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Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard

It’s a rather strange but understandable human need to seek comfort in certainty. Choose between the two different signs in P.T. Barnum’s tent: “This way out” leads to clear understanding and positive expectations, while “This way to the egress” leads to frustration and an understanding the world is not always reliable. So it is that we live in a world dependent on labelling. For example, marketers tell us whether the cheese is from cows, buffalos, goats or sheep, whether it has interesting additives, was left by a fire for smoking, has been infected with hopefully benign bacteria, and so on. There are hundreds of different varieties to label, but the permutations of processing techniques and the compatibility of ingredients do have a finite limitation. If it will not set, it cannot be labelled “cheese”. Now consider labelling the arrangement of words. Ignoring the fact of different languages, the use of words within each culture is potentially infinite, limited only by the imagination of the creators and the sensibilities of the audience. The number of labels we have invented for describing word usage are therefore mind-blowingly diverse and confusing.

Take, for example, the notion of purple prose — we should be thankful the Romans valued purple as their stand-out colour rather than chocolate which might be mistaken for some of the bullshit we see deposited on the pages of some books. A sentence like, “Her face aglow in the dashboard lights, the sheen of sweat on the upper slopes of her breasts glowing as well.” captures the slightly pulpy feel of romantic fiction as the man observing the woman anticipates a possible explosion of delight. Now, guiding you through my thinking process, where is the line between purple and gothic? I see you pull back, snarling that I’m drawing you down a false path. A single sentence cannot be the litmus test of gothicness. Yes, to the ideas of allusive romanticism and, to some extent, melodrama, but to be gothic it must be in service to the genre we now call horror. Context is everything! So that’s why, when you limit the geography to a small chunk of the US and ensure some horror or supernatural content, you get the label Southern Gothic.

And Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard is a brilliant and sustained example of the most wonderfully purple prose you could ever hope to find corralled between the boards of a hardback book. Frankly, after the first few pages you stop caring that this is an overwritten style. It all blurs into a single tour-de-force, delighting the reader’s ear to hear an author’s voice lusting after just the right words to capture the mood of this Southern town called Grail.

Grail — such a wonderfully ambiguous word with denotational and connotational meanings springing to the ever-alert mind. Perhaps the one most appropriate here would be the notion that, no matter who or what you are, you can spend a lifetime in a futile search for something once important to you. Why futile? Because the activity of searching comes to define who you are. The commitment and determination are investments of effort. The greater the investment, the more likely it is that continuing the search becomes more important than the object of your search. The sad result is often that, even if you do find it, you are unlikely to feel it was worth all that effort. Put another way, a disconnection or breakdown occurs between process and purpose.

Imagine a town rather than an individual entering into a kind of Faustian bargain. Do this and you will prosper. Generations later, the inhabitants still go through the motions. They have had the benefits of the deal, such as they are. But even those most committed to the original spirit of the deal grow tired of its limitations. Two hundred years ago, prosperity in a flea-bitten town on the Louisiana coast might look good. All you have to do is stay put and all but the unlucky chosen will have a good standard of living. Translate that into a modern context where you can see the world outside doing rather better than your run-down pinprick on the map. Now you have to wonder whether the “grail” of prosperity is still worth pursuing. And then you ask whether you are allowed to stop the process and what the consequences might be if you did.

At one level this is a story of “love” at first sight as a stranger in town falls for a local woman. Except such romanticism can never be separated from the context of who we are as people, where we happen to be, and why we are there. Sometimes life, or more supernatural forces, can play tricks on us but, in our hearts, we are always the victims of our own weaknesses and failings. So often, we can never rise above our own limitations and be better people. We can wish it were otherwise. But that’s the inevitable flaw in what makes us human.

At this point, I will reach my climax with two quick bullet points:

buy this book even though it’s only a novella length — it’s cheese set in Southern Gothic and you won’t regret it;

buy this book from Golden Gryphon and, when you look through the in-print catalogue, there are some other masterpieces there. Support the small press industry by buying direct!

See how even my bullet points are shooting blanks today.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel
The Taborin Scale
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

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  1. July 7, 2014 at 11:34 am

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