In the later years of his life, Lucius Shepard claimed to be uncomfortable in America, but he always returned to it. In such a way, I thought, it often mirrored the relationship his fiction had within the speculative fiction genre.
He died on the 18th of March and I am saddened greatly by the news. I met him online years ago, hanging out on the old Nightshade Boards. We would swap jokes and watch INXS Rockstar, despite the fact that neither of us liked INXS (there was quite a few of us in on it, and I don’t think any of us liked INXS, actually). I’d send him music, occasionally. I meant to do send him more in the last few months, but I could never find anything I thought he’d like. Besides the jokes and shit we’d spend our time doing – and which form the majority of my relationship with him – I cannot ignore the fact that he was very generous to me as a new writer. I remember being surprised when he tracked down and read some of my stuff, and being very grateful when he helped me out during a bad time with writing. Lucius got nothing out of that, but he gave his time, and I was always aware of the generousity of the act. I remember the first time I was in the States giving him a call from the hotel I was in – I was at the World Con, and he hadn’t been able to come, and said I should give him a call, I think mostly so he could gossip, because he loved that, as well.
I liked him very much.
I like his fiction, as well, and I wanted to talk about that, here, for a lot of people ought to read it. It was unique, both in terms of voice and content, with these long, looping sentences and protagonists who were unlike others in the genre. Often male, they were informed by a working, or lower class existence, quite often at the end of the downtrodden path, or they were symbolic figures who represented a socio of cultural interest Shepard had. He was hugely influenced by the struggles of men and women in Central America, and that could be felt throughout his work, but other things, such as the plight of hobos on the rails, and the justice given to cops who racially targeted and shot innocents in New York, also inspired him. The latter two can be found in two small books, the first called Two Trains Running, and the second, Floater. Both are excellent.
Shepard’s body of work often felt to me to be divided into two camps, that of the eighties and early nineties, and that which came after a break, in the late nineties until now. The early work, defined by novels like Green Eyes and Life During Wartime, and collections such as The Jaguar Hunter and the Ends of the Earth, did not seem as focused in its intent as the later work to me. At times, it felt very visual, as if the strangeness of his worlds held him captive, and this is probably best examplified in the excellent novella, ‘the Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter’, in which a woman enters the body of the huge and comatose dragon Griaule, and discovers the life within it. There is a hallucinogenic quality to it, one that while still present in the later work, feels more prominent in the first half of his career, as if it were often guiding and informing his work, and not merely a part of it.
In the second half, the work felt as if became more focused on character, and themes. Viator, perhaps the best of the later comparisons to ‘the Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter’, told the story of three men on an abandoned freighter, but Shepard took the hallucinogenic quality of his writing, and structurally changed it – each paragraph would open with a single sentence, before the rest of it unfolded in a long, winding complex one – while guiding his narrator clearly through the book. A fine book, the ending was marred by Shepard’s personal life at the time, and he returned to it to fix it in an edition called Viator Plus later (he added an extra twenty thousand words to it, from what I understand). Nevertheless, it is not the strongest of his work at the time, I feel. That I believe was Floater and another book, entitled A Handbook for American Prayer, which told the story of an ex-con who, upon being released, found fame for work he had written in jail.
Most of Shepard’s work sat at a novella length, and entirely difficult and bitch of a length to sell, especially to the readers of a genre for who bigger books mean more immersion, and are often reluctant to buy smaller ones. But the immersive quality of his work was never in doubt: collections such as Trujillo and Dagger Key were huge, mammoth beasts, made from a dozen or so pieces that when fitted together, could compete with any series. The stories within those two collections were uniformly excellent, made from inspired years, and I believe they are better works than the Jaguar Hunter, for which Shepard won a World Fantasy Award and helped greatly establish him early in his career.
There was also the Dragon Griaule, released in the final years of his life, an excellent collection made up of all the Griaule pieces that revealed an amazingly complex and full fantasy landscape few series could equal. Lucius was never shy about admitting that he hated fantasy – “I can’t stand elves and shit,” he said to me more than once – and, much though he would probably want it another way, his creation of Griaule, the six thousand feet long comatose, but malevolent dragon, will persist as one of his most enduring works, and rightly so.
Many people will write many things about Lucius Shepard, both as a person, and as an author, but the one thing I do hope is that you, if you have not read his work, or have not invested in the depth and complexity of it, do so in the days and months and years of his passing.