I’ll come right out and say it. Lucius Shepard was one of the best SF short story writers of the 1980 and 1990s. His prose, imagery, themes, and style are so powerful, dynamic, and vivid that it’s a real crime that he didn’t gain a wider readership when he was alive, though he did win many SF awards.
Although he had already been publishing his stories in SF magazines like SF&F and Asimov’s for several years, he gained greater prominence with his short story collection The Jaguar Hunter in 1987, which won the 1988 World Fantasy Award and Locus Award for Best Collection. Many of the stories were nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, with “Salvador” winning the Locus Award in 1985 and “R&R” winning the Nebula Award in 1987. His work is characterized by strong elements of magic realism, supernatural horror, Central American and other exotic locales, and hallucinatory depictions of futuristic warfare. In my opinion, he is one of the best stylists to ever work in the genre.
Lucius Shepard was one of those authors who seemed compelled to travel and experience the world, working a host of unusual jobs to survive. You can get his bio details on the internet, but suffice to say he travelled extensively in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, and most of his stories are set in exotic locales with vivid details. His characters are generally dislocated ex-pats, spiritually-lost bohemians, or soldiers trapped in hopeless Central American military conflicts, and they frequently encounter supernatural events that cannot be explained by science. His story “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” is very much a magic realist parable about evil and the power of art to combat it.
While not all of his books are still in print, you can get his most important ones: his short story collections The Jaguar Hunter (1987), The Ends of the Earth (1991), and The Best of Lucius Shepard (2008), and his novels Green Eyes (1984) and Life During Wartime (1987). If you are looking for a cheap intro to his stories, The Best of Lucius Shepard is available for just $2.99 on Amazon. However, in my opinion his greatest and most memorable stories were written in the earlier part of his career, so I would strongly recommend The Jaguar Hunter and The Ends of the Earth over this retrospective, since they contain his best work.
I actually found it quite a struggle to get through the later stories in his “Best of” collection, as his interests moved away from his Central American magic realist/futuristic war motif to a focus on the poor and marginalized corners of American society. It’s certainly a legitimate artistic choice to make, and it’s hard to fault an author for not being satisfied to stir the same pot again and again, but the quality and focus of the stories towards the end of the collection just couldn’t keep my attention. In particular, I just couldn’t see the point of “Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?” It is always risky to use a narrator who is inarticulate and uneducated, as Shepard can no longer use the incredible artistry of his writing, so it was a frustrating experience. At least “Jailwise,” while the final message was elusive, was hallucinatory and strange and beautiful.
Here are the stories in the Kindle version (“R&R” is not in the original publication):
“The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984): This is one of Shepard’s most famous stories, and the most clear homage to the legendary Latin American magic realists Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The story is a parable open to many interpretations, and is written very much in the style of Borges (who I am reading right now). It centers on the man Meric Cattanay and his proposal to destroy the dragon and its dark influence on the surrounding lands and people by painting its body with a wondrous mural. It pits art against a dark influence so subtle that it defies description. Meric devotes four decades to painting the dragon, going through the many vicissitudes of life, both ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments, and eventually reaches the end of his labors. It is a mysterious and ambiguous story, but well worth reading. Notably, Shepard wrote several more stories that share the same themes and framework, collected as The Dragon Griaule (2013) by Subterranean Press.
“Salvador” (1984): This story is one of the highlights of the collection. It is about Dantzler, a US special forces soldier stationed in El Salvador hunting for Sandinista patrols. It has strong echoes of films like Platoon, as Dantzler’s ideals and admiration for the local culture are dashed by the casual contempt and mind-numbing violence of the military mindset, particularly a psychotic superior officer who has become a sadistic killing machine assisted by ampules to boost reflexes, alertness, and homicidal urges. It is a chilling but realistic depiction of war, yet Shepard’s writing remains lyrical and powerful nonetheless.
“A Spanish Lesson” (1985): This is definitely an unusual story with a fantastical twist much like “A Traveler’s Tale.” It is the story of a young traveling expat who settles in a small Mediterranean fishing village that has an enclave of bohemian foreigners who spend much of their time taking and dealing drugs, dabbling in novels and poetry, and feeling superior to the surrounding locals. One day a very strange young pair of twins, blond, frail, and awkward, show up in their village and start to disrupt the rhythms of life. Things get extremely weird when the narrator finds a secret diary entry by the twins, and it is definitely not what you would expect.
“The Jaguar Hunter” (1985): The title story is a perfect example of Shepard’s favorite themes. A retired jaguar hunter named Esteban lives in the countryside of Honduras with his unhappy wife. She yearns for the trappings of Western material culture, so she buys a TV on credit from the local pawn shop without permission, putting Esteban into debt. Lacking the cash to pay this, the sleazy shop owner asks him instead to kill a deadly black jaguar that has killed eight other hunters. Despite his misgivings, he takes the assignment and soon encounters the black jaguar, which is far more formidable than he expected. The writing in this story is phenomenal, and the story behind the jaguar is rich with mysticism and tragedy.
