Softspoken

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My motto for our Dominican Republic experience seems to have been been “a book a day.”  I read five books all in all, and that is counting two bloody thick novels by Stephen King.

Amongst others I read Softspoken, a novella by Lucius Shepard.

Now, I recently had my say about what I think of Mr. Lucius Shepard, and I still hold to it. The man and I will never be on the same page when it comes to literature or movies. But he sure can write.

Softspoken is a ghost story set in the deep South, and the heat, the moisture, and the thick accents seem to drip from the pages. Reading this book in the Dominican Republic helped, I think. The air must be similar.

Sanie Bullard (spellcheck just offered me Dullard as an alternative; not unfitting, I have to admit) has recently moved to South Carolina with her husband, to give him the peace and quiet to study for the bar. They live in his ancestral homestead with his hick brother and overly timid sister. At first Sanie is bored. Slowly a mystery arises, showing a way out of the boredom – and then there is also the handsome Frank Dean, for whom her husband has nothing but contempt. But all too soon feelings like boredom, curiosity and maybe love are swept away by the horrible secret that the old Bullard Mansion holds.

Softspoken may be a bit of a non-story (as Jonas pointed out to me), but I don’t mind that. It may be over before it begins, and I fear the ending is as solid as an elephant statue made from jelly, but what I’ve always loved about Shepard is there. The superb writing. The atmosphere. The beautiful sentences. I enjoyed Softspoken, despite the occasional stab at Stephen King and other popular writers. Oh do I wish Lucius Shepard were less of a snob.

A few notes on the visuals of the book: the cover art, which is terrible, was done by a man named J. K. Potter, a funny name given the author’s dislike of Rowling’s writing. Also, it would have been nice if someone had taken the time to proofread Softspoken. I find it hard to notice typos, both in my own writing as well in works by others. (That’s what Jonas is there for.) I am the anti-proofreader, so to speak, but in Softspoken even I caught plenty of errors. And don’t get me, started on the, punctuation?

The bottom line is that unfortunately Softspoken has more flaws than are good for it, on a writing level as well as in its physical appearance. It is not one of Shepard’s better works. Yet I still liked it. Why?

Mostly because, although I have never been to the South, I still feel that Softspoken captures the feeling of that region, the slowness and the heat, rather well. Shepard just has a knack for setting the mood. You gotta give him that.

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And what about Barnacle Bill?

Barnacle Bill the Spacer

Oh, yes.

Sorry.

Got a bit carried away there.

Where was I?

Barnacle Bill.

My Lucius Shepard experience so far has mostly been limited to short stories, and of those I have read a lot. Also, as mentioned above, two of these count among my favourite pieces of writing in the whole wide world. So naturally my expectations for Barnacle Bill were high. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed.

As with a lot of Shepard’s writing, I would not have minded for some of the stories to be longer. That is especially the case when it comes to the title story, where you only get a glimpse of what our world might look like in the future. It’s not pretty, but I’d like so see more.

As for the other stories: both A Little Night Music and Sports in America suffered from a certain blah-ness, but I suspect that is because I found the topics to be to my disliking. The writing is as always superb.

The Sun Spider is Shepard at his best. I don’t think anything will ever be able to eclipse the story about the sleeping dragon Griaule and Meric Cattanay the man who painted him, but this one comes close. Like Lem’s Solaris or the 2007 movie Sunshine by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, this story manages to convey the sense of awe and wonder that I imagine has to beset one if confronted with something as mind-boggling as the sun or, as in Lem, a creature too alien to comprehend.

We are taken to Egypt in All the Perfumes of Araby and from there on towards Israel. A setting that made me pause, given the current political situation in that region. The story is twenty years old, true, but from my viewpoint not much has changed in that time, so what would Shepard’s take be? Surreal, is the answer. And once again too short. The story seems to end when the protagonist’s journey is just beginning. If you ever read this, Mr. Shepard, personally I wouldn’t mind reading a novel about Danny Shields. Just so you know.

Finally, maybe the most surprising story of the collection: Beast of the Heartland. I didn’t think much of it when I started reading the story. Actually I was sorely tempted to put the book aside at this point, only that’s against my honour as a reader. The problem was that I could once again tell that this was a subject that didn’t draw me much. Now, after reading the story, I am very grateful that I did read on, because this story about a washed-out boxer is amazing. It’s not too long and not too short, sad and joyful at the same time and full of mesmerizing imagery.

All in all Barnacle Bill the Spacer is a thoroughly satisfying read, although I would recommend the more recent Eternity and Other Stories to first-time Lucius Shepard readers. But then again, if you want to get really hooked read The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, now there’s a story…

This was going to be a post about Barnacle Bill the Spacer but then…

… I read up a few things about Lucius Shepard, the author of Barnacle Bill the Spacer and half a dozen other books that I absolutely adore.

I very much adore Lucius Shepard. I adore his writing. I adore the way he describes places and I absoluetly adore his gift for setting the mood. I also adore his political and religious views. I short, Lucius Shepard is God.

At least I thought so before I started reading his blog in order to get a few nice juicy quotes for this post. Up until a few days ago, I didn’t even know Mr. Shepard had a blog. I had read that he was a very seclusive person and didn’t like to give interviews. Somewhere. Wikipedia, I think. And that was it. Man has no public life. Good for him. I tend to support life-style choices like this.

But then I re-read the Wikipedia entry and lo and behold! There seemed to be a blog after all.

Only it turns out that the political and religious views and the great writing (also suspiciously absent in the blog) come in a package deal with a stunning example of the most horrid artistic snobbery that I have ever witnessed in a human being.

This man claims to be a Firefly addict, yet he says that according to his own likes and dislikes he should hate the show. Actually, he hates “populists like Joss Whedon and J. K. Rowling.” I won’t even get into on how many levels that is so  wrong. (Not a Whedon fan-girl myself by any means, but he has done some good stuff over the years, above all Firefly.) Could it be, Mr. Shepard, that you try to dislike everything new and presumably Hollywood with a Harold-Bloomesque fervor, but actually, deep down, like stuff like that? Did you, like many people of your generation, sit through Star Wars Episodes 1-3, desperately grabbing on to your deep-seated mistrust, lest it fly away on wings of superb CGI? And did you shelter your carefully-groomed hatred, lest it get scared away by the good story? If yes, then I pity you. There seem to be too many people out there today that reject modern cinema out of principle. Like my grandfather, who still insists that in his youth the vegetables still tasted of vegetable and not of cardboard. Only he is probably right.

Also, there is the small matter of JCVD, which as I can personally testify is the worst movie of the decade. And I’ve seen Bloom. (Not Harold.)

Sorry, Mr. Shepard, but it’s true.

Now, the question is: Can I still adore an author who is also so obviously a total idiot?

I guess I can. The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule and Jailwise are still two of the very best short stories that I have ever read. Nothing will change that. Fine writing is fine writing.  Shame about the rest though…