Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Lucius Shepard

I suppose it would be fair to say my relationship with Lucius Shepard's fiction was fraught. Perhaps it was influenced by my very minimal online contacts with him, in which he was purely and simply an asshole. (Many of my friends have spoken much more kindly of him, and I dare say he was very good to a lot of people. All I can suggest is that possibly they weren't people who occasionally wrote less than adulatory reviews of his work -- and I can only add, that the testimony of those who knew him personally is more important than mine. He didn't know me, and he got mad (I assume) at my reviews. That's not precisely unusual for a writer. I could add ... but I won't.) At any rate -- Shepard was a writer who at his best was truly brilliant, and who at his worst was pretty awful. That's no crime. He tended to go on too long, and he tended to repeat himself too much from story to story. His prose was that sort that gets overpraised by SF readers -- lots of big words, some of which worked. The relationships his male characters had with women seemed seriously messed up to me -- there was a lot of "Madonna/Whore" confusion in his depiction of his women characters. And yet, when he was on, his imagination was really exciting, and when his prose was focussed, it was impressive.

Locus, February 2002

January's Sci Fiction offering is a novella in four parts, "Over Yonder" by Lucius Shepard. This new story is a bit different for him. It begins as a story about Billy Long Gone, an alcoholic hobo who disappears one night, chasing a stranger who seems to have stolen his dog. Billy ends up with the stranger on a curious, living, train, headed into a wholly different world. He is himself reborn, no longer an alcoholic, in much better health. And this world, called Yonder, is in some ways a paradise -- food and housing for a couple of hundred "escaped" hobos are readily available.  But Billy soon finds that life in Yonder is rather stagnant, even as he rekindles an old romance.  When he further learns how dangerous Yonder can be, he wonders if he ought to hop a train and go further -- over the mountains beyond Yonder, where others have gone, but none have returned.  The eventual message is rather banal, if honest enough. The prose seems a bit less indulgent than in some of Shepard's other recent novellas, which is all to the good. Shepard's inventions for Yonder are interesting enough (and a bit reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll): the predatory beardsleys, for example, which attack the living trains; or the mysterious fishing Elders; but those inventions don't necessarily seem part of a greater whole. I suppose this story either needed to be somewhat longer, elaborating the world, or somewhat shorter -- but if not completely satisfying, it's still well worth reading.

Locus, March 2003

February was a strong month for Sci Fiction. Lucius Shepard's "Senor Volto" is pretty much standard latter-day Shepard: Latin American setting, casual violence, doomed sex, strange airborned beings. The title character is an itinerant entertainer who straps himself to a battery and deals electric shocks to men interested in proving their machismo. He tells of his life as a cuckolded hotel owner, how he came to be "Senor Volto", and the strange insights he gained in the process.

The best pieces in the March Asimov's are Stephen Baxter's "The Great Game" and Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here". ...  Shepard's story is the best of the few SF stories I've seen to date which directly tackle 9/11. It's very subdued for Shepard, which I have become convinced is a positive sign. A young man working on a WTC cleanup crew meets a woman in a bar, and over several days they help each other deal with their different issues re the 9/11 tragedy. Of course, something else is going on, and Shepard springs his (in retrospect predictable and perhaps a bit too sentimental) surprise very nicely indeed.

Locus, July 2003

Finally, June at Sci Fiction is given over to a long Lucius Shepard novella, "Jailwise". A serial con hears of a strange jail in Northern California, and manages to be transferred there. The jail is isolated from the rest of the world, it seems, and is inhabited by various levels of inmates, and by "plushes", men who seem to be women at times, and who act as prostitutes for the rest of the jail. The narrator's artistic ability leads him to be commissioned to create a mural in commemoration of the long expected "new wing", and his growing knowledge of the place leads him to grudgingly except that this may be leading to some sort of strange transformation or redemption, while his growing love for one of the "plushes" leads him to wonder what she or he really is. I found this more interesting than many of Shepard's recent stories, but just a bit disappointing in resolution – perhaps I expected too much, but the story seemed to promise something spectacular and settle for half-measures. Still, a solid piece of work, one of the better recent Shepard stories.

Locus, September 2003

August at Sci Fiction was a decent but not spectacular month. Lucius Shepard is back, with a solid story in much his usual manner. "A Walk in the Garden" is about a soldier in near-future Iraq who investigates a strange formation unexpectedly opened by American military operations. The locals say it is Paradise, but to an American it might be rather the opposite ...

Locus, November 2003

The other novellas in the October-November Asimov's are "Ariel", by Lucius Shepard, and "Welcome to Mt. Olympus, Mr. Hearst", by Kage Baker. The first is a pretty good story of battle across dimensions that made me think of Poul Anderson's The Corridors of Time. Shepard's main character is a history professor searches for a backwoods West Virginia creature who just might be a refugee from a parallel world. Entertaining stuff, but I thought it perhaps too unbelievable, and also marred by Shepard's curiously hyperromantic and sentimental view of male/female relations.