“R & R” (1986): This story won the Nebula Award in 1987 and was later expanded to Shepard’s best-regarded full-length novel, Life During Wartime. It is similar to “Salvador” in that it features soldiers stationed in Guatemala for R&R in a break from bombing raids in Nicaragua. The Sikorsky helicopter gunship pilots use special high-tech helmets that link them to their machines, blurring the lines between, and yet the pilots are so superstitious that they refuse to remove their helmets even when on the ground. Mignolla and his buddies take R&R together out of a belief that if they follow the same routine each time they will survive unscathed. This is nearly novella-length, and much befalls Mignolla in hallucinatory, magic-realist, unnerving detail.
“The Arcevoalo” (1986): One of Shepard’s most fable-like and magic-realist stories, but wedded to a far future Amazon jungle setting after the September War, which has transformed the region in magical ways. A young man awakes in the ruined city of Manaus, and seeks to discover his origins and purpose. He is surrounded by the mystical creatures of the jungle, and has an intense bond with their life forces and that of the jungle itself. He learns he is called the arcevoalo, and that his purpose is on behalf of the jungle to enter the world of men and learn their nature and weaknesses. He finds himself entering the decadent walled city of Sangue do Lume, settled by Brazilians who fled the September War and dwelt in the metal worlds that circle the sky before returning to Earth.
There he is taken in by one of the wealthy families of the city, who value his mysterious origins and incredible knowledge of the jungle which they seek to exploit for their profit. The arcevoalo finds himself assisting in the exploitation of the very jungle that nurtured him, and then becomes embroiled in a classic love triangle with tragic results. The entire story is a luminous fable of discovery, treachery, the loss of innocence and the eternal battle between mankind and the jungle.
“Shades” (1987): Here is a return to form for Shepard, as a Vietnam vet named Tom Puleo returns to Vietnam to cover a story about a young soldier named Stoner who died in a village called Cam Le. A Marxist mystic has invented a device that can summon ghosts, and Stoner’s ghost has come back to haunt the village, scaring the residents away and attracting foreign attention. As a fellow soldier with Stoner, the machine inventor wants to see if Stoner’s ghost will respond more to Tom. The story is filled with intense paranormal confrontations between Tom and Stoner’s ghost, and the ending is poignant.
“Delta Sly Honey” (1987): Here is another Shepard story set in a war setting, this time behind the front lines in Vietnam. Randall J. Williams is a skinny and shy young Southern guy who transforms into the “High Priest of the Soulful Truth and the Holy Ghost of the Sixty-Cycle Hum.”
Randall’s job is mainly to handle the bodies of dead soldiers, but one day a lifetime sergeant named Andrew Moon decides to make meek Randall his target of bullying. One day someone using the tag line Delta Sly Honey answers Randall’s broadcast, and he freaks out and goes AWOL. As the narrator investigates, things get more bizarre and horrific…
“Life of Buddha” (1988): This is the only story in this collection that I just didn’t like. It’s the story of a heroin addict nicknamed Buddha that basically spends much of his time in a drugged-out stupor in a shooting gallery, ostensibly serving as security for his dealer. He has decided to shut out the painful memories of his family by losing himself in drugs, and encounters another lost soul who is also living in the margins and struggling with gender issues. There are some fantasy/horror elements, but I couldn’t care about the characters or the story much.
“Jack’s Decline” (1988): Here Shepard explores new territory that many writers have been drawn to, namely who Jack the Ripper was and what became of him. Imagine he was from a wealthy family who would go to great lengths to protect him and his killing madness from discovery. And even though he is given a long list of treatments, and he tries all forms of study and distractions, his inner demon will not let him rest. And then one day his remote hunting lodge in the countryside is visited by a small troop of Nazi soldiers who have brought with them some captive young Jewish women as their entertainment. Things get very twisted as one form of evil meets another, with innocent lives caught in between.
“Beast of the Heartland” (1992): In a complete change of pace, this is a powerful and visceral story of Bobby Mears, a heavyweight boxer who has tangled with the likes of Marvin Hagler in his only title fight, but whose retina has become detached and is now a brawler who better fighters use to tune up as they climb the ranks. And yet he perseveres, continuing to win his share of fight through sheer tenacity. Much in the Rocky Balboa vein, he is an everyman whose only route of success is training and fighting in the ring. Though the story does not feature magical creatures or futuristic soldiers in Central American jungle wars, it does have an element of mysticism, as Mears has strange visions of beasts that he projects onto the face of his opponents, which gives him the added push to keep punching past his limitations. There is also the young hooker with the heart of gold, the crusty old trainer Leon, and the invincible opponent that he must face. It has all the makings of a stereotypical boxer-in-decline story, but in Shepard’s hands it packs a real emotional punch.
