I try to avoid excessive praise unless it is truly deserved, but I can say this without hesitation — Lucius Shepard was one of the best SF short story writers of the 1980s. 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 awards.
He burst on the scene with his short story collection The Jaguar Hunter, 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 has 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.
Here are the stories in the Kindle version (“R&R” is not in the original publication):
“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. It’s one of my favorites, and here is a sample passage:
At length the jaguar left off its play and came prowling up the beach toward the jungle. By the set of its ears and the purposeful sway of its walk, Esteban recognized that it was hunting. It stopped beneath a palm about twenty feet from the house, lifted its head, and tested the air. Moonlight frayed down through the fronds, applying liquid gleams to its haunches; its eyes, glinting yellow-green, were like peepholes into a lurid dimension of fire. The jaguar’s beauty was heart-stopping — the embodiment of a flawless principle — and Esteban, contrasting this beauty with the pallid ugliness of his employer, with the ugly principle that had led to his hiring, doubted that he could ever bring himself to kill it.
“The Night of White Bhairab:” (1984) Here is another classic supernatural horror story set in exotic Kathmandu. Jaded expat Eliot is placed in charge of house-sitting for a wealthy Indian businessman with a bizarre taste for cursed objects. The community of hippies, backpackers, druggies, and locals is richly described. When Eliot meets Michaela, the disaffected girlfriend of the house owner, you can see trouble brewing a mile away. Things get very creepy with the delivery of a large box, and both Eliot and Michaela find themselves facing supernatural spirits of a very malevolent type. There are loads of sharp details of life in Kathmandu and the spiritual malaise of the ex-pats who seek vainly for salvation and purpose there.
“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. Another passage:
The vegetation beneath the clouds was lush — thick, juicy leaves that mashed underfoot, tangles of vines, trees with slick, pale bark and waxy leaves — and the visibility was only about fifteen feet. They were gray wraiths passing through grayness. The vague shapes of the foliage reminded Dantzler of fancifully engraved letters, and for a while he entertained himself with the notion that they were walking among the half-formed phrases of a constitution not yet manifest in the land. They barged off the trail, losing it completely, becoming veiled in spiderwebs and drenched by spills of water; their voices were oddly muffled, the tag ends of words swallowed up.
“How the Wind Spoke at Madaket:” (1985) This is a rare story set in Nantucket, an isolated island set off the Cape Cod coast. It’s also a supernatural horror story with plenty of local culture, this time a small town local crowd that swells with tourists during high season. This time the villain is something quite unusual — a homicidal wind itself. It has quite a high body-count and gruesome details, and I found it a tad overlong, but it still has Shepard’s powerful descriptions and imagery.
“Black Coral:” (1984) This is actually Shepard’s first published story. It is about another white expat living in the poor, lethargic seaport of Meecham’s landing in a Caribbean setting. The town if filled with drunkards and low-lifes, and there is little to admire. Shepard captures the island patois well, with its unique rhythms and cadences. The characters smoke the local black coral for hallucinogenic experiences, with mind-bending results.
“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 is 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. I highlighted dozens of passages worth sharing, but will just choose just one at random:
Moonlight edged the wavelets with silver, and among those gleams it seemed he could see reflected the broken curve of his life: a kid living for Christmas, drawing pictures, receiving praise, growing up mindless to high school, sex, and drugs; growing beyond that, beginning to draw pictures again, and then, right where you might expect the curve to assume a more meaningful shape, it was sheared off, left hanging, its process demystified and explicable. He realized how foolish the idea of the ritual had been. Like a dying man clutching a vial of holy water, he had clutched at magic when the logic of existence had proved untenable. Now the frail linkages of that magic had been dissolved, and nothing supported him — he was falling through the dark zones of the war, waiting to be snatched by one of its monsters.
“The End of Life as We Know It:” (1985) Lisa and Richard travel to Guatemala City, Mexico in an attempt to save their troubled marriage. While trying to face the reality of their disintegrating relationship, they encounter a strange, unwashed and eccentric expat named Dowdy who claims to have given up a programming career in Silicon Valley to become apprentice to a local wizard and learn his arcane wisdom. The couple are skeptical, but out of boredom and curiosity they decide to meet with the old mystic with unexpected results.
“A Traveler’s Tale:” (1984) This is another story set in a squalid island town off the coast of Honduras. An older retired American expat meets a younger man named Ray. They exchange stories about the strange lights of the Burying Ground and the history of the island. During the course of the story we learn a lot about various types of travelers, with a surprising turn of events in the second half that I don’t want to spoil. Shepard has some great descriptions of expats and how they work. Clearly he is drawing from his own rich travel experiences and it shows.
“Mengele:” (1984) This is a dark and twisted tale about an encounter in the Paraguayan jungle of a former Vietnam aerial pilot who crashes and wakes to find himself in a hidden compound run by none other than an ancient but still living Josef Mengele. The buildings are decorated all in classic Nazi style but Mengele seems strangely forthright about his identity. The staff have a strange, deformed manner, recalling forcefully H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. The conclusion of the story is surreal and ominous. To be honest I didn’t fully understand it, but suffice to say that the main character recognizes something wrong in the world that conforms to the ideas of this evil man.
“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.
“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.