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Viator Plus / Lucius Shepard

PS Publishing / December 2009
Reviewed by: Jason S. Ridler

Since arriving on the scene in the mid 1980s, Lucius Shepard has written quite a few literate, magical, twisted and often surreal stories, novellas, and several impressive and engaging novels like Softspoken and Handbook of American Prayer.  His fiction has roamed from SF to magic realism, from describing in detail the people and landscape of Central and South America to the gritty underworlds of North America and fabled landscapes.  In a recent interview I did with him, Shepard referred to himself as an “expatriate writer of exotic tales.” So I find it fitting I read his most recent collection, Viator Plus, beautifully produced by PS Publishing with a wonderful cover by Jim Burns, on buses, planes, and an epic three-hour wait at a Toyota dealership that could have been a JG Ballard play in disguise.

In many ways, Shepard’s work is meant to be read on the move, in places lost in between, and in Viator Plus, Shepard takes us all on exotic journeys through the shifting landscape of his imagination, from punk rock queens to Scandinavian death quests, and all points in between. Unlike some of Shepard’s collections, this one doesn’t weigh a cubic ton, and might be a great way to get new fans interested in a masterful scribe of the lush, dark, and strange.

“The Emperor” was first published at the late, great Sci Fiction. Within a ravaged, environmentally tortured mining planet, a band of unlikely heroes attempt to survive personal and environmental catastrophes through an almost tragic picaresque road story. Grim and desperate action and a dollop of black humor infuse the story’s rich (though bleak) world and environment with humanism amidst the grief.

Like a switchblade, we snap into a completely different vein with “Larissa Miusov”, an unrequited love story involving intoxicating beauty, the lure of Hollywood, and choosing fantasy over reality until reality punches back, hard. No real genre elements here, but it knocked me out and was a fast favorite.

The reader is then treated to two stories featuring the rotten punk rock singer Queen Mother. Both stories – “Carlos Manson Lives” and “Handsome, Winsome Johnny” – appeared in the Polyphony anthologies, and were written under the penname Sally Carteret. According to Shepard, the editors were low on female submissions, so he invented a female penname to go along with these tales of a self-absorbed rock singer whose decadent and self-destructive lifestyle leads her to shimmering moments where reality and the fantastic leach off each other in terrible and compelling ways. Though, the fact that the editors needed an unknown female penname more than that of Lucius Shepard on the table of contents is sad and a bit odd.

With “After Ildiko”, we get a tragic romance based on Shepard’s own misadventures in Guatemala, a river fable of love and loss and the self defeat that makes you wish it wasn’t based on a true story.

The gripping and chilling “Chinandega” is a hunt story where a young man searches for his sister in a corner of Honduras that is both decadent and depraved, and what he finds at the heart of his quest makes me shiver just recalling it.

This reviewer first read “The Ease with Which We Freed the Beast” in Ellen Datlow’s excellent anthology Inferno. And, for me, it was the star story in an amazingly strong collection (though Lee Thomas’s “An Apiary of White Bees” was a close second). It is a tale of rage, of young and unrestrained anger, and how the seduction of power manifests itself and consumes those who play with it. This is perhaps one of the most compelling “angry young man” stories I’ve read where the harshness of the subject matter – and the vitriolic nature of the emotions at play – did not degrade into hyperbole, but created such a strong and terrible world that you felt like you needed a shot of adrenaline after the story was done.

But the dark star of the entire collection is the finale, the novella “Viator.” The original story was published in a cut form, and here we get Shepard’s unvarnished and complete tale of a man whose thread bare existence becomes entwined with an Alaskan salvaging operation aboard a Scandinavian vessel, Viator, that may or may not be alive, may or may not be causing him and the crew to see the world in a surreal light, may or may not be preparing them for a Nordic death quest into parts unknown.

This was an uncomfortable, difficult, and powerful story. Shepard’s talent for  description, for mapping the minds of men who are dissolving into the dark recesses of themselves without purchase, for showing the unraveling of human ties in the wake of mental anguish, are at their peak. It is a relentless story of hardship, livened with moments of wild and mythic imagination as rich as any of Shepard’s masters, but the sum total of the experience leaves you wasted. There is an ember of hope in this story, but it is almost going out by the final paragraph. In the story notes at the end of the collection, I was not surprised, but no less sad, to read that the experiences detailed were in some part taken from Shepard’s own descent into clinical depression while writing the original version. While one of the most draining stories I’ve read, I’m glad, as I am sure Shepard is, to have survived the journey.

Lucius Shepard’s work can be, at times, easy to get into but difficult to hold on to. He loves long paragraphs as much as the Russian realists, and his powers of description can lead to beautiful digressions that can shove some readers off the page. But his talent and craft are killer. Perhaps one of the best writers of his generation, in Viator Plus, Lucius Shepard demonstrates the wide arc of his mad skills and it makes for a heady trip. Just be sure to hold on with both hands.

Purchase Viator Plus by Lucius Shepard.

Posted on Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 11:32AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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