“Radiant Green Star” (2000): Though this story is far more cyberpunk in setting than many of the others, it is equally the timeless story of a young orphan raised in a small traveling circus called the Radiant Green Star. He was given into the care of the owner of the circus, Vang, at age 7 by his mother, and has only hazy memories of her. Vang tells him his father had his mother killed and that he stands to inherit a fortune from his grandfather upon his 18th birthday, but to avoid his father taking control he has been hidden away till he has reached the age to inherit his birthright.
The story is set in a futuristic Viet Nam, complete with digitally stored personalities, cybernetic impacts, and biologically-enhanced assassins and powerful tech corporations. However, Shepard revels in mixing genres by overlaying the story of Phillip’s coming of age story with a traveling circus, and even includes a grotesque circus freak named Major Martin Boyette, supposedly the last surviving US POW, who is hideously deformed by genetic experiments. His audience draw is not just his hideous appearance but his ability to tell elaborate and dramatic stories of the war, but when not on stage he withdraws into his own private world of madness.
Philip harbors a deep-seated desire to kill his father to avenge his poor mother, while the circus owner grooms him to take over the circus one day. Appearances and motivations are very deceptive, however, and for a novella the story is impressively layered and complex. Philip falls in love with his fellow troupe member Tan, and for a time he lives a happy existence. However, the story soon brings back the underlying tragedy of his past as he discovers that the troupe will be performing in the secluded and wealthy enclave town where his powerful and corrupt father lives. There are the obvious echoes of Oedipus as he confronts his father, and when his origins are finally revealed, there are many surprises awaiting. Overall, this story is impressive in its combination of themes and plots, all told in Shepard’s signature rich and evocative style.
“Only Partly Here” (2003): This story represents a new direction for Shepard. It’s a story about 9/11 and the workers clearing the debris of the site in the aftermath. They spend their days shoveling away bits of building, office equipment, clothing, and occasionally bodies. It is grim work, and Bobby, Pineo, and Mazurek are pals of sorts, united by the numbing drudgery of the job and the haunting atmosphere where thousands lost their lives in one fateful day. They take to going to a dive called The Blue Lady, but don’t want to talk about the job, but rather to erase it with booze. One day a severe, Wall Street-type woman starts showing up at the bar, blowing off would-be pickup artists, and Bobby, who unlike his pals is a graduate student, takes a morbid curiosity as to why she shows every day just to drink in sullen silence…
“Jailwise” (2003): A lengthy and somewhat Kafka-esque story of a lifelong convict named Tommy Penhaligon with an intense anti-authority streak who is offered taken on by a mentor named Frank Ristelli who teaches art classes near the prison and discovers that Tommy has quite a talent for painting. Frank also has a unique philosophical view of incarceration, punishment, repentance, and redemption. He recommends to Tommy that he request a transfer from Vacaville to a mysterious prison facility named Diamond Bar built into a mountain in the wilderness of the West Coast. This place has no apparent guards, fences, or even locked cells. Though he is initially suspicious, he takes the offer and discovers a strange world run by prisoners that seem quite content with being there. They live their daily lives without any explicit or rules, but controlled by a strange council of elderly inmates who appear to be in charge. Tommy seeks to find out the origins of Diamond Bar and how it can function completely unlike any other prison.
When the council discover Tommy’s talent for paintings, they ask him to paint a giant mural to depict the Hearth of the Law, the fundamental principal that underpins Diamond Bar. Tommy also encounters the plumes, seemingly transgender men who serve as sexual partners for the inmates. He forms a relationship with one that seems to be in all respects female, and she also inspires his artwork as his muse.
This story eludes any easy interpretations, and while further revelations await in the final parts of the story, and center on the themes mentioned above, it is always unclear what parts of the story are “real” or just “in his mind,” and there is a surreal and archetypal feel to the events. It’s both an evolution from and departure from the magic realist elements that pervaded Shepard’s earlier stories from the 1980s.
“Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?” (2004): This is another lengthy story about down and out characters living in the margins, in the intersection between crime and poverty and desperation. A young never-do-well named Maceo in South Florida meets up with another fringe dweller named Leeli. They have a tryst and wander onto a supposedly abandoned government property where they encounter a strange older woman named Ava who has two strange men in tow, Carl and Squire. They aren’t all there mentally, and the exact nature of the trio’s relationship is unclear, but Ava exudes a strange vibe of confidence and supernatural powers. They get into trouble when Carl suddenly pulls out a gun at a diner and yells, “Hands up! Who wants to die?” He’s too stupid to realize what he’s doing, but before they know it they’re on the run and hiding out in a swampy Southern Gothic property, where things get more kinky and weird. However, much like “Jailwise,” the weirdness is quite unfocused elusive, very unlike the powerful South American magic-realist images of Shepard’s earlier stories. Partly his choice of characters is to blame — since Maceo is the narrator, we get the story told in his broken-down street lingo, which prevents Shepard from exercising his most lyrical and hallucinatory work. I didn’t particularly like the characters or the story, and felt like this was not a direction I wanted to follow the author in.