I cannot now remember what was the first story by Lucius Shepard that I read, though there is a fair chance that it was ‘R&R’. Certainly that story has stuck in my mind with a clarity that few stories can match. So as soon as the story was incorporated into a novel, Life During Wartime, I bought it. Around that time, a new fanzine asked me to write a couple of book reviews for them, so naturally I reviewed Life During Wartime (the other book, as I recall, was by Gene Wolfe). It was a longish, but not overlong, review of around 1,000 words, and I was really rather pleased with it. Then the fanzine came out, and I found they had, without consulting me, cut the reviews down to one short paragraph apiece. It made a nonsense of what I’d said. So, in a fit of hubris, I sent the two original reviews to the Times Literary Supplement; and they used them both. It was the start of quite a nice gig reviewing for the TLS, until a new editor decreed that only people who had written books were qualified to write reviews. But because those two reviews had previously appeared, even in a butchered and unrecogniseable form, they had to be published under a pseudonym. I called myself John Peake for the occasion.
In that first review I made what seemed to me a fairly obvious comparison: the US army was science fictional with all its cyberpunk technology; the mysterious forces they fought were magic realist. This comparison seemed to interest Shepard, and at a UK convention not long after he spent a lot of time trying to track down the author of the review. Alas, I wasn’t at that convention, and no-one knew I was John Peake anyway. When I did briefly meet him years later, the time to talk about that old review had passed.
After ‘R&R’ I read a lot of Shepard, of course. For a while, his name on a story was a guarantor of rich, atmospheric, complex fiction that engaged both the intellect and the emotions. I reviewed a few along the way, the novella, Kalimantan, the collection Barnacle Bill the Spacer. But around the time that the story ‘Barnacle Bill the Spacer’ won a Hugo, I began to feel that some energy, some engagement, had gone out of his writing. I suspect Shepard felt the same, because for a few years there his career went into abeyance. By the time it revived, I wasn’t following him with the same devotion I once had shown. He was still an extraordinarily fine writer, and there were still good stories, but they felt thinner to me than the earlier pieces that had made his name, as if he had stopped being a star and settled for being a very good character actor. Too often in the stories I did read, I felt that he had exchanged lived experience for filmic experience.
I still reviewed him when I got the chance, of course, simply because, when he was on form, he was still as good as they get. I’ve included a couple of my reviews (of Life During Wartime and of The Best of Lucius Shepard) in my forthcoming collection, Call And Response. But I’m reprinting here a review that came too late for that collection. This review of Five Autobiographies and a Fiction first appeared at SF Site in mid-August 2013.
“Writers tend to romanticize the sordid” one avatar of Lucius Shepard says in the longest and best of the stories here. Well, not all writers do, but it has been Shepard’s stock in trade since he first began to conjure versions of the Vietnam War in stories like “R&R.” It’s there in the lush, overheated jungles of Central America and South East Asia that seem his natural home, and in the tales of wasted, drug-addled petty criminals who populate his vision of modern America. Again and again we have recognized the same characters caught awkwardly in the spotlight in his fiction. Once upon a time they were disaffected grunts stuck in a war they didn’t understand, later they were trapped by poverty and failure in a world they didn’t understand, seeking escape from their disaffection through petty crime, narcotics and affectless sex. Their helplessness is emphasized by the dark, ill-formed, ill-defined monstrosity that often seems to rise in front of the protagonist, the sordid made actual and threatening.
That outline could stand for all six of the long stories gathered in this new collection. It is no surprise, therefore, that Shepard recognises himself in these protagonists: “They embody alternate versions of myself that are really not so alternate, they flicker on and off like light bulbs with failing connections, occasionally achieving brilliance, obscuring the lesser beacon of my ordinary self, then fading into obscurity.” The only surprise may be that it has taken so long to admit such identification; though given that these are weak, selfish commitment-phobes who are part “vicious, near-sociopath” and part “immature manchild,” it can have been no easy self-identification to make. Nevertheless, the account Shepard gives of his own early life in the introduction — a big, angry, violent kid who was thrown out of school, confined for a while in a mental hospital, and later “travelled aimlessly, engaged in bar fights, street fights, insulated myself from the possibility of self-examination with drugs, played in a number of rock bands, married twice without giving the matter much thought, dabbled in low-level criminality, drug dealing, burglary, etc.” — sounds like the background we might anticipate for every one of his protagonists.
