The Best of Lucius Shepard
Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle
12 January 2009
There is an instructive story behind this review; a parable of sorts, about the dangers of making snap critical judgements in the light of very little evidence. Almost a year ago now I was handed a piece of Lucius Shepard's short fiction by a certain Strange Horizons editor, and invited to read the first paragraph. If my memory serves me correctly it was from "Stars Seen Through Stone," which goes like this:
I was smoking a joint on the steps of the public library when a cold wind blew in from no cardinal point, but from the top of the night sky, a force of pure perpendicularity that bent the sparsely leaved boughs of the old alder shadowing the steps straight down toward the earth, as if a gigantic someone above were pursing his lips and aiming a long breath directly at the ground. For the duration of that gust, fifteen or twenty seconds, my hair did not flutter but was pressed flat to the crown of my head and the leaves and grass and weeds on the lawn also lay flat. (p. 559)
Now, because I am rash and stupid and prone to bombastic outbursts, I rolled my eyes, declared it a completely useless piece of writing—verbose, pompous, packed with unnecessary adjectives—and damned Shepard wholesale. (I remember that I took particular umbrage with the alliteration of "pure perpendicularity," which is an ugly combined usage of two lovely words.) Given the context—it was New Year's Eve—it is relatively likely that alcohol was involved; otherwise I might have spotted that I was in danger. Several months later my punishment (as I thought of it then) arrived in the post for review: The Best of Lucius Shepard, which is brick-heavy and 623 pages long. I was being taught an object lesson in thinking before you speak, and decided to do what I always do in these situations. I procrastinated. I received the book in March or April 2008, and you're finally reading this review in January 2009, which gives you some idea of my powers of self-distraction.
When I finally began to read, I realised that I had been overly hasty to criticise. Not that the opening paragraph of "Stars Seen Through Stone" has risen much in my estimation—"pure perpendicularity" hasn't improved on reflection—but rather that exposure to a broader view of Lucius Shepard's writing has convinced me that he can be (and often is) a short-fiction craftsman of the first order. I doubt this will come as a surprise to anyone reading this, since Shepard's reputation is perfectly secure without my approbation, but it certainly came as a surprise to me. Baldly put: there is nothing about this volume of short stories that would have led me to read it on spec, of my own volition. This would have been my loss, and goes to show that sometimes your friends know your literary tastes better than you know them yourself.
Subterranean Press has chosen seventeen stories and one (beguiling) poem to showcase The Best of... Shepard's career thus far, opening the volume with "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule," a story that helped to make his name when it was first published in 1984, and working (roughly) chronologically through to "Stars Seen Through Stone" (2007). I am in no way eligible to say whether or not this is a balanced selection from his oeuvre, but it is clear that not all the stories are of equal quality. Given the law of averages, it would be surprising if they were. In the event, they range from the exquisite stylings of the Nebula-winning "R&R" (1986) to the disappointing clichés of "Only Partly Here" (2003), a post 9/11 ghost story, and run the full gamut in between. But, insofar as it gives an overview of Shepard's potentials, successes and weaknesses as they have developed and changed over the past twenty-plus years, the range works well.
Indeed, changing trends in his fiction writing are so clearly plotted that perhaps the volume would have been better titled Lucius Shepard: A Retrospective. First, the collection illustrates the steady lengthening of his short works, from the early stories to the late novellas, the second half of the book being comprised of just six long pieces. Second, it showcases the gear shift between the hot, claustrophobic jungle narratives of the 1980s and early 1990s—which are drenched in a cold sweat of magic and drugs—and the craftier North American novellas of the last eight years, which are precise, philosophical, and colder to the touch. Third, it charts the transformation of his young or naive protagonists—all victims of rotten circumstances—into a cohort of toughened men who create their own bad luck, with "Beast of the Heartland" (1992) acting as the turning point.
