The Best of Lucius Shepard is a career spanning collection of short stories from award winning author Lucius Shepard. Unlike the recent Dreamsongs collection from George R. R. Martin, The Best of Lucius Shepard is not so much a retrospective of Shepard’s career, but rather a true “Best of” collection. Each and every story in this collection is outstanding and high quality, even the couple which I could not fully engage with. There is no doubt that when reading a Lucius Shepard story you are reading a carefully crafted, thoughtful, deliberate, and beautiful piece of fiction. The Best of Lucius Shepard collects stories and one poem.
Even the most action filled stories from Lucius Shepard have meditative quality to them. A story like “Hands Up! Who Wants to Die”, which features a robbery, a bludgeoning, and several other acts of violence, still remains a story which undulates its way through the reader. The stories are quiet, yet dangerous. Shepard unfolds the plot, reveals surprises and character at the appropriate time without rushing anything. Shepard casts a spell. These are Science Fiction and Fantasy stories because in each story there is something, oftentimes one thing that is in no way possible in the real world. The stories themselves, however, feel real. The stories, as fashioned by Lucius Shepard, have a feeling of authenticity, as if Shepard is not simply spinning together lies, but rather telling us something that actually happened.
The first half of these stories are set in either South America or Vietnam. This brings a vastly different perspective to the fiction, one that allows a feeling of an alien landscape to most American readers yet one that we can recognize is a natural setting. Even more impressive is the fact that the settings feel authentic. I keep using that word, but it is the most appropriate term: Lucius Shepard brings authenticity to his fiction. I don’t know if he has been to Vietnam or South America (I think he has), but he brings Vietnam and South America to the reader.
The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule: Shepard opens this collection with what could rightly be considered a representational story of what readers will find in the collection. In 1853 Meric Cattanay proposes to the people of Carbonates Valley that he can help them rid themselves of their dragon problem by quite literally painting the dragon to death, slowly poisoning the dragon with the lead paint. The 21 page story takes a leisurely pace over the course of the fifty years required to poison the dragon Griaule to death. This is a representational story because we (readers) get a sense of how Shepard tells a story: with deliberate pace and beautiful description.
Salvador: With "Salvador" Shepard brings the reader the first mind-trip of a story. "Salvador" is the first overtly South American story in the collection and also introduces readers to Shepard's blend of American military and the fear of the jungle which will crop up again and again in various forms in this collection. "Salvador" is a scary drug addled Special Forces mission with something which is unclear whether it is a drug trip or something scarier and supernatural out in the jungle. If "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" was the opening quiet story, "Salvador" takes that quiet and cranks it up into quiet danger with brief flashes of muffled explosion. I continue to mention "quiet" because there is nothing flashy about Lucius Shepard's solid work. This is a great story to continue the collection and a stronger, more interesting and exciting story than "Dragon Griaule".
A Spanish Lesson: Where "Salvador" was a military focus, "A Spanish Lesson" takes the early Shepard story another direction. "A Spanish Lesson" introduces the Shepard reader to some counter culture (for deeper counter culture go read his collection Two Trains Running), and keeps the South American setting with a drifter finding an alternative community and then finding some deeper almost supernatural weirdness when the community gains two newer members. Like most Shepard stories, this one does not end where anyone might expect it to, and yet when we reach the end, it feels right.
The Jaguar Hunter: Staying in South America a man is forced to hunt a rare and sacred jaguar because of his greedy wife, and this begins a supernatural quest for the jaguar while the man tries to juggle his wife's greed with his own desire to not kill the jaguar. Thus far in the collection each unrelated story has built off the power of the previous story and has each been better than the previous story.
R&R: American soldiers take their leave in South America, and rather than find peace, they find anything but. This story is filled with danger, violence, sex, prophecy, and beauty. In a sense, this describes any Lucius Shepard story, but "R&R" just works. Broken down to a base description, a story does not sound like much. It is not simply the sum of basic parts, but rather the way Lucius Shepard tells the story which makes nearly every story in the collection something special.
The Arcevoalo: Here is the first time I was disappointed with a Shepard story. This was not quite what I had hoped for, though I'm not sure what I expected. Some alien (?) creature awakens with a task it does not understand and has to fulfill it. Simply put, "The Arcevoalo" is not a satisfying story, not a story which makes a whole lot of sense, and when finished I simply wondered what exactly I just read, rather than thinking about the nature of the story. Disappointing.
Shades: "Shades" is the first story in this collection to turn to Vietnam, though not in an active war setting. Rather, "Shades" is a post Vietnam story where a former soldier turned reporter returns to Vietnam because the ghost, the shade, of a former soldier, a man he once knew, has revealed itself in country. It is a story less about war and more about what war does and how soldiers and civilians respond to it. Good stuff here and a nice recovery frm "The Arcevoalo."
Delta Sly Honey: Now we get deeper into Vietnam, back into a war setting during the war itself. It's a story that works with radio broadcasts on a base and a spooky company (or something) named Delta Sly Honey. When Shepard is truly on his game there is no describing exactly why the story works, only an acknowledgment that the goods were indeed delivered. Consider this that acknowledgment.
