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Trujillo and Other Stories

by Lucius Shepard

introduction by Michael Swanwick

(PS Publishing, £35, 682 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition hardback, also available as signed, numbered, limited edition slipcased hardback priced £60, published June 2004.)

Review by Gary Couzens

cover scanIn the SF/fantasy genre, there are plenty of examples of quality and plenty of quantity. Having both coincide is much rarer. The usual examples are Philip K. Dick (eight novels between 1964 and 1966), Robert Silverberg (eight novels between 1970 and 1972) and Dan Simmons (four novels, albeit especially long ones, in 1989-1990). To which one could add Lucius Shepard in 2002-2003. The first three writers wrote short fiction as well during their prolific spurts. Shepard's quarter-million words published in 2003 alone is entirely made up of short fiction, albeit particularly long short fiction (you could quibble that, at some 45,000 words, Floater is actually a short novel).

In all the above cases, there are extenuating circumstances. Dick was writing at white heat, his work springing as much from his own personal demons as it was fuelled by amphetamines, and in many ways he was returning obsessively, and often brilliantly, to the same themes -- something that applies to Shepard to some extent. Silverberg was actually slowing down from the insane productivity of his early career, finding an accommodation between his enormous facility and high literary standards that he hasn't found before or since. It's also worth mentioning that in the 60s and 70s, novels were generally much shorter then than they are now: many of Dick's and Silverberg's were 70,000 words or fewer, a length which may well not be commercially viable nowadays. Simmons's output of some 800,000 words in two years is partly explained by a difficulties in finding a publisher for Carrion Comfort (which runs to some 350,000 words alone) due to concerns over its length. Certainly in Shepard's case, ubiquity is an effect of a logjam of accepted work. Some of the stories are not new, but have been worked on for a number of years (Louisiana Breakdown, published as a standalone book by Golden Gryphon, and "Jailwise" among them). But that's not to deny the achievement.

Trujillo and Other Stories collects eleven stories, dating from 1999 to 2004. That's just a sampling of the work published over the last few years, skewing more towards fantasy/horror. (A second collection is due from PS in 2005 or 2006.) Shepard's forte is the longer novelette or the novella, and none of the stories in this collection are under 10,000 words long, with one ("Eternity and Afterward") exceeding 30,000 words, and the one original, "Trujillo" itself, being a short novel of around 55,000.

All writers have their "default" story or stories, the one that affirms, rather than deviates from, their standard themes and styles. A "default" Shepard story will contain most of the following: an isolated/obsessed/alienated protagonist (almost always male and in early middle age), an exotic setting (often Central American or Far Eastern), a romantically conflicted view of relationships between men and women, and an episode (which makes up a larger or smaller part of the story) where the protagonist is granted a transcendent view of reality, or is transported into another one. Shepard has a rich style, depending in part on an obsessive chasing down of nuances of emotional states, not to mention a detailed sense of place, and both of these partly explain the stories' length. (This narrative voice isn't very convincing as a character voice, a particular problem I had with "Jailwise". Occasionally it results in unduly lengthy sentences.) Certainly some of the stories in this collection do adhere to this template. They're individually very powerful and impressive, but taken en masse some sense of repetition sets in. I'd recommend reading this collection a story at a time, rather than attempting to swallow it in larger chunks if not whole.

But on the other hand, there are stories that do vary this pattern, and these are the ones that I found the most effective. "Only Partly Here", Shepard's contribution to the growing subgenre of 9/11 stories, opens the collection and is the shortest story included. Shepard is at his most subdued here, as a tentative romance emerges between a construction worker at Ground Zero and a young woman in a chastened, scared and afraid New York City. Slowly, we -- along with the protagonist -- realise the truth, but not before the protagonist has an epiphanic, if not entirely unobscure, experience along the way. As Michael Swanwick rightly says in his introduction to this collection, it's a quiet, but finally very moving story grounded in pain, fear and loss.

Another standout for me is "Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?", the story of an ex-con, his girlfriend and a strange woman with her two younger male companions. In this novella, Shepard departs from his usual high style by adopting a first-person vernacular voice. (He also, for this story only, uses em dashes instead of quotation marks to indicate dialogue.) Maceo, the narrator, is full of street smarts but fatally has no real clue as to what is really going on around him. Another fallible narrator features in "The Same Old Story", one of a cluster of five stories set in the fictional Honduran town of Trujillo. Here, Jack blunders drunkenly from one bar to another, telling his story to anyone he can persuade to listen to him ... and the nature of his own personal hell soon becomes apparent.

"A Walk in the Garden" follows a group of American soldiers in Iraq, who stumble upon a rupture in reality -- an entrance to a very Islamic version of Heaven and Hell, which could either be genuine or a consensus hallucination. "Eternity and Afterward" follows its protagonist on a phantasmagoric voyage through a very strange Moscow nightclub. Although line by line this story is very impressive, and its insights into post-Glasnost Russia very intriguing, I found it somewhat wearing over its great length and unsure what it added up to other than its hero's sacrifice for the woman he loves (one of several rather romanticised prostitutes in this collection). "Jailwise" takes us to a very strange prison run by the inmates, with no guards, and the story follows its protagonist's redemption through art (a mural he is painting) and love (for a woman -- except in this case she's a "plume", a male prisoner who has transformed into a woman). "Crocodile Rock" is set in Africa, where our hero has to deal with a man who claims he committed murder while changed into a crocodile ... a story which suggests a form of human evolution. Shepard writes this story first person from the viewpoint of a black American, but I'll leave it to others to advise how convincing it is.

The stories set in Trujillo itself continue the same themes. The protagonist of "The Drive-In Puerto Rico" is a national hero rather resting on his laurels who is driven to act by his friendship with a couple of American journalists who have stumbled across evidence of atrocities. A strange type of lizard is also involved in the story. In "The Park Sweeper", again, the fantasy apparatus -- the trees in a scrubby park hiding a magically miniaturised civilisation -- is there to tell a story which is as much about a man trying to persuade the woman he loves to leave her husband. "Seņor Volto" tells of a man who by means of a carnival stunt of the title (grasp Volto's paddles and see how much of an electric shock you can stand) is granted a view of what is really going on: strange ethereal creatures preying on humanity. Each of these stories is certainly powerfully written, but tend to fall into the "default" pattern identified above.

Finally there's "Trujillo" itself, a short novel which gives the collection its name. A psychiatrist, Dr Ochoa, is treating Stearns, an American, sole survivor of a boating accident. As their sessions progress, Stearns tells of his memory of a strange carved statue rising from the sea. This may have something to do with his personality change post accident: he's now become a predatory male, prone to exploiting and mistreating the women in his life. Ochoa comes to the conclusion that a demon might be at loose in the town, and Stearns might just be the latest of the men it has possessed. Add to the plot Ochoa's teenage daughter Lizeth, just beginning to be wayward, and Suyapa, a local girl Stearns is drawn towards. "Trujillo" is a dark story about the bad things men can do to women, even to the women who love them, and it leads up to an ironically dark conclusion.

Even as a sampling of Shepard's output of the last few years this is impressive, and what is mouth-watering for readers -- and daunting for writers -- is that there is more of it to come. It doesn't even contain my favourite recent Shepard story ("Over Yonder", which is collected in Two Trains Running). PS Publishing promise us a further sampling later this year. If you're an admirer of Shepard's work, then this collection is a feast plenty big enough to be going on with, and it's also a very comprehensive introduction for newcomers. Of Shepard's three previous full-length collections two won World Fantasy Awards, and I suspect Trujillo will be the one to beat this time round.

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