife, ain'tcha?"
Sanie acknowledges this is the case, though she hates the name Bullard. Sanie Bullard sounds to her like the name of a character in a story by a writer whom she would not admire, a faux-Southern regionalist with a faintly malodorous literary cachet.
In this quoted piece, not only do we see the conflict between how Sanie views herself and her surroundings, but we also get a sense that she is quite self-centered and perhaps not half as clever as she presumes herself to be. In the remainder of this scene, there is a scent of a comedy of manners approach, but Shepard is quick to twist this into something a bit more ominous.
Sanie has an interesting set of in-laws. From her father-in-law, Rayfield, to her peyote-using brother-in-law Will and his equally odd sister, Louise, Sanie finds herself confronting a family that may hold much more secrets than even the centuries-old house that they inhabit. Soon, she starts to hear a mysterious and chilling voice, and she shifts back and forth from wondering if it might be a cruel prank played on her by her in-laws, or if it might be something supernatural and potentially threatening.
The remaining pages of Softspoken are devoted to exploring this mystery, with a few twists along the way that ratchet up the tension level to very palpable levels. Shepard displays a very keen ear for how the passages ought to sound and Sanie's voice pervades this piece in such a way as to make the ending all that more exciting and terrifying, all the more so because it stays true to its own inner tale and not to any perceived plot conventions.
Considering this is the month in which things begin to die around us, a month which winds down in a celebration before the beginning of an ancient honoring of the dead souls on November 1-2, Softspoken is a tale that brings forth our ancient preconceptions of the literal and figurative ghosts that haunt our own lives.
Summary: Softspoken is a slender 179 page short novel that uses a limited third-person PoV and a Southern Gothic getting to tell a story that is in turns wry and terrifying in how the characters interact and act in reaction to a "voice" that the main character, Sanie Bullard, hears. Shepard has a deft touch with his words and the scenes just build up to a very tense and explosive finale that will satisfy most horror readers. Pace is excellent, with nuanced characters to provide variety in the dialogue and in the plot development. Highly recommended for all readers.
Publication Date: April 2007 (US), Hardcover
Publisher: Night Shade Books