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The Best of Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shepard
Subterranean Press, 623 pages

The Best of Lucius Shepard
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 a number of 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: Life During Wartime
SF Site Review: Two Trains Running
SF Site Review: Louisiana Breakdown
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 Paul Kincaid

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From the first page of this collection you are already immersed in one of the stories that made Lucius Shepard's name: "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule." In many ways it seems a conventional fantasy; the setting somewhere imprecise in what appears to be Southern Europe, a dragon brooding high in the mountains over the remote town, a hero with an ingenious way to slay the dragon. But something separates this story from such apparent conventionality. Our central character means to kill the dragon by painting it, an act of slaughter that is also a work of art. There are hints that the dragon, already old, wants to die; while the townspeople are maybe not that sure that they want to lose their phenomenal landmark. And the killing of the dragon turns into a communal enterprise that involves thousands and lasts a lifetime, and in the end it changes more than can be imagined and raises questions about loss and desire.

Immediately you understand what made Lucius Shepard one of the most exciting new writers to emerge in the 80s. His stories are long, more often novelette or novella than short story (only 17 stories and one poem fill the 623 pages of this volume, with no extraneous matter such as introductions to add padding), but though dense and slow, their pace is irresistible. The trajectory of the stories is not forward to some neat, dramatic conclusion, but inward into depths of moral emptiness and doubt. As the narrator of "Shades" puts it: "a moral filament had snapped inside me." The characters wander the world like revenants seeking to recognise this fact about themselves (if rarely to effect a repair). The major in "Radiant Green Star," grotesquely shaped like a physical manifestation of his memories of the Vietnam War, stands as an embodiment of all these warped characters. But what makes Shepard's stories stand out from other accounts of damaged characters is that their psychological journeys are undertaken through a landscape of intense physicality. Barely a sentence goes by that is not replete with sensory description: colours, textures, sounds and smells abound.

These early stories, "fables of irresolution" as he calls them in "R&R," were about mostly young men caught in something bigger than themselves who, through circumstance or inclination, have avoided the decisions that will let them take control of their own lives. This irresolution is itself a moral failure, but it opens up something deeper, darker, ever more dangerous. Usually this issue is made inescapable by war. The Vietnam War haunts this collection, whether addressed directly in stories like "Shades," "Delta Sly Honey" or the later "Radiant Green Star," or indirectly through the chaotic Central American war he imagined in "Salvador," "R&R" or, in aftermath, "The Arcevoalo." But whether in South East Asia or Central America the war is detached from reality, the soldiers only caught in vivid flashes of cruelty within a dim, foetid jungle of drugs and magic. The drugs, taken with unquestioning abandon by characters in nearly all of these stories, serve a multitude of purposes: they represent the decadence of contemporary American society (though it is a society seen mostly in exile of one sort or another), they show how the soldiers popping ampoules for artificial courage or the walking wounded using needles to disguise the horror of their circumstances have chosen to detach themselves from their surroundings, and they open the way to magic.

Magic is the air that all of these stories breathe, but magic is not a natural part of the world. It can be glimpsed only from the corner of the eye, hence the use of drugs to shut out reality; it can be reached only through sacrifice, usually of one's life. Thus in "The Jaguar Hunter" the old hunter can see the beauty in his prey, but it is only when he allows his skills to be perverted by the modern world that he discovers its magic, and he can only enter the magical world by sacrificing his life. There's a similar sacrifice in "Delta Sly Honey," perceived more obliquely in this case, when a disenchanted youth in Vietnam conjures a ghost platoon into existence then finds himself compelled to join them.

As we can see in "The Jaguar Hunter," the magic is often contrasted with technology, in a way that suggests the soul being contrasted with the soullessness of the modern world. It's there also in "R&R," though it is more explicit in the novel that this story would grow into, Life During Wartime. The science fictional helicopter pilots, their heads permanently encased in dark helmets whose consistent supply of data gives the illusion of being able to see the future, embody the high technological warriors of the Northern, modern world. In contrast, Mingolla and his fellow grunts wrap themselves in a protective film of drugs and rituals, eventually allowing Mingolla to discover the magic realist forces being ranged against him. There is a frisson of this in the later story, "Jailwise," in the disembodied, mechanical voice of the van driver who instructs the narrator to cross the river and enter the anarchist-magical realm of Diamond Bar.

But only a frisson. There is an odd disconnect in the structure of this collection which reflects a similar disconnect in the story of Shepard's career. Slightly under half the volume, in terms of page count, is taken up with 11 stories and one long narrative poem from the first eight years of Shepard's career, between "Salvador" and "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" in 1984 and "Beast of the Heartland" in 1992. There is nothing from the next eight years (a quiet time in his career, though it did see a Hugo Award for "Barnacle Bill the Spacer," which isn't included here). Things start up again at the turn of the millennium, and slightly more than half the page count is given over to just six stories from the last eight years. As the relative page count suggests, these later stories tend to be longer. They also tend to have shifted their focus. With the exception of "Radiant Green Star," a return to Vietnam that could have been written alongside "Shades," they all take place within the continental United States. The young, drug-addled warrior has been replaced by the not-so-young, drug-addled criminal, as if skirting around the edges of the law is the natural career path for the Vietnam generation. And despite their increased length, the physicality of the stories, the detailed sense of colour and texture in the world, has decreased.

Both "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" and "Jailwise," for instance, have an artist as the central character. In the earlier story, although he is not the narrator we are always aware of the sheer sensuality of his world. In the later story, the artist is the narrator, much of the psychological impact of the story turns upon the massive mural he paints in the strange prison to which he has been committed; yet he barely uses a colour word in any of his descriptions, and the mural itself is described only in the broadest, least precise terms. It is as if, during that relative gap of eight years, Shepard's interests turned from the way the physical world might affect the psychological reality of his characters to the way plot shapes character. For these later stories make up for the lack of description with an excess of plot, there is always something happening, incident piled upon incident. But where, in the earlier stories, the plots, though often simple, seemed to grow naturally from the world in which they are set; now the plots, often complex, seem to be artificially imposed upon the world.

This is not to suggest that there has been a general falling off in quality. Some of these stories -- "Radiant Green Star," "Jailwise" (despite its being somewhat longer than it really needs to be) and the most recent story gathered here, "Stars Seen Through Stone" -- do stand comparison with the very best of his work But others feel slight, as if they are straining for effect. "Only Partly Here," a ghost story involving the men cleaning up the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11, gains its impact only from where and when it is set, not from any inherent strength in what is actually a fairly ordinary story. "Hands Up! Who Wants To Die?" is frankly a mess, an episodic account of a petty criminal caught up willy-nilly in bigger and darker events which constantly raises a bemusing number of plot hares without ever chasing down any of them. And "Dead Money" returns to the science fictional voodoo Shepard first explored in Green Eyes twenty-odd years ago, and does nothing new with it except mixing in a fairly unexceptional but over-extended plot involving crime lords, poker and the sort of scam that's familiar from way too many movies. In fact there is a sense that too many of these later stories are written with the rhythms and dictates of film in mind: fast cuts, constant action, and not too much description because that's the job of the cameraman.

Is this, then, the best of Lucius Shepard? Personally I would have had no hesitation in adding in another half-dozen stories from those magical early years, and I might well have skipped a couple of the later pieces. But everyone is going to have different ideas about what should or should not be included in such a collection. What is indisputable is that Lucius Shepard, at his best, is one of the most awesomely talented writers that America has produced over the last quarter-century or so, and there is enough proof of that talent in this collection to satisfy anyone.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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