Five Autobiographies And A Fiction by Lucius Shepard (book review).

Advice given to most wannabe writers is to write about what you know. Certainly this is essential if your work is non-fiction. Bluff can only take you so far but unless they know something the rest of us are not party to. Science Fiction writers have to rely totally on imagination to describe life on other planets. There is an agent who told one author that she couldn’t have a French male priest as her main character because she wasn’t one. They have now parted company. Yet most writers, whatever their genre, put elements of their own experience into what they write. Lucius Shepard acknowledges this in the title of this collection. Five of these stories contain elements which are drawn from his own experiences and feels it would have been easy to follow in the footsteps of some of the main characters if circumstances had fallen that way. The sixth is an historical ghost story and would appear to be outside his ‘life’ parameters. However much authors deny it, characters and situations often build around the kernel of observation. Human nature doesn’t change. We are still very much the same creatures we have been for thousands of years. It is just the names and levels of technology that change.


‘Ditch Witch’ begins on the shadier side of contemporary America. Michael, a loser under most circumstances has lit out with the car, the cash and coke of his employer, after he made a pass at him. On the way, he’s picked up a hitchhiker. They stop at a motel which has a group of carved wooden elves from the German Black Forest in the grounds. That night, things begin to unravel as does the boundary between reality, dream and drug induced hallucination. Are the effects due to a guilty conscience, supernatural intervention and, if the latter, who or what are causing them? These ideas flit through Michael’s brain as his personal nightmare plays out.

‘The Flock’ is a totally different story but no less unsettling. Doyle and Andy – the first person narrator – are football jocks. Their team isn’t the best in the county but playing gives them advantages and a possible way out of town. Like many of Shepard’s works, the beginning is set firmly in the familiar. It is possible to see these as real, disadvantaged youths living in an impoverished town of Middle America. Like many of them, it develops darker lines. In Europe, the raven or crow is often regarded as birds of ill omen, partly because they are scavengers and haunted battlefields. The big black bird of this part of North America is a grackle. From its first appearance as a common sight, it slowly takes on a more sinister significance. The narrator, Andy, is largely an observer of the weirdness that takes place while Doyle appears to be in the thick of it.

‘Vacancy’ features a main character that Shepard feels he might have become under different circumstances. Cliff Coria, after a moderate career in the film industry, is now a used car salesman at a lot that faces a motel. At the start of the story, he suddenly realises that people book into room eleven but he has never seen them book out. Cliff begins to wonder what happens in there. His imagination conjures up a number of scenarios. He decides he ought to investigate but, as he isn’t the kind of man who jumps into things precipitously. He takes an oblique approach, asking if it is possible to rent the room occasionally without, at first actually doing so. In this manner, he makes the acquaintance of the proprietor and discovers that his adopted daughter is the niece of an actress who had a role in one of his early films. The past, it seems, is catching up with him. This becomes a story of vengeance. While Cliff’s actions are rational, the things that happen to him do not seem to be and the outcome of events is likely to be tragedy for someone.

‘Dog-Eared Paperback Of My Life’ takes at its heart the SF trope of parallel worlds which occasionally overlap. Thomas Cradle is a popular fiction writer. He is intrigued to discover a book by another Thomas Cradle and reading it finds it is the kind of book he might have written if his career hadn’t been deflected onto more profitable paths. He decides to embark on the journey the narrator of this book took down the Mekong River. As he tries to recreate the voyage, Thomas discovers that small things change as if he is passing from one world to another at intervals, especially after his companion, Lucy, persuades him to try smoking opium. As events become more and more surreal, the reader will begin to wonder whether this has caused or merely enhanced Cradle’s experiences.

‘Halloween Town’ centres on another misplaced person. This time it is Clyde Ormaloo. After an accident at work, Clyde finds that bright lights cause his intellect to function at a higher level while dazzling him so much so that he no longer connects with the society he is used to. To counter the problem, he has moved to Halloween Town which lies in the shadows of a deep gorge. As sunlight has a problem penetrating there, Clyde is hoping that after his probationary period, he will be accepted as a citizen. As with all Shepard’s works, the narrative is not straightforward. Halloween Town has aspects to it that outsiders are not party to and that Clyde only begins to discover after he takes a fancy to Annalisa, the ex-wife of the town’s eccentric patriarch. Halloween Town is a beautifully envisaged off-beat community in which Clyde’s presence is the stone that causes ripples of change.

‘Rose Street Attractors’ is the story that Shepard has labelled a fiction if only because the autobiographical elements are harder to discern. The narrator, Samuel Prothero, is an alienist. At the time the story is set, late Victorian London, an alienist was someone who used scientific methods to work with disturbed minds. Jeffrey Richmond hires him to examine an unusual situation. Richmond has invented electrically-powered attractors which he hopes will pull particles out of the smog-filled atmosphere and make it a lot cleaner. What these machines also attract are ghosts, in particular, the ghost of Richmond’s sister, Christine, who was murdered in the house before Richmond came to live there. He hopes that Prothero can make contact with the ghost and she will tell him who her killer was. This is a very unconventional ghost story during which the implications about his employer and his sister take an unsavoury turn.

All the stories have enough length to allow characters to develop and the society they frequent to be explored in depth and although strange things happen it is possible to see the roots and understand the settings as real places and the people as genuine. These are the kind of stories that allow for total immersion and re-reading can bring nuances to the surface. Not every writer has this skill. It is a shame that we have now lost another brilliant, intelligent author as Lucius Shepard died recently.

Pauline Morgan

April 2014

(pub: Subterranean Press. 368 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-555-0)

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