Lucius Shepard had already created one of the best short story collections in the genre, The Jaguar Hunter, which won the 1988 World Fantasy Award and Locus Award for Best Collection, with “Salvador” winning the Locus Award in 1985 and “R&R” winning the Nebula Award in 1987. His work is steeped in magical realism, supernatural horror, Central America and other exotic locales, and hallucinatory depictions of futuristic warfare. In my opinion, Shepard is one of the best stylists to ever work in the genre. That’s why I can’t help including a writing sample from some stories in The Ends of the Earth — they’re just so good.
It’s always tough to come up with a sophomore effort that lives up to the hype of the original. Fortunately, when you’ve lived as dramatic and eclectic life as Lucius Shepard, working a host of random jobs to support years of exploring obscure corners of the planet, that makes for fertile ground for great, memorable, and frightening stories. I’m always amazed by authors who can come up with fantastic tales just living in a quiet house in the suburbs, where the biggest event is when a squirrel sneaks onto the bird feeder or the neighbors’ dog gets loose.
It’s a testament to the power of the human imagination, but nothing beats having BEEN to Central America and the Carribean, drinking rum at a beach-side shack with the locals late at night, and hanging out with the burned-out expats trying to escape our modern materialist society. And when you actually have the writing skills to craft stories that fascinate, repulse, and entertain, then you’ve got it made. And like The Jaguar Hunter, The Ends of the Earth also won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 1992.
“The Ends of the Earth” (1989): This is a classic story that is immediately recognizable as a Shepard story. A successful writer named Ray has a failed affair with a married art gallery owner in New York and decided he needs to flee his life and civilization, and chooses an obscure town called Livingston in Guatemala. Being an author, he is fully aware of the artistic pretentious of seeking to escape to the ends of the earth to find inspiration in his own emotional pain along with the new environment so different from the busy streets of Manhattan.
The bar — Café Pluto — was set in the lee of a rocky point: a thatched hut with a sand floor and picnic-style tables, lit with black lights that emitted an evil purple radiance and made all the gringos glow like sunburned corpses … I was giddy with the dope, with the wildness of the night, the vast blue-dark sky and its trillion watts of stars, silver glitters that appeared to be slipping around like sequins on a dancer’s gown. Behind us the Café Pluto had the look of an eerie cave lit by seams of gleaming purple ore.
There he discovers the expected mixture of disillusioned ex-pats, impoverished locals, and drug-taking bohemian would-be artists. It’s all according to script, until he meets a rather unpleasant Brit named Carl who has set himself up as the top dog in the bohemian community, claiming to be writing an obscure academic work on local folklore and black magic, but supporting himself by selling drugs to other foreigners. Ray takes an instant dislike to Carl, not least because one Carl’s followers is an alluring young French woman named Odille, whom Ray is attracted to and who has her own emotional issues she is fleeing from. The scene is set for a classic love triangle in a tiny Guatemalan village, until one night Ray discovers a set of strange dolls that Carl has acquired from a local shaman. Supposedly they are part of an ancient game that Carl is studying, but he is very reticent to reveal more details, and when they all decide to get high on hashish and play the game, things quickly take a sinister turn…
“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…
“Bound for Glory” (1989): This is definitely a strange and memorable tale of a nightmarish train trip to Glory, a town in a post-apocalyptic Wild-West type of landscape where desperation triumphs over hope. The train passes through a strange series of border towns but the biggest danger is when it goes through the Patch, an area where the laws of physics, mysterious fauna, and behavior of the passengers all change unpredictably. Anybody who has read Jeff VanderMeer’s SOUTHERN REACH trilogy will recognize the eerie echoes of that occult sense of dread.
The train guard Roy Cole patrols up and down the train cars, looking into the eyes of each passengers for the telltale signs of madness, and doesn’t hesitate to use his shotgun if he feels it is justified. When the narrator and his female companion Tracy go through the Patch and Tracy starts to transform, he is torn between protecting her from herself and Roy Cole, but he should really be more concerned about the changes that are happening to himself. The ending of the story truly turns things on their head, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.