The marriages without much thought, for example, bespeaks the relationship with women that all of his protagonists share: even when described as old and ugly, they seem to enjoy a very active sex life, usually initiated by the woman. The woman is, invariably, older if the character is young, younger if the character is old, and is generally ready for any sort of kinkiness. The man rarely initiates these encounters, has all of his desires readily catered for, and ends up feeling guilty because he cannot foresee a long term relationship with the woman. In fact, the men seem to be constitutionally incapable of making a commitment; in “Vacancy,” for example, the washed-up film actor Cliff Coria finally starts to think that he might be able to make a commitment to his much younger lover, only to kill her at the end of the story. Only the one story that is avowedly not autobiographical, “Rose Street Attractors,” ends with the hero and heroine married, but even so he is suffering some mental damage.
And at the end of all this listless discontent, this failure to connect on a personal or a social level, there is always a shadow waiting. Each of these six stories ends with an irruption of the irrational into the protagonist’s world, and this supernatural threat is generally shapeless and imprecise, as though we are meant to read it as a physical manifestation of a psychic disturbance. In “Ditch Witch,” the shortest and weakest of the stories, but the one Shepard has chosen to open this collection, Michael is heading north in a stolen car with a stash of coke and a sexually willing girl whom he’s thinking of dumping, when he is attacked by what may be ornamental elves. In “The Flock,” the narrator and his best friend are on the school football team, but they are driven by sexual frustration, formless anger, and a desire to get away from the small town in which they see themselves being trapped for the rest of their lives. When the big game comes around, they find themselves playing against a menacing flock of birds that come together to form the shapes of people and objects. Cliff Coria, in “Vacancy,” is a one-time actor who now passes the time as a used-car salesman, spending his nights in bars or with any of a variety of girlfriends, but when he begins to detect something strange happening in the motel across the street from the car lot he finds himself drawn back to memories of making a horror film in the Philippines, and in particular to memories of the local actress he had a brief fling with. In the end, it is monsters from that low-budget movie that seem to manifest in modern-day Florida.
Each of these stories is better than the last, but the high point of the collection comes next in the story that most clearly echoes Shepard’s Vietnam War stories. “Dog-Eared Paperback of my Life” concerns a fantasy writer, Thomas Cradle, who happens upon a fantasy novel called The Tea Forest by Thomas Cradle. This is some other Thomas Cradle, but the style is the same, the story echoes those our narrator writes. The novel relates a journey down the Mekong through Cambodia and Vietnam, and Cradle decides to replicate that journey, hiring a comfortable boat and, once in Cambodia, finding a smart younger woman willing to join him on the journey and cater for his sexual needs. But as the journey continues, not only does he find the boundaries between the novel and his experiences starting to blur, but he begins to encounter other Thomas Cradles. Eventually he kills one of these other Thomas Cradles in a curiously affectless way (any violence committed by Shepard’s protagonists seems to be shorn of any emotional consequence), and heads into the Tea Forest. Here the inevitable nameless, shapeless monster awaits, but with a twist that marks a turning point in this collection: now the monster seems to become a promise rather than a threat.
After the sweaty intensity of “Dog-Eared Paperback of my Life,” a story imbued with an ever-present sense of the war, “Halloween Town” feels oddly uninvolving. It is set in a strange town somewhere within the United States, but a town that seems to have virtually no connection with that country. It occupies a cleft in the landscape under a canopy of trees so dense that the sky, the weather, television signals all are blocked. Here the architecture, the mores, the laws are all different; though of course it conceals a secret that all the locals know, but our protagonist, with the unlikely name of Clyde Ormoloo, must discover. After the seedy naturalism of “Vacancy” and the hyperrealism of “Dog-Eared Paperback of my Life,” “Halloween Town” feels arbitrary and artificial. Even the ragged-edged monsters that dutifully crop up at the end seem to be there simply to add a little supernatural threat and then a neat shift in perspective just when the story needs it. Nevertheless Ormoloo, with his air of failure and discontent, his casual sexual exploitation of the women he encounters, fits neatly with Coria and Cradle as another iteration of the author.
The final story here, “Rose Street Attractors,” is not, on the surface at least, autobiographical. For a start it is the only story not set in some version of the present, but rather in Victorian London. It has a slight air of steampunk about it, with an inventor who has built a device designed to clear the notorious London smog by attracting to itself the particulates in the air. But this aspect of the story only ever provides a sleight of hand in the background, because these attractors also pull in ghosts, in particular the ghost of the inventor’s sister who was murdered and who ran a brothel in the house the inventor now occupies. The narrator, Prothero, is an alienist brought in by the inventor to try to discover the dead sister’s story. Of course, because this is what Shepard’s men do, he begins an affair with one of the former prostitutes at the brothel who now works as a maid in the house; but he also finds that the ghost is sexually attracted to him. Naturally the attractors have not just pulled in the ghosts, but also a dark, shapeless menace that precipitates the crisis of the story but also may offer some hope of redemption. In the end, Prothero gives up his medical practice in order to write ghost stories, though he admits that “the true function of these fictions is self-examination.” In that statement he is surely channelling Shepard.