Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Softspoken by Lucius Shepard

I don't know if Softspoken was a trunk novel, but I have my suspicions. It's a short novel in the Southern Gothic mode, about a young woman, Sanie Bullard, stuck in her husband's family's decaying southern house, deep in rural South Carolina. Sanie has been drifting away from her husband Jackson -- who is currently studying to be a lawyer, and was previously a successful businessman -- for some time, but isn't quite sure how, or even if, to break free.

The Bullard family is famous in those parts for its eccentricity; Jackson's father became a monomaniac late in life after a very successful law career of his own, and Jackson's siblings -- brother Will and sister Louise -- have their own problems. (Will is a quiet drug addict; Louise shuns nearly all human contact.) They all live together in the large, typically Southern house, which is on a quiet stretch of road, away from everything else.

And of course the house has a ghost.

And of course Jackson becomes less friendly and loving toward his wife as this short novel goes on.

Of course, of course, of course.

Softspoken is a genre exercise; the prose equivalent of a villanelle. All of the elements are predetermined ahead of time, and the delight is in seeing what particular use the writer will make of them this time. For a long time, there is delight in that; Shepard is a smooth, subtle writer, the Gene Wolfe of decadence and decay. But the end of this novel takes a turn that does not work; the Southern Gothic (like most of its kin in the fields of terror and horror) is a profoundly moralistic form, and the morals need to line up. Softspoken bobbles its morals badly; it needed to either set things up differently (and less obviously in its particular genre) or end more shatteringly, to clearly and obviously blast through Southern Gothic to its own place. As it is, though, it feels like a Southern Gothic with the wrong ending, which is just unsatisfying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lucius doesn't have "trunk novels"--he has novels and stories and novellas that he's been working on for several years, but not "trunk novels."

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