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“Ambiguity is a feature of most of my work” – On Reading Lucius Shepard

“The way things happen, not the great movements of time but the ordinary things that make us what we are, the savage accidents of our births, the simple lusts that because of whimsy or a challenge to one’s pride become transformed into complex tragedies of love, the heartless operations of change, the wild sweetness of other souls that intersect the orbits of our lives, travel along the same course for a while, then angle off into oblivion, leaving no formal shape for us to consider, no easily comprehensible pattern from which we may derive enlightenment…I often wonder why it is when stories are contrived from such materials as these, the storyteller is generally persuaded to perfume the raw stink of life, to replace bloody loss with talk of noble sacrifice, to reduce the grievous to the wistfully sad.” from “Barnacle Bill The Spacer,” by Lucius Shepard.

“[A]mbiguity is a feature of most of my work and I’m used to writing in that mode. As far as the reader’s interpretation goes, I wanted to keep them guessing for a while, but I think that by story’s end it’s pretty clear what’s going on.” – Lucius Shepard

I had a dream two nights after I found out that Lucius Shepard had died. In it I owned a huge, modern house with lots of windows and ramps and angles to the roof, surrounded by a perfectly mowed lawn. I sat in a barcalounger and drank fizzy drinks from wine glasses thin as straws and laughed at those passing by on the busy road nearby, desperately trying to get somewhere in their lives. I watched mummers covered in glitter dance on a wall screen and ignored the cries of those outside. Until I looked out the window and saw that they had all stopped their cars and were crowding on my lawn, erecting a great pavilion of leaves and burlap and scalps. They all shaved themselves and painted each other purple and then massed under the great tent they had built to berate me for trying to wall myself off from the world, until the noise shattered all the windows and the house collapsed around me. That was when I woke up.

How I felt upon walking up was very much like the feeling of waking up I would get from reading a Lucius Shepard story. I was startled, excited, and perplexed. A point had been sharply made but not directly; the moment of revelation had happened slowly, strangely. I knew what I thought was real and what seemed weird or unnatural, but that distinction did not help me make sense of what I had just experienced. I felt overloaded, exposed to something difficult to define that soon began to make sense. The feeling reminded me of how I felt when I first read Shepard’s Green Eyes the summer I graduated from high school. I was working my way through the Ace Science Fiction Specials that had been published that year under Terry Carr’s editorship, and Shepard’s had been last on the list because I had heard it was a zombie story, and I wasn’t sure I was interested in that. But I had enjoyed the others in the series so I tried it.

I read it quickly, nervous and confused as I tried to follow the story and deal with the cacophony of strange happenings that animate the narrative. When I finished it, I felt as if I had been messed with, but in a way that engaged me, that made me want to keep playing along. The juxtaposition of realist prose, gothic sensibilities, and unpredictable weirdness created a magical naturalism that felt harsh, profound, and illuminating. It was a new experience for me.

A few days later I was going through my pile of F&SF magazines and realized that I had read Shepard before: his story “Salvador” had been in the April 1984 issue. I pawed through the stack and found “Solitario’s Eyes,” which I had skipped over after reading the first few paragraphs because it wasn’t what I had been looking for. I read it and then read “Salvador” again. I wasn’t sure what to think of them; again, they weren’t the kind of stories I was usually drawn to, but there was something about reading them that made me think about my own life and how the world worked. That feeling of being woken up from a dream was powerful, if fleeting.

Over the next several years I followed Shepard’s writing as best I could. Life During Wartime was a hard slog for me; The Jaguar Hunter kicked my ass. Parts of it read like a mantra to me: a weary, divine admonition:

“It was not only Miranda he saw, but all mystery and beauty receding from him, and he realized how blind he had been not to perceive the truth sheathed inside the truth of death that had been sheathed inside her truth of another world. It was clear to him now. It sang to him from his wound, every syllable a heartbeat. It was written by the
dying ripples, it swayed in the banana leaves, it sighed on the wind. It was everywhere, and he had always known it: If you deny mystery—even in the guise of death—then you deny life and you will walk like a ghost through your days, never knowing the secrets of the extremes. The deep sorrows, the absolute joys.”

The struggle with life’s harshness, its unceasing disappointments, the grief of loss and failure; these arose constantly in Shepard’s stories. His stories are permeated with the vicissitudes of “the real world” but not encompassed by them. Characters struggle beyond the point of victory, strive to find meaning in the unspeakable or untenable, and turn loss and death into new chances for life. They do this by not ignoring “the raw stink of life” but by breathing it in like pure oxygen. Grief is not just the unavoidable sadness that saturates the world, but an instance where our awareness of life is heightened, from where we can see our existence from a different angle and come to terms with it. Human beings are petty, violent, unpredictable, clawing creatures, but understanding the pain and fear that creates those qualities can, if sometimes too briefly, teach us how to accept them and see what is concealed beneath them. The struggle is not just with the seemingly random and uncaring universe are lives unfold within, but with the bizarre vitality it generates as well.

Shepard’s ambiguity mediates the struggle. Sometimes he is direct (very much so in his non-fiction), but more often than not there is a painterly aspect to his stories, the presentation of a scene for the reader to ponder. Shepard’s writing is visceral and often limpid, powerful because it evokes strong images and connects you to the characters’ emotions. He borrows from many genres to make each story a particular, peculiar experience. Even then the writing is journalistic, what is happening is not rote description, but a cultivation of image and intentions blended to make the reader think and experience the moments Shepard has chosen to craft. But his message lies beneath the writing, and it is one that he urges the reader to uncover themselves.

I had begun reading The Dragon Griaule last year, re-acquainting myself with some of the stories like old friends, but put it aside to finish later. When I heard that Lucius Shepard had died, I felt bad about that. I felt a pang of angry grief, so perversely I went back and read some of his other stories like “Barnacle Bill the Spacer” and “The Black Clay Boy,” stories that were not my favorites, that had stymied me or that I wanted to use to confront my feelings. It was an homage, an attempt at gratitude, a desire to find the lessons and joys and regrets I had not yet found in his work. Encountering his writing when I first did shaped my outlook on life. I learned from his stories to look carefully at the world, to examine details from many angles, to not accept “reality” as immutable or quotidian. Engaging with his writing forced me out of my comfort zone and pressed me to not just enter the writer’s storyworld, but to ask questions of it, to peer into the “heartless operations of change” that make and remake and unmake our stories of ourselves and everything around us and find another scrap of hope or enlightenment to aid me in my passage through life to death. Because that is the amazing gift that his writing keeps giving me, forcing me to wake up and see through the dream of life.

4 Comments on “Ambiguity is a feature of most of my work” – On Reading Lucius Shepard

  1. Paul Weimer // March 27, 2014 at 9:27 am //

    Thanks, John.

    I’ve only read a tiny bit of Shepard. My loss (so far).

  2. Bob Urell // March 27, 2014 at 3:25 pm //

    Lucius was like a Gonzo journalist caught up in an epic embed in genre fiction. There was always a kind of mind/no mind thing he’d do in his stories, stripping away the sentimentality he perceived as pollution and making the fantastic more immediate than almost anyone ever had. We won’t see his like for a long time, I think.

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