"The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" (1984) proves at once a perfect and incongruous way to start a journey into Shepard's fiction. Perfect, because this story of the slow death of a mythical beast is a tour de force of Shepard's gift for immersive, disorienting narratives; incongruous, because of its elegiac, meditative quality, so different from the tenor of his other work. Set "in 1853, in a country far to the south, in a world separated from this one by the thinnest margin of possibility" (p. 8), it tells the tale of Meric Cattanay, a young artist who proposes to slay a dragon by painting a masterpiece on it. The idea being that Griaule, whose bulky malevolence has affected the character of a whole region, will be slowly poisoned to death by the compounds applied to his hide. The task is hardly as simple as the method suggests: Cattenay's grand vision has a high cost in human lives, and the death of the dragon does not prove the victory over evil he first envisioned. Fixed in place by a framing device—extracts from an academic biography of Cattenay—there is an echoic melancholy to the story, the fable of Cattenay's self-defeating artistic endeavour. No sooner is the work of living art completed than it dies under the weight of its own implications. Cattenay's biographer gives the story's themes away from the start: it is an attempt to define the remit of art, and question its capacity for sustained expression. Describing a self-portrait of the artist, he writes:
On first viewing the painting, I was struck by the atmosphere of tension that radiated from it. It seemed I was spying upon a man imprisoned within a shadow having two golden bars, tormented by the possibilities of light beyond the walls. And though this may be the reaction of an art historian, not the less knowledgeable and therefore more trustworthy response of the gallery-goer, it also seemed that this imprisonment was self-imposed, that he could have easily escaped his confine; but that he had realised a feeling of stricture was an essential fuel to his ambition, and so had chained himself to this arduous and thoroughly unreasonable chore of perception... (p. 7)
This is about as direct a textual gloss as an author dare give his critics, tantamount to whispering "Please read my stories this way..." in their ear.
Shepard does this often. He likes to prod his reader's faculties, sometimes to the extent of directing their interpretations. "A Spanish Lesson" (1985) is a determined but clumsy example. A young, impulsive writer named Lucius meets a pair of siblings, Alise and Tom, who come from a parallel universe in which Hitler won the Second World War and went on to develop a genetic manipulation programme of which they are a product. He becomes sexually involved with them, and is instrumental in their narrative trajectory; like the author-Lucius, character-Lucius makes stuff happen. It is by no means a great piece of short fiction, because postmodern cleverness is almost always an antidote to real engagement. Still, there is something tender and touching about it, as Shepard lays bare his philosophy of fiction writing. Certain threads of narrative "must be left untied," he says, "reflecting the messiness of reality as opposed to the neatness of fiction." (p. 78) Then, ruefully, "my stories have a tendency to run on past the climax, and I frequently employ a moral..." (p. 80). More generally, the story flaunts Shepard's anger against the injustice of fiction, and his powerlessness to fully describe the world as he wants to. He is continually butting his head against the top of the box we live in and call reality. Alise and Tom have been held in a darkened prison all of their lives, and their determination to be out of it, in the open air, is matched only by Shepard's determination to write fiction that both expresses the fullness of reality and is also, somehow, beyond it. Like many science fiction authors of his generation, he wants to write an excessive truth. "Somewhere," he swears, "at the heart of this complex lies a compacted essence of the world, a blazing point of pure principle that plays cosmic Hitler to its shadow selves." Sometimes, as in "A Spanish Lesson," this pursuit of "pure principle" is a compulsion that becomes a slew of eccentricities:
There were, she said, rivers that sprang from enormous crystals, birds with teeth, bats as large as eagles, cave cities, wizards, winged men who inhabited the thin Andean air. It was a place of evil grandeur, and at its heart, its ruler, was the dead Hitler, his body uncorrupting, his death a matter of conjecture, his terrible rule maintained by a myriad of servants in hope of his rebirth. (p. 73)
Shepard disgorges ideas like a drunk or a junkie, streams of images described in visceral prose that essentially numb you to their force. An anaesthetic effect is present in stories like "Life of Buddha" (1988), in which a heroin addict provokes the transmutation of a male transsexual into a perfect woman. Shepard's characters crave freedom and transformation; the narratives over-reach and become baroque in their pursuit of it, and so lose some of their power. They express the central paradox of Shepard's work: his acceptance and celebration of claustrophobia and the "feeling of stricture" (as in "Griaule"), and his desperate raging against it.
