His flesh has become one with the earth. He knows its every tremor and convulsion. His thoughts roam the plenum, his mind is a cloud that encompasses our world. His blood is the marrow of time. Centuries flow through him, leaving behind a residue that he incorporates into his being. Is it any wonder he controls our lives and knows our fates?
The Dragon Griaule collects Lucius Shepard’s six stories and novellas about Griaule, the mile-long 750-foot-high dragon that has been in a spellbound sleep for thousands of years. He rests in a valley where his body composes much of the landscape, creating hills and forests and waterfalls. Trees and other vegetation have taken root on his body and animals and parasites live in the habitat he produces. Griaule overlooks the town of Teocinte and another shantytown rests on his back. He’s angry about his situation and his negative emotions (“a tonnage of hatred”) cast an oppressive pall over the towns that are under his purview. Or at least that’s what the people who live there say. They blame their disagreeable personalities, and the wicked deeds they do, on the angry dozing dragon. All attempts to kill Griaule and to free the people from his power have been unsuccessful.
Shepard’s first story, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” introduces Meric Cattanay, an uncelebrated young artist who proposes to kill Griaule by painting him (“I don’t believe Griaule will be able to perceive the menace in a process as subtle as art”). At first, his real goal is to swindle the town council, but after exploring the dragon he is struck by its majesty, and when the council agrees, Cattanay’s life’s work begins. For forty years he paints the dragon; it’s a time filled with beauty, wonder, love, loss, guilt, and disappointment.
I was enchanted by the imaginative world created atop and around the huge dragon’s body, but I was even more fascinated by the world of “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” for in this story we get to explore inside the dragon. The girl referred to in the title is Catherine, a shallow flighty girl who escapes murderous pursuers by climbing into Griaule’s mouth. There she finds some amazing scenery, meets an entirely alien culture, and learns that Griaule has a job for her to do which requires her to live and work inside his body. This story has a beautiful ending which reminds us to honor those quietly suffering people who spend their lives caring for someone who may never thank them for their devotion.
“The Father of Stones” is an exciting murder mystery in which the priest of a dragon cult is murdered by a gemcutter with a huge gemstone that is alleged to be an artifact of Griaule’s body. The murderer admits his crime but claims that Griaule made him do it. This is an unprecedented defense strategy, but it could make the career of Adam Korrogly, the murderer’s attorney, if he’s successful. Knowing that he needs to be very careful with this case, he sets out to investigate the complicated crime and discovers that his client may not be the only one under Griaule’s control.
In “Liar’s House” Griaule is once again manipulating humans. This time he plans to sire an heir, so he coerces a strong, smart, uneducated man named Hota into doing all the dirty work. In return, Hota will learn how to fly. “Liar’s House” was my least favorite in this collection. It’s a long, deep and depressing character study of Hota, who I thought was inconsistently portrayed in places. I was also disappointed that “Liar’s House” lacked connection to the later stories, but maybe there are future plans for that.
“The Taborin Scale” is about a coin collector named George Taborin. When he polishes old coins, George sometimes experiences strange visions relating to the coin’s origin. When he finds a dragon scale in Teocinte and starts to rub it clean, he and a prostitute are transported back in time to the valley before Griaule was entrenched there. Apparently, the dragon wants them to witness some important event. Unlike the other stories in The Dragon Griaule, “The Taborin Scale” uses footnotes to explain some of the details of Griaule’s history. Here we learn, also, of the effects of Meric Cattanay’s paint. But this story, like the others, isn’t so much about the dragon as it is about some aspect of the human experience. In this case, Lucius Shepard considers what it means to be a family.
Many of Shepard’s readers probably thought that “The Taborin Scale” was the last of his stories about the dragon Griaule, but “The Skull” is a new novella which takes place in our modern world where, apparently, Griaule is able to exert some of his dark influence. This story has the dragon involved in Central American politics and features bored housewives who hang out in gay bars. In the author’s notes at the end of the book, Shepard explains that “The Skull” mirrors some of his own experiences in Guatemala. Parts of this story drag on too long, but the end is intensely exciting.
I greatly enjoyed The Dragon Griaule. All of the stories are beautifully written and subtly humorous, but the first two are my favorites because they allow us to explore the dragon inside and out. The world Lucius Shepard has created is unique and imaginative — a lush landscape fashioned from a huge predator whose hurt pride and seething anger oppress and threaten the populace. Shepard uses this premise to explore the negative aspects of human nature. His characters are deep and introspective, constantly exploring their desires and motives, always wondering whether their own corruption comes from inside themselves or from the dragon’s evil influence. I hope there will be more stories about the dragon Griaule.
The Dragon Griaule — (1984-2012) Publisher: More than twenty-five years ago, Lucius Shepard introduced us to a remarkable fictional world, a world separated from our own ‘by the thinnest margin of possibility.’ There, in the mythical Carbonales Valley, Shepard found the setting for ‘The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,’ the classic account of an artist — Meric Cattanay — and his decades long effort to paint — and kill — a dormant, not quite dead dragon measuring 6,000 feet from end to end. The story was nominated for multiple awards and is now recognized as one of its author’s signature accomplishments. Over the years, Shepard has revisited this world in a number of brilliant, independent narratives that have illuminated the Dragon’s story from a variety of perspectives. This loosely connected series reached a dramatic crossroads in the astonishing novella, ‘The Taborin Scale’. The Dragon Griaule now gathers all of these hard to find stories into a single generous volume. The capstone of the book — and a particular treat for Shepard fans — is ‘The Skull,’ a new 40,000 word novel that advances the story in unexpected ways, connecting the ongoing saga of an ancient and fabulous beast with the political realities of Central America in the 21st century. Augmented by a group of engaging, highly informative story notes, The Dragon Griaule is an indispensable volume, the work of a master stylist with apowerful — and always unpredictable — imagination.