Roundtable on Lucius Shepard
On March 18, 2014, Lucius Shepard passed away. Since then a number of touching tributes have been penned, focusing on his life, personality and accomplishments. I thought it would be fitting for our Roundtable group to celebrate Shepard’s rich literary body of work. What are some of Shepard’s finest pieces, and why are they worth visiting and revisiting? Overlooked or out-of-print gems we should hunt down? Where should readers unfamiliar with his stories start? Stories that personally impacted you? What makes his work–at the risk of sounding banal–special?
Paul Graham Raven
I found Shepard fairly late, and haven’t read enough to consider myself qualified to speak to his career in depth, but I think I can answer this one:
> What makes his work–at the risk of sounding banal–special?
Voice. Shepard’s thing was to get right under the skin of his narrators and speak with their voices, even when–perhaps especially when –they’re hiding something, whether from the reader or themselves (or both). I’m thinking especially of the long, dreamy run-on sentences of Viator here, but my abiding memory of Shepard’s work in general is one of drinking secrets straight from the spring. I wonder if that, alongside his fascination with the redemption (failed or otherwise) of losers and f*ck-ups, is what kept him from greater commercial success; neat conclusions and happy endings were never his stock in trade.
Agreed with what Paul said. Shepard was that rare writer who could punctuate dreamy, evocative prose passages that conjured mood and atmosphere with authentic dialogue that sounded as though it was being spoken by the guy sitting on the barstool next to yours.
I also admired his versatility. He wrote fantasy, science fiction, and horror, as well as non-fantastic fiction, but he was able to transform genre tropes and shape them to his own design. You never felt as though you were reading vampire story, or a ghost story, or a high fantasy tale about a dragon–you felt like you were reading a Lucius Shepard story.
I’m just about to receive and read for review what seems to be Shepard’s last collection, and feel like a baby duck ready to imprint again. So have nothing to say here at the moment, beyond the crass assertion that, in the terms I like to use to characterize significant work, he is a planetary writer. At his best, you feel the world turn inside his stories. At his most generic, there is always a subterranean buzz of fix. [Alvaro’s note: John’s review has since been published and can be found here.]
I first heard of Lucius in 1980, when Paul Witcover returned from the Clarion Workshop and spoke about a fellow student who sounded like a character from a lost Hunter S. Thompson novel. So I read “Salvador” and “Solitario’s Eyes” when they were published in F&SF within a few months of each other, in 1983-1984, and was utterly blown away by both stories, and by Lucius’s novel Green Eyes when it came out not much later. He wrote even better stories in the years to come, but those very early works made a huge impression on me. So did Lucius himself, who seemed not a character from a Hunter Thompson novel but a figure from one of his own stories. Extravagant and otherworldly and darkly gorgeous as his fictional worlds could be, they always seemed drawn from a place that Lucius himself had inhabited. For someone unfamiliar with Lucius’s work, I’d suggest starting with the 1987 collection The Jaguar Hunter, which showcases a writer who was brilliant right out of the gate with stories like “Salvador”, “R&R”, “A Spanish Lesson”, and the classic “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”. Much of Lucius’s work was published by small presses, which can make the books expensive and hard to track down, but Bantam published a paperback edition of The Jaguar Hunter, and you can find cheap copies of that online. I’d love to see a complete (and affordable) edition of his collected short fiction–I think Lucius is one of those writers, like P.K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft, whose mainstream reputation will, sadly, soar only after his death.
Alas, I don’t know Shepard’s work well enough to contribute on this one.
Marie, thanks for the response anyway 🙂 Have people’s comments, or what you’ve seen posted about him, encouraged you to try his work? I remember being blown away the first time I read him, the novelette “Only Partly Here” (2003), and then starting to look for his stuff everywhere, realizing, like Paul Graham Raven, that I’d come late to the party.