The best stories by far are born out of Shepard's ability to channel his radiant fury into depictions of warfare and, in the later novellas, of violent crime. He may not thank me for saying it, but brutality, hostility, and life's cruel fuck-ups are his mode par excellence. It is in stories like "Salvador" (1984), "R&R," "Delta Sly Honey" (1987), "Beast of the Heartland," and "Hands Up! Who wants to die?" (2004) that his style truly comes into its own. This is because his poetry of expression is too aggressive for sentimental myths, like "The Jaguar Hunter" (1985), or emotionally chaotic fairytales like "The Arcevoalo'" (1986). Both of these stories are lovingly crafted, no doubt, and readable. The former mixes mundane reality—the grind of poverty, the breakdown of a marriage, the corruption of the police—with a brand of erotic animism and succeeds against all expectations. But both fail in their final moments, because of their surplus of unwarranted feeling. Shepard's tendency for excess is used to best effect when made to describe some horrific scenario, like a jungle conflict, something so real as to become unreal. Thus, the remembered experiences of Mingolla, the desperate man-boy soldier of "R&R":
At his back, the green dome of the hill swelled high, its sides brocaded with shrubs and vines; an infinity of pattern as eye-catching as the intricately carved facade of a Hindu temple; atop it, one of the gun emplacements had taken a hit: splinters of charred metal curved up like peels of black rind. Before him lay the moat of red dirt with its hedgerows of razor wire, and beyond that loomed the blackish-green snarl of the jungle. Caught on the wire were hundreds of baggy shapes wearing blood-stained fatigues; frays of smoke twisted up from the fresh craters beside them. (p. 155)
Caught up in an endless, and apparently pointless, South American conflict Mingolla is a classic figure in The Best of... Suffering from shattered nerves and raddled by drug-taking, he has an eye for omens that stave off his helplessness in the face of humanity's infinite capacity for violence. Still, he is noble in his own way; not a good man, perhaps even a mad man, but better than he should be.
Mingolla's hallucinatory, almost spiritual, experience of war is replicated in "Delta Sly Honey," in which a bullied American soldier follows the voices of his dead comrades into the Underworld. It clearly illustrates Shepard's use of the tropes of SF to explore the banality of violence:
In Vietnam, with all its horror and strangeness, it was difficult to distinguish between the magical and the mundane, and it's possible that thousands of supernatural events went unnoticed as such, obscured by the poignancies of death and fear, becoming quirky memories that years later might pass through your mind while you were washing the dishes or walking the dog, and give you a moment's pause, an eerie feeling that would almost instantly be ground away by the mills of the ordinary. (p. 235)
It also suggests a truth about Shepard's stories: that they are only incidentally works of science fiction. What I mean to say is that the supernatural, scientific and alien are symptomatic of his themes, rather than drivers of them. In "Shades" (1987), for example, Shepard is barely concerned with the implications of a technology for capturing and controlling the spirits of the dead in Vietnam. He is interested in the personal, psychological aftermath of the war itself. Similarly, that there are aliens in "Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?" is entirely beside the point. The story is about what happens when your heart leaves your mind behind and pulls the trigger of a gun unasked. The science fiction in Shepard's stories, the elements of unreality, arise out of the language of violence and destruction. He writes about incidents of inhumanity and screw-up that are best articulated as a kind of magic, at least as transformative and doubly as caustic. Add to this the clash of intense reality with the garrulous mysticism of his writing style, and a breed of SF is born. But it is his mode of writing, rarely his genre of writing. If it were possible for him to adequately contain his ferocity within the bounds of contemporary realism, who knows whether I would be reading this collection at all.
It is worth noting that some things have not changed over Shepard's twenty-five year career. It goes without saying, for example, that none of his principal actors are female. His inability to realistically characterise women is a sad constant of his work. The malfunction of "Only Partly Here" (2003) is founded on the poverty of the female character at its centre. A student volunteer at Ground Zero finds an almost perfect half-stiletto in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, at just the same time as he meets a yearning, enigmatic woman in a bar. In an entirely predictable turn of events, he discovers that she is the ghostly erstwhile owner of the shoe; once he returns it to her, she disappears having found what she was looking for. Leaving aside for the moment the latent stereotype of the woman who feels incomplete without her stylish footwear, the story does little to explore her as an individual, feeling person. She is a composite of femininity designed to help the male protagonist resolve his post-9/11 anguish, and to carry the moral of the story which is: "The exact measure of loss. And ours. The death of one" (p. 380). Similarly, in "Jack's Decline" (1988) Shepard explores the life of the infamous Ripper after the Whitechapel murders, and eventually has him seek redemption by offering himself up to be murdered like his victims. Five Jewish women, recently gang raped by Nazi officers, are called in to conduct the macabre ceremony. This distasteful scene is symptomatic of the distance between the powerful, complex psychology of Shepard's male characters and the ill-advised and, in this case, gross manipulation of his female ones. It is difficult to know exactly how to react to it, since neither blank condemnation nor attempts at explanation seem quite acceptable.
