Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review of Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard passed away recently, and due to the fact I have not read enough of his novels to offer a definitive statement, I decided to do what little I could: read a collection sitting on my to-read pile in tribute.  Originally published as Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories in 1997 (and re-published as Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories in 1999), the collection is vintage Shepard, and though it may not be the best of his numerous collections, remains a good reminder of the unique imagination and sense of style he possessed.

Given the contents of collections published prior (for example, Sports & Music which contains only two stories, both of which are re-published here), Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories is Shepard’s third of significance.  Written in his generous, paced prose, the collection is a departure from the previous two; where The Jaguar Hunter and The Ends of the Earth leaned most heavily toward stories of the fantastic, horror, and otherwise paranormal, Barnacle Bill is mostly in the vein of science fiction.  A space thriller with elements of horror, the title story Barnacle Bill the Spacer opens the collection and is the story of a man living on a station orbiting Mars.  Coming to inexplicably care for a deplorable, mentally-defective man who the module’s residents have dubbed Barnacle Bill, his stewardship is put to the test when a mysterious cult puts a death mark on Bill’s door.  Saved by Shepard’s quality prose, the plot unwinding thereafter is rather standard science fiction, but does build to a crescendo over the last few pages.  If anything, the novella leaves the reader sitting squarely on the fence regarding character.  Bill disgusting and loathsome, learning of the underlying reasons to his problems serves to balance the odium and advances the narrative in train-wreck fascination as his fate unfolds.  (See here for a more in-depth review of the novella on this blog.)

“The Sun Spider” is another decidedly science fiction entry.  A dual-perspective story, one half is of a researcher living on a module orbiting the sun studying the surface, and the other is his wife who does what she pleases while away from Earth vacationing on the module.  The two in an atypical relationship to say the least, reconciliation for the problems which inevitably result from their personalities involve cheating, avoidance, lying, stealing, and dealing with what the researcher discovers hiding in the burning hydrogen of the sun.  A dark narrative, Shepard digs through the layers of the broken relationship with blunt and fractal emotions, and emerging is real-life scenario—at least as far as the relationship is concerned. 

Possessing an awkwardly developed setting, the novella Human History is another entry firmly science fiction.  Either a post-apocalyptic Earth or a terraformed Mars, a dusty red landscape backdrops the story of Robert Hillyard, a greenhouse operator living in a backwater (in this case, backdesert) town.  Though possessing a strong wild-west feel, there are elements, however, which feel more like H.G.Wells.  From the attacks of ape men to the mysterious Captains, Hillyard’s life is anything but John Wayne.  And if survival on the edge of civilization wasn’t difficult enough, Hillyard ups the ante by cheating on his wife.  The plot of Human History moves in unpredictable, and as a result, interest-building fashion, thereafter.  Problem is, the pieces never seem to fit together into something smoothly holistic.  Whether the title is too pretentious or the story’s devices never come together to something greater, either way Shepard has written more fluid, cohesive stories. 

Though the genre elements are limited in number, the fourth and final sci-fi story in the collection is “All the Perfumes of Araby”.  Telling of an American smuggler living in Egypt, he meets a Gulf War veteran and falls in love with her immediately.  A silent wake up call, it takes bringing her along on one of his border runs to become conscious of the problems in his life.  I suppose technically cyberpunk given one particular element, the climax of the story is more dependent on the psychedelically supernatural—at least the imagery.

Rounding out the collection are three stories of varied, non-sci-fi motifs.  “A Little Night Music” is the story of a journalist who attends a jazz concert and is floored by the music long after.  The musicians reanimated dead people, their melodies haunt him late into the night.  His girlfriend out of the house, more than likely having an affair, he is unable to focus on the writing, women and the music playing games in his head.  When the girlfriend does finally come home, shit hits the fan, and so too does the man’s life.  Music and broken relationships, two of Shepard’s favorite topics, provide the main subject matter for this, the best story in the collection.  “Sports in America” is the straight-forward story of a mafia deal gone wrong.  Two men, Carne and Penner, are paid fifty grand for a hit on a man sleeping with their boss’s daughter. Trouble is, when the two can’t agree on sports, the whole deal goes into jeopardy.  Set on the coast of Massachusetts, Shepard captures all of the Irish spirit, Red Sox passion, and singular attitude of the state that climaxes cynically but subtly on the ostensible qualities of sports talk in the Bay area.  And the last story (also the title story for the 1999 republishing) is “Beast of the Heartland”.  Though seeing visions of reptile men while in the ring, the half-blind boxer Bobby “The Magician” Mears’ daily life possesses more visceral characters.  From the crooked manager to the hooker he falls in love with, Mears is searching for something better in life if only his vision would allow it.  This and “A Little Night Music” vying for the most humanist of the collection, Shepard brings boxing to life in a story with a touching ending.

In the end, Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories is a solid collection of novelettes and novellas from one of the genre’s singular writers.  The level of detail influencing plot, the twisting threads of story, and the reflective, real-world qualities of the characters typical of Shepard are all present.  The result are humanist stories that integrate genre elements, rather than tales of pure sci-fi, fantasy, horror or otherwise.  Perhaps his first two major collections more cohesive, there is, nevertheless, no weakening of the undercurrents of life pulling at the reader’s mind in the stories.  Rest in peace Mr. Shepard. Your voice lives on.

The following are the table of contents:

Barnacle Bill the Spacer
“A Little Night Music”
Human History
“Sports in America”
“The Sun Spider”
“All the Perfumes of Araby”
“Beast of the Heartland”

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