Some works of horror involve sympathetic characters trapped in a ghastly world; others involve hard-to-like characters whose ultimate fates end up making the reader feel more conflicted than anything else. And then there are those tales in which the boundaries of the "real" and the "imagined" are blurred to an extent and the horror might be that of even a "gray" character suffering in ways that we cannot be 100% certain if they are true or not.
When I read Lucius Shepard's Softspoken a little less than three months ago, I felt this sense of unease, not for sure if this updated version of a Southern Gothic novel was "real" or if it might be the product of Sanie Bullard's harrowing experiences warping her mind. I still am not 100% sure and I feel as though a re-read in the coming months might be in order to make certain, if that is indeed possible. But if/when I do, I know that I can look forward to enjoying Shepard's smooth prose again. In my original review (linked above), I quoted a passage from the beginning of this 179 page novel to give a hint of the "flavors" found within. Here again is that passage for those who haven't read Shepard before:
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?"It is this combination of excellent prose and an increasingly spooky situation that made for a very good read. Softspoken certainly belies its name and thus has earned a place on the Best of 2007 Countdown.
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.