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Two Trains Running

by Lucius Shepard

(Golden Gryphon, $22.95, 112 pages, hardback.)

Review by Gary Couzens

Several years ago, Lucius Shepard accepted a commission from Spin magazine for an article on a hobo gang called Freight cover scanTrain Riders of America (FTRA). According to the police, the FTRA are responsible for murders, drug running and train wrecks. As a result Shepard spent a couple of months riding the rails, speaking to many of the men and women he found there. Much of what he saw had little to do with the Depression-era myth of the hobo as a romantic outlaw. Many of the people he met had simply decided, for one reason or another, to drop out of society and live a life on the margins of society, a life that is as dangerous as it may be romantic. Two Trains Running contains an expanded version of the magazine article ("The FTRA Story") and two stories derived from the material, a novella "Over Yonder", previously published online, and a novelette "Jailbait", original to the collection. Shepard also provides an introduction.

"The FTRA Story" is a long article in which Shepard interviews the hobos and also people involved in law enforcement. It's a compelling piece of reportage, and also fascinating to read as the source of the two stories which follow it in the book.

In the last few years, Shepard has been highly prolific, with a quarter of a million words of new fiction -- apart from the short novel Floater, all of it novella-length or shorter -- appearing in the calendar year 2003 alone. Even one full-scale collection (Trujillo, published by PS Publishing in 2004) isn't enough to contain it all. Hence this themed mini-collection, to take up some of the slack.

Shepard's short-fiction output over the past few years is notable for both quality and quantity. To my mind some of those stories tend to be a little familiar, revisiting certain Shepardian themes and tropes, however much these stories would grace the work of other writers. On the other hand, certain patterns recur in the work of all writers. A typical Shepard story will feature a somehow alienated protagonist, usually male, either living on the margins of society or living in a foreign country or society. The story will involve, at least partly or mostly, some kind of transcendence or transportation into a different, or a higher reality.

However, taking all that on board, certain recent stories do still stand out, and "Over Yonder" (originally published online at Scifiction in 2002 and winner of the Sturgeon Award) is certainly one of them. Billy Long Gone takes a train and finds himself in Yonder, a strange land populated by men and women who are mostly ex-hobos like himself. No-one knows quite what Yonder is: an alternate world, or maybe Purgatory. Strange flying creatures called "beardsleys" and poisonous airborne "fritters" threaten the inhabitants and trains are living creatures. Finally, Billy and Annie, a woman with whom he has a past connection and with whom he has fallen in love, leave Yonder for whatever lies ... beyond. "Over Yonder" is a compelling story that crams more invention into its 28,000 words than would fit into many a novel.

"Jailbait" is a shorter story (though only by its author's standards -- it's still novelette-length) about the encounter between a hobo called Madcat and a young woman whose nickname gives the story its title. Although there's no fantasy content, it's still a Shepard story following the template above. This book gives you the chance to read the story next to what inspired it, and you'll spot many correspondences in names and details of places. "Jailbait" feels a little like a first pass at converting this raw material into fiction. In "Over Yonder" it seems more assimilated, more of a piece. "Jailbait" is as vividly written as you might expect, interesting if minor Shepard.

Two Trains Running will certainly be a collectible for Shepard's fans, collecting a fine article, a major novella and an interesting novelette between hard covers.

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