Life of Buddha: Something of an oddity to this set, "Life of Buddha" is set in America with Americans but features a quiet (really) protagonist who says little and does less and acts like a fat buddha watching over people, getting his nightly fix, and very rarely dispensing advice, though sometimes. "Life of Buddha" is a weird little story, but still a decent read. I'm not sure what to make of it.
White Trains: My confession is this: I didn’t read “White Trains”. This is the one poem in the collection and I tend not to enjoy poetry that tells a story rather than evokes a feeling, and I have no idea how to write about poetry. With that said, “White Trains” is perhaps four pages out of nearly 600, and the rest of the collection is more than worth the price of admission.
Jack's Decline: "Jack's Decline" assumes Jack the Ripper lived out a life of quiet (there's that word again) captivity, but meets his end when the Nazis arrive on the scene. There's more to it than that, and Jack's bloodlust never ceases, but this was a story I didn't expect. After skipping the poem it was nice to get some nasty darkness from Shepard.
Beast of the Heartland: Shepard does boxing with an aging, nearly blind fighter taking one of his last fights in the hopes of earning enough money and exposure to get some television fights and be able to retire with some money. Like all the Shepard stories, this isn't about what you think it may be about.
Radiant Green Star: When we finished with the South America stories and the Vietnam stories what we are left with are the simply fantastical stories. "Radiant Green Star" seems like a story simply about circus and revenge, but, again, the revenge is not whatever may be the expected revenge, and the circus isn't even what it seems. If the poem was a breather, Shepard is picking up steam here, moving through and ripping off story after story, getting stronger again.
Only Partly Here: The 9/11 story. I'm not sure there is a better quick description of it. Well, there is, but that short description would reveal too much. This is a romance, a story of a man working cleaning the rubble of the towers and a woman obsessed with knowing more without being engaged by emotion. Powerful, sad, beautiful.
Jailwise: The prison story. Yes, I am reduced to describing stories in three words or less. But, like any good Lucius Shepard story (and this is a good Lucius Shepard story) there is a supernatural jail that makes no logical sense and Tommy Penhaligon finds himself transfered to a prison where he doesn't know the rules and there is no explanation even though there is expectation. There is a meditative quality to much of Shepard's fiction and this is quite evident here. This is a very strong story.
Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?: Ahh, I can't describe this in three words. As I mentioned in the second pargraph, there is a robbery, bludgeoning, several other acts of violence, and a story that just works its way to a conclusion in no discernible way. For three fourths of the story there is no sense that this is in any way a science fiction story. By the end there is only the barest hint of SF because what happened might not have actually happened. Doesn't matter. What matters is the journey, not the conclusion. This is a hell of a journey.
Dead Money: The gambling story! Woo! "Dead Money" opens as a gambling story, but any Lucius Shepard story isn't just one thing. There is gambling, but also zombies, voodoo, more violence, some sort of criminal underworld, and a damn fine story with a wicked ending.
Stars Seen Through Stone: Nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula award for Best Novella, "Stars Seen Through Stone" may be the story that brings new readers into this collection. While it is a very good story, it would not mark as one of the best of the collection...and this is not meant to disparage the story but rather to stress just how strong the rest of the collection is. I will copy what I have previously written about the story.
The story was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and later in The Best of Lucius Shepard collection (forthcoming in August 2008). Like many other Lucius Shepard stories “Stars Seen Through Stone” is not an overtly SFF story. His fiction takes place in the real world, but a real world where sometimes something unexpected and unreal can occur. This is actually addressed early on in the story when the narrator mentions that the world contains all sorts of weirdness, but it is only the most extreme that anyone notices at all. “Stars Seen Through Stone” is set in 1970’s (sort of) Pennsylvania in a town called Black William (great name, by the way). Vernon is a small time, but moderately respected independent music producer and he signs a talented, if creepy, singer. There is an early incident with some odd ghost lights at the town library, but after that early incident the story follows Vernon developing his creepy singer, but comes back to the history of the town and the history of those odd lights. It is a quietly fascinating and compelling story, one that doesn’t necessarily jump out as being the story readers bang down the doors of their friends house to talk about, but it is also a really good story and one definitely worth the recoginition of the various award nominations it has received.
Several stories in this collection are available to read online for free. I mention this because getting the chance to experience some of these stories should only whet ones appetite for more. My base conclusion is that The Best of Lucius Shepard is likely to be the single best short story collection published in 2008 and one that will surely deserve a spot in any reader's collection. There are some damn fine stories here and this fiction is not to be missed. The jacket copy states that The Best of Lucius Shepard "is destined to be recognized as a true classic of the field".
This review is for the trade hardcover edition of The Best of Lucius Shepard. The limited edition includes a bonus trade paperback volume titled Skull City and Other Lost Tales and features 10 additional stories not included in The Best of Lucius Shepard.
The Free Shepard Stories:
"Stars Seen Through Stone"
"The Jaguar Hunter"
Reading copy provided courtesy of Subterranean Press.