I would like to contribute to this thread but simply can’t do so right now. It’s just bad timing! There’s going to be a memorial reading of Lucius’s stuff here in NYC at the KGB Bar on June 15. Ellen Datlow is organizing that; perhaps she can weigh in or solicit stuff from participants that might be useful here. I’m trying to prepare something for that but can’t get to it for another couple of weeks. Sorry! [Alvaro’s note: This roundtable was conducted in May 2014.]
I have read a few of his short stories, but not enough to make any cogent comment. :/
For no good reason, I get him confused with Tom Disch. Literally, no good reason; I can’t figure out why. I must have learned about them at the same time.
People’s comments on Shepard’s work totally make me want to read it. But I haven’t yet and am unlikely to in time to be useful for this roundtable. :/
Can I suggest you find two or three people who are really informed on his work and have them do a break-out roundtable? Karen Burnham did that sometimes.
I’ve been slow to answer, because I read a great deal of Lucius’ early work, but have to confess that I lost track of him during his hiatus and never found my way back. He arrived in the field about the same time I did, and with a great deal of heat and visibility. I remember thinking back then that, although there is often much lip-service paid to the idea of transparent, not-at-all-showy prose in sf, every time I went to read someone everyone was all excited about, they turned out to be exceptional stylists. Lucius was inarguably one of those; he had a voice.
For me, he was often excessive, but that was so much who he was as a writer, to ask for something else would have been to remove his superpowers entirely. I would never wish it. He was imagistic, careful and artful (which sounds like a contradiction of excessive, but in Lucius’ case never was). What I remember most from his stories are moments of high drama and scenes of brutality. He was at his best when things were very bad. His depiction of women rarely pleased me. His prose could be so beautiful or else so startling, you had to stop and read it aloud, which is both a good and a bad thing, but for me, for the kind of reader I am, it was good. He was impressive. But all this is me trying to remember stories I read long ago and the impressions, sometimes vivid, that they left. I really should do some rereading before I say more, see how I feel now about those same stories and the later ones.
I have often used excerpts from his work when I’m teaching and talking about setting, though always with this cautionary note: if you can make your descriptions of landscape as immersive and imbue them with the sort of tension that Lucius does, then feel free to be this lengthy. For everyone who isn’t Lucius Shepard, short is probably better.
I also am willing, but the timing is off. I’m at the Rio Hondo Writers Workshop and Sleep Deprivation Experiment until Sunday, and then I’m off on a family visit for another five days. Sorry!
Shepard’s writing did have a certain density to it, reminding me somewhat of Conrad, but he had a more readable style than Conrad’s, and the wealth of description never came across as burdensome to me. Instead it gave me the feeling, especially in his short novels and novellas, when I was finished reading one, that I had experienced the richness of a fictional world and depth of character I might get from a much longer work. He was one of the few writers in the genre to create fiction from a working class or, at times, poverty class perspective, something he lived and something the genre is fairly lacking in. He eschewed the Romantic, which has classically been and still is a major part of the Fantastic, and replaced it with a hard edged realistic outlook that doesn’t turn away from the grittier aspects of a life less economically privileged. His characters were drawn from the people who inhabited the world he lived in and passed through. They were certainly not meant to embody social ideals but were meant to represent the people he knew as they actually were and how they actually lived. Shepard was also one of the early writers whose work was conscious of the fact that there was a whole world out there beyond the boundaries of American and European culture. For instance, his short novel, Floater, is the only piece of fiction I can remember having read that had Voodoo as a basic theme that wasn’t some Hollywoodesque zombie bullshit, but focused on the life affirming theology and philosophy of its spiritual practice. There was a lot of real humor in his work as well. Some of my favorites are Handbook of American Prayer, Floater, Viator, Soft Spoken, The Dragon Griaule collection and pretty much all the novellas that were in that giant collection Trujillo that came out from PS. My favorite of his long stories is “Hands up, Who Wants to Die?” His themes were quite varied and his approaches to established tropes were usually unique. There’s just so much fiction of his out there, much of it I’ve yet to read, but intend to slowly make my way through in the coming years.
