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A Choir of Ill Children
      Louisiana Breakdown
Tom Piccirilli
      Lucius Shepard
Night Shade Books, 238 pages
      Golden Gryphon Press, 146 pages

A Choir of Ill Children
Louisiana Breakdown
Tom Piccirilli
Tom Piccirilli is the author of eleven novels, including The Night Class, A Choir of Ill Children, A Lower Deep, Hexes, The Deceased, and Grave Men. He's published over 130 stories in the mystery, horror, erotica, and science fiction fields. Tom's been a final nominee for the World Fantasy Award and he's a three-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award, given in the categories of Novel, Short Story, and Poetry.

Tom Piccirilli Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: A Lower Deep
SF Site Review: Deep Into That Darkness Peering

Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shepard was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1947. He has travelled extensively in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. He lives in Seattle. Mr Shepard has won 2 World Fantasy Awards including one for his collection The Jaguar Hunter. As well, he has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Louisiana Breakdown
SF Site Review: Green Eyes
SF Site Review: Colonel Rutherford's Colt
SF Site Review: Beast of the Heartland

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Southern Gothic is the neighborhood haunted by Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. The style features supernatural -- or seemingly supernatural -- grotesquerie, often in a backwoods or swamp setting, rooted in a cultural folklore steaming with themes of enslavement, racial tension, repression, rebellion, religious belief, family conflicts, and clan loyalty in which God or fate influence, if not outright determines, moral choices.

Tom Piccirilli and Lucius Shephard both take a trip down South to different, but equally disturbing destinations. Their routes offer different scenery, but in the end they both catch the essence of a man's soul frozen in their headlights.

In Piccirilli's A Choir of Ill Children (the title refers to the sound made by certain unfortunate characters, symbolizing the pain of the innocent), the narrator is the owner of "The Mill," a source of wealth and prestige -- as well as responsibility -- in the backwater town of Kingdom Come. Thomas (namesake of the skeptical disciple of Jesus who demanded physical proof of resurrection, source of the expression "doubting Thomas") inherits his position as "town father" following the mysterious death of his mother and his dad's suicide. He also inherits responsibility for his three brothers, who are congenitally conjoined at the head, three bodies sharing a single brain.

Thomas is troubled by a dream-like event from his childhood in which he stumbled across a murdered young boy in the swamp. The murderer, who has just lost a leg to an alligator, tries to lure Thomas as his next victim, but is outwitted. Thomas senses that the one-legged murderer is still stalking him.

There are other mysteries. A lost girl of indeterminate age who might possibly be the child the three-headed brother claims to have killed. The "Granny witches" who are trying to usher Thomas towards some portentous consequence. The incomprehensible warnings of his best friend Drabs Bibbler, who is possessed by the seeming babble of "tongues" through which the spirit of the Holy Ghost -- or is it the Devil? -- speaks. Peripherally lurking phantom-like is Maggie, Thomas's childhood sweetheart, ominously waiting to see if their relationship will be consummated while the reader wonders if she is real. Or if that's an irrelevant consideration. Additional ingredients to spice up this strange gumbo are a murdered nun, a pair of drug-addicted film students, a fencing biker, another brother lost at birth that may have been conjoined to Thomas, generous quantities of moonshine (of course), a steadily unbalancing private eye, and some highly unusual sexual relationships (which, along with the moonshine, you'd pretty much expect).

This is a brand of Southern Gothic that might be a tad too weird for its more famous practitioners. Wonderfully weird it is, though; even when the meaning is a bit hazy, the language alone is fetching.

"A wide but dull moon doesn't have what it takes to illuminate the inside of my truck. Whoever she is, she's doing all right in my lap without me. She smells of death, but that doesn't matter a hell of a lot at the moment. Her hair is a fiery red that might only be orange in the daylight, but for now is a mass of bobbing flame that spills across my belly to my knees... She drags her nails down my legs and back up again, making other little motions as if she's scratching sparse but powerful sentences into my skin. I try to make them out. It's a cursive script with well defined curves, crossed t's and dotted i's and hanging g's. Lots of passive verbs. There area a meager number of semi-colons but a fair amount of emphasis is drawn to certain words via italics."
In much the same way, you might find it hard at times to decipher what is written in the pages of this novel. Stylistic tics and affects do threaten to take control of the tale, and just when you're starting to wonder what all this is supposed to add up to, Piccirilli delivers a marvelous fable about family, responsibility, and owning up to your nightmares.

Shephard's Louisiana Breakdown seems almost realistic by comparison. Like Piccirilli, there's Biblical significance to an obscure Southern town, in this case, Grail, Louisiana. The "breakdown" refers to an auto malfunction that strands in Grail our hero, Jack Mustaine, a singer-songwriter fleeing the bad vibes of L.A. (the city of Angels). It is also the breakdown of Mustaine's sense of self, the result of his strange relationship with Vida Dumars, the town's Midsummer Queen. Vida is on the eve of abdicating her title to make way for her successor, a young child that is selected every twenty years. This isn't some mere festival role, this is the person designated to draw all the back luck to her so the town of Grail can continue to prosper in a deal made several hundred years ago with a spirit called the Good Grey Man. Vida and Jack vow to make a break for it out of town, but don't quite make it. In the course of which Jack, in true bluesman tradition, discovers some unpleasant truths about himself which, while they don't make him a better man, make him a man with fewer illusions. Unlike some fairy tale transformations, the ending is not happy. But it is real.

Even as he deals in "set" situations -- from the city guy stranded in a jerkwater town only to have the locals jerk him around, to the bar of colorful characters to the old time religion rooted more voodoo than Christianity -- Shephard rises above the clichés of the form to take a time-honored yarn someplace more thought-provoking than the usual stock. And speaking of being above the usual stock, this also applies to Golden Gryphon's hardcover edition, particularly the J.K. Potter's interior illustrations, though I confess I'm not too sure about the cover art.

But never being "too sure" is what Southern Gothic aims to make you feel.

Copyright © 2003 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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