Lucius Shepard’s Softspoken: Not Your Average Ghost Story

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Lucius Shepard’s 2007 Southern Gothic novella Softspoken follows Sanie, a young aspiring writer with marital problems, from Chapel Hill in North Carolina to her husband’s childhood home- a decaying antebellum mansion in the South. In this little town, Sanie is a complete outsider and it is soon revealed that the move was a result of Jackson’s determination to better focus on his career. After all, hers doesn’t matter.

Apparently not concerned with privacy, the couple move into the house which already inhibits Jackson’s brother and sister. Bored with her new domesticated life, Sanie starts hearing voices calling out her name, which become more frequent as her marriage unravells. In an attempt to stall making any decisions about her current situation, Sanie focuses on discovering the source of the voices, whilst also unearthing the secret and disturbing history of her husband’s family.

Although the supernatural element of the narrative isn’t particularly convincing, the mystery does grow more complex as the novel progresses. We are turned into voyeurs as Sanie’s loneliness manifests into a yearning after Frank Dean, a handsome stranger. Lonely but loyal to her husband, Shepard provides a startling exploration of female erotica. This part of the story is perhaps not best suited for the more reserved readers as the passage is so vivid and intense that I was forced to double check that the author is male, for he accesses the innermost feelings that only a woman’s body could feel.

With this, we begin to move away from the stereotypical ghost story of a woman stranded in an old mansion, into a fast- paced, gripping thriller. There is a moment, which I did not see coming, where this change suddenly occurrs. It was like I had been punched in the chest: Sanie is thrown into danger by the very people she trusted most and she is forced to survive in the wilderness with no help. Her danger becomes so real, so terribly frightening that I crunched my knees up to my chest, gripped the pages of the book and wouldn’t stop reading until I had read the very last sentence. This, then, becomes both a relief and regret. I was left disturbed and shaken, and though I’m not sure “enjoyable” is the right word, I will definitely be reading this book again.

Ultimately, what I thought would be a mediocre ghost story turned out to be an exceptional analysis of regionalism, marriage, patriarchy and female ghostliness. For Sanie’s voice is never truely heard, and her fate- emblematic of Gilbert and Gubar’s ‘Madwoman in the Attic’- left me disturbed- so much so that I had trouble sleeping that night. It wasn’t just the sickening fate of the female protagonist; it was the realism through which it was carried.

Reviewed by:

Sammy Evans – Poetic Pieces

Added 7th March 2015

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