“The Exercise of Faith” (1987): Here’s a story that doesn’t resemble other Shepard stories I’ve read. The protagonist is a priest that heads a small group of parishioners. But he has an ability not generally available to men of the cloth. The opening paragraph describes it well:
From my pulpit, carved of ebony into a long-snouted griffin’s head, I can see the sins of my parishioners. It’s as if a current is flowing from face to face, illuminating the secret meaning of every wrinkle and line and nuance of expression. They — like their sins — are an ordinary lot. Children as fidgety as gnats. Ruddy-cheeked men possessed by the demons of real estate, solid citizens with weak hearts and brutal arguments for wives. Women whose thoughts slide like swaths of gingham through their minds, married every one to lechers and layabouts.
Knowing the innermost thoughts and sinful urges of his flock leads the priest to pursue some very deviant paths and deliver possibly the most perverse sermon of all time. Depending on your temperament, you may find it either hilarious or blasphemous. A very unusual story.
“Nomans Land” (1988): This is the story of several sailors who get caught in vicious storm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard (which also features in Shepard’s story “How the Wind Spoke at Madaket”) and who find themselves stranded on a tiny deserted island appropriated named “Nomans Land”. The only survivors are Bert Cisneros, a mean-spirited Portuguese man, and the Irish cook Jack Tyrell.
There is little friendship between the two, but they take shelter in an ominous bunker overnight. The next morning, Jack encounters a strange, haunted-seeming woman named Astrid who sees to be living alone on the island, an entomologist studying the ubiquitous tiny white spiders that seem to make their webs in every corner of the island. Jack and Astrid develop a lonely and desperate relationship that suddenly takes a turn to horror (Shepard’s favorite technique), and then goes far beyond, bringing our tenuous understanding of reality into question, as the little white spiders swarm over the island.
“Life of Buddha” (1988): This is the first book 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.
“Shades” (1987): Here is a return to form for Shepard, as a Vietnamese man 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.
“Aymara” (1986): This was one of my favorite stories of the collection, another seamlessly-crafted take of revolution in Central America and the take of a gringo named Captain Lee Christmas who becomes deeply embroiled in Honduran politics at the turn of the century. The framing narrative is told by a political journalist named William who is fascinated by the story of Christmas and also looking to write a story about a mysterious US military facility and the growing presence of CIA agents around the town. As always, Shepard captures the details of the steamy daily life in the city, and when William begins a torrid love affair with an exotic dark-haired local woman named Ivie. The mystery behind the military facility involves scientists, exotic experiments, revolutionaries, and the two lovers in the middle of it all. The ending is wonderfully enigmatic, a great story.
“A Wooden Tiger” (1988): Another classic Shepard tale of supernatural horror, embittered CIA agents, incarnations of the goddess Kumari, and sordid goings on in Katmandu. An ex-CIA chief named Clement decides to track down the most recent incarnation of the dark goddess Kumari, who regularly inhabits the bodies of young girls who are treated like goddesses until the spirit moves to the next one, at which point they are discarded and shunned. Clement tries to track down a former incarnation, now a mere mortal, and encounters his former mentor D’allesandro, who taught him all the dirty tricks in the book, but who was now gone rogue Lieutenant Kurtz-style. It’s all very murky and intriguing, exactly the type of story Shepard excels in without repeating himself.
