The Best of Lucius Shepard: Volume 2, Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press 978-1-64524-035- 8, $50.00, 848pp, hc) January 2022. Cover by Armando Veve.
In his Guardian obituary of Lucius Shepard – who passed away on March 18, 2014 – Christopher Priest wrote that Shepard’s preferred format, the novella, ‘‘almost certainly held back the recognition he deserved,’’ and that ‘‘his writing was shielded from wider appreciation because of its association with the science fiction genre.’’ I find it hard to argue with Priest on either count. Yes, Shepard won most of the major genre awards – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy – but if he left a legacy behind, it’s one that, eight years after his death, has started to fade. I also agree that Shepard’s work would be spoken alongside distinctive American voices like Denis Johnson and Charles Bukowski if his fiction had appeared in venues other than genre magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction or Asimov’s.
Thankfully, the wonderful people at Subterranean Press are working to ensure that Shepard’s work, especially his short fiction, remains in print. In 2008 they released The Best of Lucius Shepard, a gorgeous hardcover and deluxe edition which collected 18 stories, including classics like ‘‘R&R’’ and ‘‘The Jaguar Hunter’’, and which remains available as an ebook. And now, 14 years later, they have published the delayed but much anticipated second volume edited by Bill Sheehan. Coming in at a whopping 848 pages and more than 300,000 words, The Best of Lucius Shepard: Volume Two showcases Shepard’s predilection for longer short fiction, gathering eleven novellas and three novelettes, starting with ‘‘A Traveler’s Tale’’ (1984), and finishing with ‘‘Dog Eared Paperback of My Life’’ (2009).
The key selling point of Shepard’s fiction – at least for a prose style fanatic like myself – is the singular nature of his voice. Whether establishing the story’s setting or describing the character’s state of mind, there’s an incandescence, a ferocity to Shepard’s writing that’s difficult to convey without quoting large chunks of his work. He can be both brutal, engaging all our senses as he does in the opening of ‘‘Surrender’’ –
I’ve been down these rivers before, I’ve smelled this tropical stink in a dozen different wars, this mixture of heat and fever and diarrhea, I’ve come across the same bloated bodies floating in the green water, I’ve seen tiny dark men and their delicate women hacked apart a hundred times if I’ve seen it once. I’m a fucking war tourist.”
– or lyrical and plaintive as he is toward the climax of ‘‘Human History’’, where the protagonist reflects on the horror he’s witnessed:
I’ve seen the paintings our ancestors created, I’ve read their books and listened to their music, I’ve experienced no end of their lofty thoughts and glorious expressions, and I admire them for the most part. But they don’t counterbalance the mass slaughters, the barbarities, the unending tortures and torments, the vilenesses, the sicknesses, the tribal idiocies, the trillion rapes and humiliations that comprise the history of that world up until its mysterious ending.
It’s not all about Shepard’s voice, though. He was a peripatetic writer who was more than comfortable setting his fiction in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Central America (where he spent a good chunk of his life). Stories like ‘‘A Traveller’s Tale’’, ‘‘Surrender’’, ‘‘Crocodile Rock’’, and ‘‘The Drive-In Puerto Rico’’ are immersive experiences imbued with a deep respect for other cultures, their belief systems, and the environments they inhabit. There’s an anger as well – one that speaks to human rights abuses perpetrated by corrupt governments fueled by American imperialism. My favourite of these stories – though it’s not an easy choice – is ‘‘Dagger Key’’. Set on a fictional Caribbean island off the coast of Belize, a local man named Fredo, possessed by the spirit of his ancestor, the Pirate Annie, faces off against an entitled and duplicitous white couple seeking to strip Fredo and Annie of the family’s treasure.
The plot of ‘‘Dagger Key’’ – did I mention that Annie is a lesbian pirate? – is emblematic of Shepard’s attitude to the fantastic. He wasn’t so much subversive as, to quote Chris Priest again, idiosyncratic. For example, ‘‘Ariel’’ is a twisted sort of love story about a couple who have been tasked to hunt and kill iterations of each other to save the multiverse from destruction. The provocative ‘‘A Walk in the Garden’’ is about a platoon of American soldiers in Iraq who discover a gateway into Paradise (it doesn’t end well), while the explosive ‘‘AZTECHS’’ is an uber-violent story of competing drug cartels and the aspirations of a God-level artificial intelligence. At the top of the heap, at least for me, is the sublime ‘‘Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life’’. It’s the tale of best-selling fantasy novelist Thomas Cradle who happens across a book on Amazon, ‘‘The Tea Forest’’, written by an alternative version of himself. In deciding to follow the same journey chronicled by his alter ego, a sex and drug-fuelled expedition across Cambodia and Vietnam, Cradle will come face to face with multiple versions of himself and will come to realise his true purpose and the true purpose of all Thomas Cradles. This feverdream of a novella, riffing on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and featuring one of the most vicious take-downs of genre fiction and fandom ever put into print, is an encapsulation of everything I love about Shepard: the lush, indulgent prose, the large servings of sex and violence, the plots that unspool in unexpected directions and a setting, beautifully realised, that is somewhere other than mid-west America.
As much as I enjoyed spending more than a week submerged in Shepard’s fictional universe, there are aspects of his work that have aged less well. I’m not convinced his award-winning novella ‘‘Barnacle Bill the Spacer’’ would find a publisher today, given its gratuitous rape scene and ableist treatment of the titular character. And while there’s nothing particularly wrong with the heteronormative tilt of Shepard’s fiction – there’s a great deal of consensual sex in these stories – there’s something decidedly ick in the fact that the main characters of ‘‘Crocodile Rock’’ and ‘‘Jail Bait’’ appear to be in relationships with underage girls. Then there’s ‘‘The Last Time’’, a World Fantasy nominated story about a toxic love affair that ends in a scene of horrific, stomachchurning violence, and where once again it’s a woman who faces the brunt of the brutality. There’s no doubting, though, that Lucius Shepard was a remarkable, one-of-a-kind storyteller whose work deserves to be discussed more broadly in genre circles, warts and all. One can only hope that The Best of Lucius Shepard: Volume Two reignites that conversation.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at email@example.com.
This review and more like it in the March 2022 issue of Locus.
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