I strongly agree with Jeff. One of the striking things about Lucius was that he was one of the first to write about working class or poverty level people, a perspective rarely seen in SF or fantasy (the guy driving into the gas station in the big car is much more often the protagonist of a story than the guy pumping the gas), and also one of the first to write convincingly and sympathetically about Third World people, and to evocatively and complexly describe Third World settings. I generally like his short stories and novelettes more than his novels (most of which were actually novellas by word count), so I would second somebody’s recommendation that the best place to start with his work is probably The Jaguar Hunter, his first collection. “Salvador” is still a very powerful story, and years ahead of its time. For all his hell-raising–and he could raise hell higher and harder than practically any other writer in the field–he was a sweet guy, and at heart a very gentle one; I suspect he was frequently hurt by the darkness and cruelty of the world, but he wrote about it better than almost anyone else has done.
I hope that most of his work will eventually be made available in cheap ebook editions, rather than in the expensive small-press hardcovers that are currently the only alternative.
I would strongly suggest that you bring Ellen Datlow in on this conversation, as she was one of the editors who worked with him the longest and most closely.
Ditto Gardner, especially as regards Shepard’s work being reprinted in affordable editions.
Let me quickly jump on the Jeff and Gardner bandwagon. One other aspect of Shepard’s writing that has always struck me is that in a way, he wasn’t writing speculative fiction. There are speculative fiction writers who do very well for themselves by grafting speculative elements onto stories that don’t require them. Then are sf writers who just think and write in sf ways: everything they write is speculative fiction; they can’t help it, whether they would like to or not. But Shepard didn’t fall into either of these camps, in my opinion. I don’t want to be so reductive as to claim that he was writing allegories, but I do think that he was writing about big issues of human responsibility, love, and existence, often from the viewpoint of the disadvantaged and disinherited, the dregs of society, as it were, and he would have been quite happy to write about them in another medium, or through another lens, had one existed that he considered useful to him. But there wasn’t one, so he made use of speculative fiction, bending it to fit his own obsessions. Maybe every writer worth anything does that to a degree, but Shepard, I think, knew very well that he wasn’t using the best tool for the job: just the only tool that lay to hand. And that may be why so much of his fiction has that quality of painfully and painstakingly working its way toward the clear expression of something urgently necessary to express yet which fights expression every step of the way. I think that’s where the density of his writing comes from.
>Marie, thanks for the response anyway 🙂 Have people’s comments, or what you’ve seen posted about him, encouraged you to try his >work?
Oh, definitely. I don’t know if what’s being described here would be my personal cup of tea, but unquestionably it’s worth giving his work a shot.
In either the fall of 1987 or the spring of ’88, my husband and I were going through our mail next to the pool in our Honolulu
condo. My issue of F&SF had arrived. I opened it, began to read, and the world fell away. The story I happened upon was vivid, dark,
and powerful. I don’t remember the name of the story, but it was written by Lucius, and was one of the turning points in my decision
to write sf. It was mature, intense, and at the same time magical.
In 1993, Lucius wrote a marvelous blurb for my first novel, Queen City Jazz. Any blurb is an act of generosity, and his phrasings went the extra ten miles.
I always read his film column, and, quite recently, I read “Stars Seen Through Stone” in F&SF, and though it had darkness, it was a a mild darkness compared with much of his work, tempered by a resolution that was filled with hope. It was moving.
Perhaps the title was a metaphor for Lucius’ outlook and life. Whatever the stony demons were that ringed him round and made
him the person that so many of us knew, he could still see stars–an act of pure courage.
Beautifully put, Kathleen. I wonder if that story was “Solitario’s Eyes”.
Thank you, Paul. “Solitario’s Eyes” does sound familiar.
About a Complete Stories. Three good reasons for one. 1. Exceeding high quality of the entire corpus as a whole, pretty obvious. 2. As Gardner says, I think, the fact that several of the 12 collections to date came out in small or limited editions, one of them–Skull City— only released bundled with another title, I believe, and not now available. 3. I did a rapido count, saw at least 10 stories not yet assembled in a one-person Shepard collection.