“The Black Clay Boy” (1987): This is a short and creepy story set in small-town Ohio, narrated by an old woman named Willa Selkie. She is a recluse, harassed by neighborhood boys with petty pranks. Then she reminisces back to hear early days as a beautiful young woman forced to marry a wealthy older man when she was just 18. Turns out Willa has a very intense libido that cannot be satisfied by her distant and old husband. When he discovers her pleasuring herself, he basically has a heart attack and curses her with his dying breath. She goes on to remarry, but again can’t get no satisfaction, turning to part-time prostitution just to get her fix, eventually setting her sights on a sexually-frustrated Reverend. As we flash back to the present, Willa turns now eyes on her Black Clay Boy, a type of voodoo doll, hoping for one last moment of pleasure…
“Fire Zone Emerald” (1985): Another atmospheric and intense Shepard tale of high-tech soldiers in a Central American war zone, this time in the Guatemalan rain forest. The story begins with Quinn, a soldier injured and separated from his unit after an attack and explosion, finds himself alone in Fire Zone Emerald. He is hardly able to move, and when he gets an unexpected call on his com unit from someone named Mathis of Special Forces who seems sympathetic but may have gone rogue, Quinn is suspicious. The story becomes a cat-and-mouse game as Quinn tries to evade Mathis, with some very tense action sequences. What’s that you say? Where is the trademark dark supernatural element that distinguishes Shepard’s stories? Well, you should discuss that with the queen, who takes the shape of a tiger and can place thoughts in your mind…
“On the Border” (1987): This was one of my favorite stories — a desert-based tale of desperate and marginalized hoodlums who try to rise above their origins, the classic pursuit of a reward for the kidnapping of the beautiful daughter of a rich man, and some magical realism in a surreal brujo in the desert and a bizarre mountain village that may be a total head trip into a psychedelic and violent denouement. It’s a taught tale with a lean and mean James Ellroy feel, but with the empathy of Shepard’s love of outcasts and the glimpses of sublime spiritual mysteries hiding in the sordid corners of our world.
“The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” (1988): This is one of the longest stories in the collection and is part of Shepard’s ongoing series of fantasy stories about Griaule, the giant dormant dragon who has been trapped by a magician’s spell and has become a part of the local geography, but still exerts a subtle and sinister influence on the human communities that surround it. This story is about Catherine, the daughter of a scalehunter in Hangtown who makes his living chipping away loose scales to sell in the nearby town. She is beautiful, as the title states, but also vain and selfish, toying with the hearts of the young men and stealing them away from their girlfriends just for the malicious fun of it. One day she is resting alone and is assaulting by a village thug, and in the struggle to resist his attempted rape, she accidently kills him with her scaling hook. She is then forced to flee into the dragon’s mouth as his vengeful brothers try to kill her.
Thus begins a very surreal odyssey inside the body of Griaule, which turns out to be inhabited by all sorts of bizarre and disturbing creatures much like something from Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth or Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean, and more importantly a lost colony of humans called feelies, descended from a pair of retarded villagers many generations past. They have formed a strange and degenerate society that seems to be swayed by the inscrutable and dark influence of Griaule’s thoughts. Catherine is taken into this society and gradually falls into the rhythms of this subterranean world, a prisoner of both the feelies and the dragon’s pervasive presence. Then one day a young scientist enters her world, changing everything.
This is one of those tales with metaphorical overtones that dares you to interpret both the situation and events and discover the hidden themes and messages. However, much like his award-winning story “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” while the story is fraught with meaning, the exact interpretation of what the dragon represents is elusive and will vary from reader to reader. Is the dragon a dormant god, exerting a sinister influence on human affairs for his own unknowable reasons, or an embodiment of a more subtle evil that is not divine in nature? Themes of free will, self-determination, and imprisonment are also explored, and the will to adapt to captivity. Guilt, revenge, love, escape, freedom, and good/evil; it’s all there in a fairytale format that also reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s short stories.
“Surrender” (1989): The final story is a confluence of all Shepard’s favorite elements: a dismal Central American military conflict, corrupt militia groups involved in nefarious scientific experiments, jaded journalists who discover things are even more screwed-up than their cynical outlooks were prepared to handle, and dark gun battles against subhuman creatures in dark and dangerous jungles and caves. The narrator gives the story its sarcastic attitude and challenges the reader to have an opinion of the endless miseries of US involvement in Central American wars and state-building, its failures and hypocrisy, and what we think of it while kicking back with a cold one from the comfort of our sofas in front of the TV watching ABC news and Monday Night Football.