Flannery O'Connor examined the grotesque of the American south from the inside, using characters fully entrenched in the southern way of life to explore regionalism and history. Lucius Shepard, in his latest novel, looks at the South from an outsider's perspective by telling his story through the point of view of a woman from the North, but retains the impression of the place as O'Connor saw it: mysterious and haunted, not quite fully real. With Softspoken, Shepard has composed a narrative of northern infiltration into the grotesque, the slow discovery of a dangerous Other. Shepard sends his protagonist, a twenty-something aspiring writer with marital problems, from Chapel Hill to an antebellum mansion in South Carolina that may or may not be haunted. The novel begins as she hears a ghostly voice while sitting in the kitchen, and she then delves into an ancient, secret family history, learning how to confront a host of apparitions. Engaged with a mystery that grows more complex as the novel progresses, Sanie is the ultimate outsider, a guest at her husband's family's house and a foreigner to their small southern town. But even with this familiar situation—young woman stranded in creepy old mansion—the novel avoids being just a stock ghost story, becoming instead a thoughtful investigation of genre expectations.
The core of the novel is Sanie's relationship with her husband, Jackson Bullard, whose desire for a quiet place to study for the bar has led the couple to take a break from their lives in Chapel Hill and temporarily move back to Jackson's hometown. Sanie is bored by her new life as a wife in her husband's house, and as she strikes out on her own and meets a handsome stranger, she begins to question the foundations of her marriage. But to avoid making any real decisions, Sanie focuses obsessively on the mystery of the ghostly voice and the strange things that she sees around the house, as though she believes that if she discovers the truth about the house then she can somehow save her marriage.
The mystery of the house has become, for Sanie, representative of her own self-discovery; "she isn't certain what she is after, [but] she thinks she might like to know one thing that makes no sense, that fits into no scheme, that aligns with no purpose, an irrational product whose existence would invalidate her every understanding of the world" (p. 24). She wants to experience the world differently, to see things in new ways, and she welcomes the supernatural as a mode of experiencing something Other. And from the first time she witnesses the mysterious apparitions, she is motivated more by curiosity than fear:
Sanie's a little frightened, but only because what she's seeing is so strange.There's no inimical vibe attached to these apparitions. No grotesque displays, no ghastly sounds. The Bullard manse, it appears, is a warren for the sad and dissolute of the spirit world. Those are the colors of their haunting, the faded family colors. They materialize from every part of the hall, from old times not forgotten when Dixie wasn't merely a laughable conceit, but a place of vivid, if foolhardy, aspiration. They jostle and drift, passing through each other, less ghosts than the remains of ghosts dressed in shreds of ante-bellum glory. (pp. 53-54)
Sanie engages with the notion of history, how the passage of time has marked itself out on the house in a spiritual sense, and notes how the history of the Bullard family mirrors that of the Old South, fading away into nostalgia and obscurity, the old glories passing like ghosts through walls. And Sanie also begins to acquire insight about her husband's past: "This is how he spent his childhood, then. Walking with ghosts, his soul shaped by their ineffable touches. No wonder, she thinks. No wonder" (p. 54).
Sanie discovers that there is a vortex around the house, though she can only see it while on hallucinogens, and she assumes that the vortex is to blame for the mysterious voices and the peculiarities of the Bullard family. The vortex is a field of energy around the house, growing ever larger, "a weak point in the fabric of time and space, where energy flows between the dimensions" (p. 141). The vortex reminds Sanie of Jackson, in that "it's a collector, greedy and wholly self-absorbed; it acquires things, bright things that catch its eye and lend it coloration" (p. 149). The vortex confuses the boundaries of time, presenting things out of order and reflecting a crude fatalism. Sanie believes that the vortex is turning Jackson into his father, a man rendered violent and insane by the powers present in the house, and she tries to save Jackson from what he is becoming. The vortex serves as a metaphor for her marriage to Jackson, some powerful nexus of energy that holds the two of them together, a fateful curse:
Something, she thinks, must have happened early in life to bind them to this fate. Were their feet tied together with black string when they were babies and a cabalistic spell mattered? Were leaf-painted Druid mirrors holding their infant reflections shattered at the same instant, while they drooled happily in cribs miles apart? It can't be simply a matter of human weakness. Some woeful magic must be involved, the union is that durable, its tensile strength enormous . . . (p. 129)
This bind between them is threatened during the last scenes of the novel, in which Sanie finally faces Jackson—and what he has become. The complexity of the novel's final pages speaks to Shepard's deftness as a writer. Following her encounter with Jackson, Sanie enters a liminal space between dimensions, between reality and nightmare, her actual life and a static fictional construct. And Shepard just leaves her there, looking at a picture of a sad-looking farm wife on a calendar, making up alternative endings to this woman's story: "She thinks that it may be a test. If she can create a satisfactory ending to the farm wife's story, she will be released, pronounced well and fit to travel. She chips away at the task, fitting an ending to the story and tossing it aside, fitting and tossing aside, fitting and tossing. They don't seem organic outgrowths of the plot, too hastily carpentered, absurdly Pollyanna-ish, or else they involve ridiculous Deus ex Machinas" (p. 179). Sanie has become both reader and writer, analyzing what is on the page and trying to make sense of it, hoping to assign the appropriate ending, something that would free the woman of her circumstances. Sanie's project is to order the narrative somehow into a coherent whole—to make it all make sense. Shepard has written a divorce narrative that infiltrates genre conventions through a process of reflexivity, allowing for the ultimate revision of everything that has come before; and in doing so, Softspoken becomes circular, ending basically where it begins, with a girl in a kitchen hearing mysterious voices and speculating, cautiously, on possibilities—as though everything that came between was just the enactment of an escape fantasy.
Up to the very end, Softspoken plays very directly with the reader's expectations. Comments abound, such as "If the voice proves to be a ghost, she tells herself, at least that won't be boring" (p. 5), which serve to provide the reader with a set of expectations related to the tradition of ghost stories that Shepard is in conversation with. And he also guides the reader along on the narrative track via Sanie's thoughts, noting that "there is a vortex. Whatever it's doing can't be good. That's the important stuff" (p. 153). From the introduction of his protagonist, Shepard is engaging the reader on an ironic level: "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" (p. 7). And Sanie is an aspiring writer who plays around with various story ideas in her notebook, allowing overt opportunities for Shepard to comment on her current situation via her own fictional attempts, most notably with a one-sentence story that Sanie wrote for a school assignment: "On the last day of the world, the gargoyle turned from stone to flesh and just sat there" (p. 45). Shepard leaves it up to the reader to discern what this means within the novel—is Sanie the gargoyle, just sitting there and wasting opportunities?—and takes pleasure in weaving these layers , constructing new possibilities for meaning. And so the novel rushes through genre tropes—ghostly voice, haunted house, weird family with a secret past—toward a quiet climax, one which attempts to rewrite everything that came before, allowing us to react against our expectations and decide what exactly happened, where exactly we are, and how exactly everything is going to end.
Richard Larson is currently living in New York City, where he is finishing a degree at Hunter College and working in the film and publishing industries. He also writes short stories, which have appeared in various places, and he blogs at http://rlarson.typepad.com.