>>As Gardner says, I think, the fact that several of the 12 collections to date came out in small or limited editions, one of them– >>Skull City–only released bundled with another title,
I take back what I said. I have read a Lucius Shepard story. In fact, I have a quotation from one on a t-shirt.
When I was twelve, I participated in Duke’s TIP program–one of those things where you take the SAT and if you score high enough, can go take a three-week summer course. I did several of those in junior high, and when the first of them was a course wherein we read and discussed science fiction short stories. I remembered “Skull City”, but had completely forgotten it was written by Shepard. The quote we put on the shirt was:
“Like all those things that imbued the place with its special flavor, it was unique but worthless, and its inconsequentiality was in the end what you took from it. It embodied an illusory richness, and however compelling and artful the surface, it masked a twisted exhibitionist intent. And there was, I realized, a lesson to be learned from that.”
. . . which went onto the shirt because no matter how smart we were, we were still twelve, and did not have the faintest bloody clue what Shepard meant by that. But I still have all the copies of the stories from that course; I should go back and re-read “Skull City” to see what I make of it now. (Apart from “holy mother of god the amount of swearing and sex in here; how the heck did Roger get this past the AC and into the syllabus.” I think they had tightened things up a bit by the time I went back to teach last summer.)
Marie, who taught that summer course? Kudos to whoever it was, for reading that deeply into contemporary sf.
A fellow named Roger Ladd; I don’t remember where he was from or anything of that sort. But yeah, he gave us Connie Willis and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Greg Benford and Jim Kelly, plus a lot of others whose names aren’t as familiar to me these days, and I’m pretty sure that’s where I read the original “Beggars in Spain”, too. I’ve still got all the stories in my filing cabinet–now I’m seriously tempted to go back through them all, and see what I make of them now. When I taught for TIP last year, I was told to scale my syllabus to what you might throw at college freshmen, and Roger pretty much did the same.
Alvaro, chiming in now that you’ve actually reached me. (The whole roundtable series of posts when to the wrong email address for me).
I started publishing Lucius regularly in OMNI between 1988-1992. At least two of the stories I published then are still favorites: “Life of Buddha” and “A Little Night Music”, the former a story of love and redemption, mixing stark realism with a jolt of mysticism and fantasy and the latter a brilliant zombie story. Both are emblematic of a certain type of Lucius tale about love lost/being lost. He often put his characters (male and female) through the wringer of bad love. He was a romantic, both in his fiction and in life.
Aside from one story he wrote for an anthology of mine in 1994, he produced hardly any fiction between 1994-1999 but then came back with a bang with tons of stories, novelettes, and novellas until 2011, when his health began to decline. (There are apparently story and novel fragments.)
I only read his early novels as I didn’t have time to read novels later on but I enjoyed them–Green Eyes and The Golden. I gather A Handbook of American Prayer is excellent.
Yes he sometimes overwrote, getting carried away with his own gorgeous language, but I found even his excesses a joy to read. There should be several volumes of his complete fiction published. His novellas alone could probably fill a couple of volumes.
He also wrote passionate essays on politics and current events, several for Event Horizon, the webzine Rob Killheffer and I edited just after OMNI online folded. One was on Columbine, another on Charles Bowden’s book Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future, condemning the new colonization of Mexico by NAFTA, and a third about policiers and an alternate to what he saw as stale sf. You can still find them online here.
There’s going to be a celebration of Lucius and his work at KGB Bar June 15th. Several writers who were friends and/or were influenced by him will be reading pieces of his work–fiction and nonfiction.
One thought on “Roundtable on Lucius Shepard”
I never get why people think Shepard can’t write good woman characters. As others here have said, Shepard’s concentration is mostly on people without power, the working class or unemployed, and this includes his depiction of women. Check out the women in Softspoken or Valentine to see what I mean.