by Lucius Shepard
Review by Cathy Green
Night Shade Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597800730
Date: 15 April 2007 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Softspoken, the new southern gothic novel from Lucius Shepard opens with Sanie Bullard, wallowing in boredom, sipping a Diet Coke, and staring at the out of date farm supplies company calendar on the refrigerator. Then she hears what we later learn is the Bullard family ghost.
Sanie has been left to her own devices ever since she and her husband Jackson moved back to his family's rural antebellum South Carolina manse so that he could cram for the bar exam without distraction. Unfortunately, Sanie falls into the distraction category. With Jackson locked in his late father's study, his brother Will in his bedroom tripping on peyote and his sister Louise locked in her room hiding from the world, there isn't much for Sanie to do other than dwell on the sorry state of her marriage and to hear what she assumes are the imaginary voices of her bored mind.
Feeling isolated, bored and discontented, Sadie amuses herself by wandering down the road to the local general store and gas station dressed like Daisy Duke and thinking somewhat contemptuous thoughts about the locals. Her first time visiting the store she learns from the proprietor that the Bullards have a reputation that tends towards crazy. She also finds out that three generations of Bullard men have left home as soon as possible, only to return home and never leave after the deaths of their fathers. Rayfield, Jackson's late father, after a long, respected political career in Charleston, is generally thought to have "went strange" immediately upon moving back to the family manor. This is definitely unwelcome news for Sanie.
Sanie initially assumed that the voice she had been hearing were the result of boredom or a prank being played upon her by the Bullard siblings. However, while talking with Will, albeit after he has taken eight peyote buttons, she realizes that he can hear the voice as well and learns that the family has a ghost named Wallace. And that Wallace is kind of lame. Sanie attempting to have bitchy conversations with Wallace offer some moments of levity in an otherwise dark book.
Sanie eventually comes to the conclusion that there is more at work than the family ghosts and comes to believe that the house is surrounded by some sort of supernatural vortex of evil that has been growing through the years by feeding on the Bullard family. There's clearly something wrong, but Sanie and Will only see the vortex after taking hallucinogenic drugs, so whether the vortex is an expression of Sanie's psychological state or an actual physical manifestation of evil is up to the reader to decide.
It's certainly possible, to quote Shirley Jackson, that the Bullard ancestral home is one of the houses that was "born bad," but the characters' actions can also be attributed to mental illness, depression and/or a deteriorating marriage. Perhaps it is a combination of the two. Regardless, Softspoken is an interestingly creepy short novel of decay.