“…the dragon Griaule, a vast mile-long beast who had been struck immobile yet not lifeless by a wizard’s spell, and who ruled over the Carbonales Valley, controlling in every detail the lives of the inhabitants, making known his will by the ineffable radiations emanating from the cold tonnage of his brain. From shoulder to tail, the greater part of Griaule was covered with earth and trees and grass, from some perspectives appearing to be an element of the landscape, another hill among those that ringed the valley; except for sections cleared by the scalehunters, only a portion of his right side to the haunch, and his massive neck and head remained visible, and the head had sunk to the ground, its massive jaws halfway open, itself nearly as high as the crests of the surrounding hills.” (The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter)
A quiet evil, the Dragon Griaule exudes malevolence in subtle ways. Shepard examining several of them, six in fact, the eponymous collection brings together the stories published as of 2012, and is, in most ways, the author’s magnum opus. Appearing irregularly over a period of almost thirty years, the five novellas and one novelette are pleasingly unconventional, spellbinding, humanist, haunting, and smoothly well-written—each story highly unique within the context. The following is a brief summary of each.
In dialogue with the metaphors of life, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) is literary fantasy at its peak, and is the story of Meric Cattanay. Griaule a powerful evil, the men of the nearby village have hired wizards and mages for ages to try to kill it once and for all, but with no success. It is Cattanay who suggets trying to kill Griaule by painting him—literally, not on canvas. Painting a dragon of such size a lifelong process, the story is told in windows of time in Cattanay’s life as he deals with the exigencies of handling the task he has taken on. Utilizing one of fantasy’s most recognized, if not the most recognizable trope for literary purposes, the novelette is a beautiful tale of one man “conquering a dragon”.
Published four years later, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter is tale of a decidedly different tenor than “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”. Interior rather than exterior, Catherine is a countryside girl raised on the dragon’s haunch. Thinking to defend her from the evils of the giant reptile, her father digs a hole deep enough in Catherine’s bedroom such that she can sleep with her head resting against the iridescent beauty of one of the massive scales every night. Growing up wild and free-spirited, she takes little heed of her choices until one day she is confronted by a tragedy which drives her into the mouth of Griaule. Discovering a private hell within, the manner in which she escapes requires as much acceptance as rejection. Not as well written as the previous story (less fluid and subtle), Catherine’s ultimate experience nevertheless transcends the story, and can be seen as a strong influence on Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.
The third story in the collection is the novella The Father of Stones (1990). Putting another spin on the evil of the dormant dragon, the story is one of descent, rather than escape. Korrogly is an attorney tasked with defending William Lemos. The outlook of a successful defense seeming remote, his client openly admits killing Mardo Zemaille, the leader of the local Dragon cult, and his only defense is the claim Griaule made him do it. Determined to at least follow through with procedure, Korrogly sets about investigating the particulars of Lemos, the cult, and most interestingly, the woman strapped to a table near Zemaille when he died. The definition of evil slipping and sliding in the window of milky light provided by the mysterious stone—the murder weapon—found near the woman, Korrogly’s job becomes more complex the deeper into the mystery he digs, and where he finds himself in the end, well, only the stone knows. A courtroom drama which develops into a dark occult thriller, The Father of Stones is a multi-layered affair which puts more on trial than just man’s inclination to evil, the latter third of the story particularly gripping reading.
Fourth published work in the Griaule sequence is Liar’s House (2003). Continuing to expand the dragon’s surrounds, a nearby town has evolved into a city since the days of Cattanay, that of Teocinte. The title referring to a seedy inn which affords a view of the resting dragon, it is also home to Hoto Kotieb, murderer in hiding. Not entirely a brute, Kotieb spends his days carving dragons from wood, and at the outset of the story sets himself a similar task as Cattanay: to apply art to the dragon. Hauling a white oak to the top of hill where he may observe the beast, things go smoothly until Kotieb sees something strange flying around the snout of the massive dragon: another dragon. Kotieb unable to stop himself from running to see where it lands, what unfolds reveals yet another subtle evil of Griaule. Better written than the previous two style-wise, Liar’s House is a wonderfully developed story with a moral core which strikes in multiple directions simultaneously. The reader’s empathies spun by the denouement, Shepard proves there is still plenty of room to tell quality tales of the dragon.
The Taborin Scale (2010) is the story of George Taborin, a numismaticist in Teocinte. A man never quite matured from a boy, he and his wife spend their days pretending they do not notice the other’s infidelities, each living a separate life. Owner of a coin and antique shop, Taborin’s life is normal until the day he is brought a tiny, crusty dragon’s scale by a local hooker. Making a deal for a fortnight’s service in exchange for the scale, things go smoothly until Taborin rubs the cleaned, exposed surface with his thumb. An invisible, yet palpable aura of evil filling the room, repeating the motion twists his spatial and temporal reality. The story also becoming twisted, and troubling thereafter (there are strong elements of sexual abuse), the evil of the story is one fully adult, yet relevant. The ending a touch incohesive, it leaves the reader wondering where Griaule will go from there.
The Skull (2012) is the final published story before Shepard’s untimely death in 2014 (though there are plans for a Griaule novel release). Prepared especially for the collection, it is a long novella that tells of the modern incarnation of Griaule. The great dragon-mountain eventually dismembered, its massive skull is transported a long distance to the city of Temalagua, and there put on public display in the jungle city. Multiple cycles of political violence occurring under its empty gaze in the decades and centuries that pass, it arrives in the 21 st shrouded by creepers and vines, overgrown with vegetation, all but forgotten. Yara, a girl born in the cardboard slums of Temalagua, now calls the skull home. But it’s her interaction with an American fraud artist/heroin addict Craig Snow and the fomenting civilian rebellion that develops around them, that is the heart of the story. Social and personal turmoil becoming ever more prevalent in the lives of the two, the resolution is as painful as it is freeing. The most politically overt of the Griaule stories, Shepard places his experiences living in revolution-minded Latin America into the story. More than just hints of autobiography coloring Snow’s self-destruction and pursuit of women, the novella is also the most similar to other Shepard tales. The author haunted by his past, so too is the story, making for powerful reading.
Bolstering The Dragon Griaule is a series of remembrances by Shepard located at the end of the collection. Reminisces about the conception of each of the stories, the author shows it takes the blues to write the blues, the weight of the stories becoming directly analogous to the varying issues he was dealing with in his personal life over time. The insight unavailable to readers who encountered them individually, having all the Griaule stories collected in one place is nice, but the added bonus of Shepard’s ‘directorial overview’ adds value to Subterranean’s effort.
In the end, The Dragon Griaule is like arrows in a target. The stories coming in at different angles and striking varying places, each arrow is of a different hue and texture of humanity—the dragon’s pall hanging like a cloud over all. Ranging from art-house to the occult, introspective to the paranormal, all the stories wrestle with the idea of evil—not in the typical epic fantasy, Hitler-esque sense of the word, rather in the personal sense of the concept, and how it seeps in and colors quotidian life. The six stories collectively representing the cream of Shepard’s crop, Griaule brought out the best in the author, for whatever reason, and now that he is no longer with us, is his defining work.