Locus, January 2004

Sci Fiction for December features a Lucius Shepard novella plus a Christmas novelette from Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Shepard's "Liar's House" is a new Dragon Griaule story: welcome news! It tells of a rather thuggish man who has fled to the village Teocinte, close by the paralyzed dragon, after committing several murders. Near Griaule he sees another dragon, which seems to transform into a woman, and he finds himself compelled into a relationship with her, in the end chosen to father a child for Griaule.

Locus, September 2005

Sci Fiction for August features a long story by Lucius Shepard, "Abimagique",... Shepard's story is nice work, about a student who falls for a very strange woman named Abimagique. Naturally, there is lots of great sex, and a sinister secret. I must say I thought it all tosh, but entertaining tosh.

Locus, January 2006

Lucius Shepard’s “The Emperor” (Sci Fiction, 12/05) is entirely characteristic of his work, at least the science fictional half: a competent, sensitive, and damaged man in a hellish Alaskan mine tries to escape after the AIs and robots operating the place seem to go mad. In so doing he is forced to confront his inability to love, and to come to grips with potential transcendence. Shepard dangles always on the edge of self-parody – here I think he goes just slightly over the edge.

Locus, April 2007

Lucius Shepard’s “Dead Money” (Asimov's, April-May) concerns a small time criminal who brings a mysterious poker player to the attention of a more influential gangster. The poker player is a zombie, controlled by a woman for whom the criminal soon falls. The gangster has a use for the poker player, and the whole ménage ends up on a Florida estate, for a climactic poker game. It’s often quite funny – Shepard can be a very funny writer when he wants to be (not often enough) – and it has an absolutely dead perfect ending, which really makes the story work. No question the story has some of Shepard’s weakness – it’s too long, the prose is sometimes careless – but in the end Shepard brings it off very well.

Locus, October 2009

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I saw a few edge cases in the huge 60th Anniversary issue of F&SF, a magazine that declares the possibility of combining SF and Fantasy in its title. And so we have “Halloween Town” by Lucius Shepard, to my mind his best story this year. Shepard opens by writing “This is the story of Clyde Ormoloo and the willow wan, but it’s also the story of Halloween, the spindly, skinny town that lies along the bottom of the Shilkonic Gorge, …” Halloween’s geography makes it sort of two dimensional – the rooms of the houses are arranged vertically, like toy blocks, up the sides of the gorge. It has a narrow economy as well, based on steeped walnuts and on the largesse of an eccentric rock star, Pet Nylund. Clyde Ormoloo is a 40ish construction worker who gained increased intelligence and a mysterious ability to see into the minds of others in an accident, and he is driven to move to Halloween. The story itself concerns the political structure of Halloween, which at first seems a generally nice place but which turns out inevitably to have a darker side, and also Clyde’s growing and dangerous relationship with “the willow wan”, a strange girl who turns out to have been Pet Nylund’s girlfriend. Both these strands are well enough resolved, though a little anti-climactically (the end struck me as honest but something of a letdown). What I liked most, however, were the descriptions of Halloween, and the not entirely serious telling of the story – Shepard is usually better when he doesn’t take himself entirely seriously. As for the SF/Fantasy question: in many ways the story reads fantastically, and the town, ostensibly located somewhere in the contemporary US, is clearly not real (and implausible), but almost every element is explained quasi-plausibly (with the exception, to my mind, of Clyde’s mysterious new vision). I’d say it’s a story that doesn’t much care whether it’s SF or Fantasy.

Locus, November 2009

Another fine big anthology is Songs of the Dying Earth, a celebration of Jack Vance via a host of stories set in his most famous milieu. Almost every story here is entertaining, many very much so, but none quite seems brilliant to me. The best of the lot is probably Lucius Shepard’s "Sylgarmo's Proclamation", which marries Shepard’s voice and an imitation of Vance’s voice to very good effect. As for the plot, a man is approached by certain individuals desiring revenge on Cugel the Clever, and he is induced to guide them to a remote tower to confront Vance’s famous antihero – Shepard is suitably inventive as to the complications that ensue.

Locus review of Teeth (August 2011)

Lucius Shepard’s “Slice of Life” gets its Florida milieu perfect, in telling of a teenaged girl with a reputation who falls in with a vampire woman who wants her to bring her five people to consume, to restore her power, and to resist vampire killing creatures called Djadadjii.

Locus review of Ghosts by Gaslight (September 2011)

Lucius Shepard’s “Rose Street Attractors”, in which the narrator, an alienist named Prothero, is inveigled by Jeffrey Richmonda fellow club member into investigating the case of the apparent haunting, by his sister, of the whorehouse he inherited after his sister’s mysterious death. The “steampunk” aspect is a device intended to clean London’s fog, which indeed seems to attract ghosts. Other complications include a darker side to Richmond’s relationship with his sister, and Prothero’s love affair with one of the remaining prostitutes … in all, it’s quite entertaining, and rather gentler than usual for Shepard.

No comments:

Post a Comment