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Beast of the Heartland
Lucius Shepard
Four Walls Eight Windows, 292 pages

Irving Freeman
Beast of the Heartland
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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

One of the best memories I have as a reader is of sitting in an outdoor restaurant in Helena, Montana, eating dinner and drinking a locally brewed beer after a 4-day hike in Glacier Park, reading short stories from Lucius Shepard's The Jaguar Hunter. The setting and the writing combined for one of those perfect, timeless moments that you wish would never end. Thus, when I sit down to read a new collection of stories from Shepard, my expectations are high, indeed.

The stories in Shepard's latest collection, Beast of the Heartland, range from full-blown science fiction to modern day realism with a touch of fantasy. All contain an element of horror, but the horror lies not so much in what happens to the characters, as in their common realization that they are capable of horror themselves.

The Hugo Award-winning "Barnacle Bill the Spacer," the story of an attempted mutiny on a space station, is a good example. The narrating character, Johnny, is a security guard who finds that he is willing to "protect against all enemies with no thought for moral fall-out." The "moral fall-out" lands mostly on William Stamey, the Barnacle Bill of the title, a mentally handicapped man who is the station pariah. How Johnny's actions both save and ruin Bill make this a story of tragedy in the face of triumph, and it richly deserved its award.

Similarly, Carnes in "Sports in America" is a man who finds out just how far he is willing to go. Down on his luck, he returns to his old neighbourhood in Boston and is hired by a local crime boss to kill a man. Carnes wrestles with the situation and his newly found lack of a conscience, all the while maintaining a running commentary on the foibles and blunders of the Boston Red Sox. In "All the Perfumes of Araby," a small-time smuggler is granted a vision of the future that compels him to change his life, and become more serious about what he does. Again, as in Barnacle Bill," the crux of these stories lies in the characters' discovery that when placed in a situation where they must do something horrible, they can.

There really isn't a weak story in this collection. "Human History" is a post-apocalyptic adventure story, with a hint of decadence. "The Sun Spider" starts as a romance, turns suddenly violent, then returns to romance, this time with a gothic twist. No Shepard collection would be complete without a music story, and "A Little Night Music" fits the bill here. Anyone who has ever completely lost themselves in a piece of music will recognize the inspiration for this one. Finally, the title story portrays a boxer at the end of his career, lured back into the ring with the promise of one last big payoff. As he struggles with failing eyesight and visions of demons, Bobby Mears fights his way to the closest thing to a happy ending in the book.

There are few science fiction writers, actually there are few writers of any kind, whose words are worth reading for the sheer beauty of the prose. Lucius Shepard belongs near the top of that list, yet his prose style, from the noir of "Sports in America" to the narrator of "Barnacle Bill" who promises to tell the "beauty that inspires anger... and provokes struggle," to the romantic language that infuses "The Sun Spider," always serves the needs of the particular piece. Shepard's prose first entrances us with its beauty, and then pulls us wholly into the character's heart. It's that combination of words and insight that makes each separate story in Beast of the Heartland a work of art.

Copyright © 1999 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson searches for words and insight while living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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