Softspoken by Lucius Shepard (Night Shade Books, 2007; winner International Horror Guild Award for Best Long Fiction, 2007)Captivated, growing accustomed to the cold, Sanie watches them come and go. They intersect each other’s paths, yet they seem to apprehend her presence and avoid touching her as she moves along the hall toward the stairs. She has no doubt they’re real, not hallucinations, except in the sense that everything is hallucination. The Bullard stamp is on their features, that soft bewildered fleshiness that on occasion veers into a sharper beauty, as with Jackson. This is how he spent his childhood, then. Walking with ghosts, his soul shaped by their ineffable touches. No wonder, she thinks. No wonder.
— from Softspoken
Calling this a Southern Gothic, haunted house novel is probably reductive, but true. Shepard brings a contemporary sensibility and a fluid, efficient and often evocative prose style to Sanie Bullard’s voice, and an understanding of how small Southern communities work to this tale following a contemporary woman whose time in her husband’s ancestral home somewhat parallels the time spent by Eleanor Vance in Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Sanie and her husband, Jackson, have temporarily moved from Wake Forest, North Carolina to the Bullard home in South Carolina while Jackson is studying to take the bar. Sanie has drifted since her marriage to Jackson, not completing her studies, not writing her stories, not sure where to turn and now, in his house, away from friends, alone; and she knows this and knows also that her marriage is failing, that her loyalties are in disarray as she tries to find an anchor in the midst of an ennui she cannot shake. Almost immediately on taking residence, she begins hearing a male voice that seems to plead for her to see him, a voice that her husband’s brother confirms is a ghost. And then she sees ghosts and maybe not just ghosts. Maybe premonitions, rather like Tom Wallace in A Stir of Echoes, though these visions are rather more elaborate, a layering of ghosts from various ages of the house.
Over the course of the novel, Sanie watches Jackson become less and less the ambitious, energetic young man she married and more like his father, who having quit the state legislature became reclusive and increasingly eccentric before his death. Perhaps it’s the house: Louise, Jackson’s sister, is little more than a ghost herself, rarely coming out of her room when Sanie is abroad, and rather shy and quiet when she does see Sanie, only opening up one time and then saying she had once been like Sanie; and Jackson’s brother, Will, talks of ghosts and what he’s seen while under the influence of peyote, offering the idea that the house is at the center of a strange force – Shepard references Gnosticism and the plenum, though not as convincingly, I think, as M. John Harrison in The Course of the Heart – which Sanie herself perceives when under the influence of Will’s peyote.
Whatever it is, Sanie begins to understand it is threatening and she must get Jackson and herself out.
Softspoken lives up to its title, the narrative quietly guiding the reader through Sanie’s experiences and her understanding of them. When the end comes it felt, to me, rushed. But that may be because of the unhurried, methodical way that Shepard leads us into the brewing confrontation which, when it occurs, is brief but brutal. This is a good novel and a good read, and I see why it received good word of mouth when published.
Lucius Shepard established his reputation with s.f. stories, but even some of his s.f. – like “R&R” – can be read as horror. And as more of his stories appeared – for instance, “How the Wind Spoke at Madaket,” “The Night of White Bhaireb” (recently included in The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons edited by Paula Guran) and “Delta Sly Honey” (recently included in Hauntings edited by Ellen Datlow) – they came from a place central to the development of the horror story in the 1980s and 1990s.
Next, more Southern story-telling: WHO FEARS THE DEVIL? by Manly Wade Wellman