Perhaps it is best to locate Shepard's difficulties with women as a function of his characters—his stories are so often in the masculine first person that it would be virtually impossible to argue otherwise. This particular style of narration is all his own. Brash, confident, and overwhelmingly wordy, often at risk of inconsistency with the vocabularies of his mouthpieces, it is quite outstanding. Take, for example, the classic opening of "Jailwise" (2003). Like much of Shepard's prose it should be ludicrous but isn't, quite:
During my adolescence, despite being exposed to television documentaries depicting men wearing ponytails and wife-beater undershirts, their weightlifter chests and arms spangled with homemade tattoos, any mention of prison always brought to my mind a less vainglorious type of criminal, an image derived, I believe, from characters in the old black-and-white movies that prior to the advent of the infomercial tended to dominate television's early morning hours: smallish, gray-looking men in work shirts and loose-fitting trousers, miscreants who—although oppressed by screws and wardens, victimised by their fellows—managed to express, however inarticulately, a noble endurance, a working class vitality and poetry of the soul. Without understanding anything else, I seemed to understand their crippled honor, their Boy Scout cunning, their Legionnaire's willingness to suffer. I felt in them the working of a desolate beatitude, some secret virtue of insularity whose potentials they alone had mastered. (p. 381)
It ought to make you shudder. That first sentence is nearly half a page long in my edition; and all that stuff about desolate beatitude is surely maudlin rot. But it doesn't, and it isn't, and that is a gift. There are lots of things that make me say so: the word-usage is wide, and interesting, without being silly, and the rhetorical devices are classically Aristotelian. But it is the punctuation that really makes it—the legion of commas, and colons, and dashes that are perfectly deployed to modulate an otherwise unruly voice. Shepard is a textbook case of genius turning on such a technicality. It is a testament to his skill that The Best of... only occasionally takes a turn for the insufferably prolix (as in the beginning of "Stars Seen Through Stone") or slushy. Undoubtedly he has been a model for writers like Laird Barron, whose florid efforts only go to show how misguided such incorrigible verbosity can be.
There remains a deep problem, however. Shepard is too precise a storyteller. No matter how skillfully he writes, you can still see how the bones move beneath the skin of his narratives; you can feel their turning points, sense the moments of manipulation. The prose is toned, beautiful, replete with the qualities of the above passage, but often artificial. You are left with conflicting sensations: that you have read a masterclass in short fiction, but that something essential, some spirit or spontaneity was missing from it. It is impossible to place a finger on what this quality is, or precisely how it is expressed better elsewhere. You might say that he is over-confident, too knowing, or that there is a lack of softness, or that his stories are too rigidly defined to admit the very mysterious quality of humanity that they chase. You might say that there is little fluidity of expression; that Shepard's emotional register is brittle and narrow. You might say that, although his plotting is often a surprising virtuoso performance, it is never natural. He observes horror at a remove. His characters are stoical, or crazed, or hardened to suffering, but they never simply respond. Shepard pulls their strings, and they dance his dance too cleverly. The problem, I think, is one of authorial control: too loose and nothing works; too tight and everything works too well and appears simulated.
I realise that by applying words like "artificial," "overworked," and "rigid," I tar Shepard with a censure I do not really feel and partially contradict my early praise. But that is because, although this is criticism, it is the kind of criticism that can only be made against a truly talented writer. If Shepard weren't as good as he is, then I would hardly have noticed anything lacking. By raising expectations so high his writing is exposed to a subtler range of complaints, hard to quantify and even harder to qualify. In this rare case, the criticisms levelled are just another, if backhanded, proof of the quality of the work in hand.