Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review of The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard is a writer of science fiction and fantasy that usually gets discovered only after the reader has spent enough time in the genre to explore all of its formats.  Not one of the ‘big names’ of novel land, he has quietly staked himself out as one of the tip-top writers of short fiction the past three decades.  Winning and being nominated for innumerable awards in the short story, novelette, and novella categories, his trademarks are a keen feel for the craft of writing, vividly drawn characters, sustained narrative tension, and a desire to explore all areas of spec-fic.  Shepard’s first published collection, The Jaguar Hunter (1987), presents all these elements near fully formed—a sign of the waterfall of quality short fiction that was to follow.

A varied collection of stories, the title The Jaguar Hunter covers the majority.  Seven are indeed set in Latin America, and for this the collection exudes an exotic flavor of sweaty jungles, snakes, jungle cats, guerrilla armies, and banana plantations.  But there are also stories set in Nepal, the US, Afghanistan, Spain, and one not of this Earth—at least ostensibly.  That the stories never reuse the same motif—alien visitation, near-future sci-fi, thriller, character study, magic realism, horror—also speaks to the diversity.  A mix of formats as well, the collection features two short stories, six novelettes and three novellas.  About the only constant is Shepard’s voice.  Patient, evocative, visceral, and practiced, the remainder is all any fan of speculative fiction could ask for in a collection.

Published between 1984 and 1986, the following are brief summaries of the eleven stories.  (Please note that this review is based on the original publication.  Subsequent re-publications have added or removed stories.)

“It was his wife’s debt to Onofrio Esteves, the appliance dealer, that brought Esteban Caax to town for the first time in almost a year.“ is the sentence which opens “The Jaguar Hunter”.  And Shepard does not look back.  He tells a tense tale of a man forced to hunt a jaguar to make up for his wife’s desire to improve her social status.  Highly reminiscent of John Steinbeck, the story is not only a bright spot of the quasi-supernatural on which to open the collection, but also a wonderful commentary on the convergence of traditional and contemporary lifestyles in Honduras.

Jumping from Honduras to Nepal, “The Night of White Bhairab” is the story of Eliot Blackford, lifetime tourist in Kathmandu, and his extraordinary week with a young woman named Michaela.  Practicing meditation for ten months of the year, Blackford spends the other two as caretaker for a Nepali guesthouse while the owner is away on business, and it is there he meets the enigmatic girl.  Something like H.P. Lovecraft in the East (but with far better writing), the resulting story unleashes all manner of Nepali ghosts and demons. Well written, but nevertheless mundane horror.

Featuring the same setting as R&R, “Salvador” is the story of John Dantzler, an American soldier fighting in El Salvador.  Led by a maniacal captain named DT, Dantzler pops pills to take the existential edge off combat, distract himself from the exigencies of war, and focus on the killing.  His unit dysfunctional, things come to a head camped on a hillside one evening.  A short but affective piece with strong echoes of the Vietnam War, Shepard slowly spins hallucination and reality into an ever tightening spiral of quality story.

How the Wind Spoke at Madaket is a supernatural thriller set on Nantucket.  Capturing a feel for the sandy, wet island, it is the story of Peter Ramey, a writer staying in the titular town looking to continue the minor success he’d had to that date, as well as recoup from a failed love affair.  The novella’s title the same as the title of the book Ramey is working on, ‘reality’ and fiction soon intermingle to the point “he couldn’t shake the notion that he had become involved in some Twilight Zone irony, that the story was coming true as he wrote it.”  An old-fashioned thriller in the vein of Murder She Wrote (there is a Sheriff, a mysterious murder to open the story, a batty old woman to add a degree of uncertainty, random character deaths, etc.) but with a supernatural twist, making it the most conventional of the collection.  Shepard does a good job of evoking Massachusetts Bay life, however, and the strength of the writing is able to propel the mundane.

Set on the fictional Honduran island Guanoja Menor, “Black Coral” is the story of Neal Prince, a Vietnam War veteran now drowning his sorrows in Central America.  Though the war is a decade in the past, it still hangs like a shadow over his life, fueling his alcohol addiction and abuse of the locals.  But offered a smoke of black coral one day, his reality takes an even more surreal spin than the drunkenness. The aftermath disturbing as the war itself, it is nevertheless a nice story of a man able to transcend his situation via community and a sense of place—and a healthy dose of hallucination.

Fictional input into the anti-war sentiment of the time, R&R is the story of David Mingolla and his life as a US Army soldier fighting in near-future Guatemala.  Obvious commentary on the Reagan adminstration’s off-the-record dealings in Central America, Shepard draws upon such efforts as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and other films to portray fighting life in the jungles of a war arena not commonly portrayed in books and film.  A personal story that makes its political  commentary indirectly, Mingolla’s character has depth to the point Shepard later expanded it into an equally visceral, mature a novel.  (For a longer review of the novella on this blog, see here.)

“The End of Life As We Know It” is the story of Richard and Lisa, a couple whose eleven year relationship is starting to wear thin.  Heading to Central America on holiday with the hope of spicing things up, their plans slowly falter, that is, until having lunch at an out-of-the-way restaurant in Guatemala.  Meeting a local man who claims to know a local wizard, things take a turn for the strange.  In what direction, however, must be for the reader to discover, but suffice that it draws in political concerns of the 80s into a personal story quite effectively.  One of the best stories in the collection.

The second story set on Guanoja Menor, A Traveler’s Tale is the story of Frank Winship and his meeting and uncanny relationship with an American tourist named Ray Milliken.  Winship having retired to the island to live out his days, Milliken is of a younger generation, his youth bringing in friends and fueling plans to build a school, hospital and other such amenities the simple island folk are lacking.  Choosing a jungled piece of land by the sea to develop, things begin to go strange when Milliken’s friends appear out of the jungle with a dazed look in their eye and incomprehensible stories to tell.  Snakes, aliens, and voodoo in the aftermath, it is a tense tale populated with colorful, realistically drawn characters but seems to lack depth as time passes.  (For a longer review of the novella on this blog, see here.)

“Mengele” is the story of Phelan, a Vietnam War veteran who crash lands in Paraguay’s giant forest, the Gran Chaco.   The man who rescues him?  None other than Josef Mengele, the Nazi “doctor” discovered to have been performing vivisection on humans.  Staying in the aged man’s house, even creepier surprises unveil themselves.  But Shepard does not appropriate Mengele for purely entertainment reasons, thankfully.  A point to the story, readers will have to discover for themselves what comes of Phelan’s crash landing.

In dialogue with the metaphors of life, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) is literary fantasy near its peak and the story of Meric Cattanay, a man who tries to kill a dragon by painting it.  Not an ordinary dragon, as seen above, 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.  Painting a dragon 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 been appointed. Utilizing one of fantasy’s most recognizable, if not the most recognizable, trope for literary purposes, the novelette is simply a beautiful tale of one man “conquering a dragon”.

A weak note on which to end the collection given the strength of the preceding entry, “A Spanish Lesson” is the story of a man named Lucius (wink-wink) living the Bohemian life of an expatriate on the southern coast of Spain in the mid 60s.   The ex-pat community strange, he is ‘forced’ to assimilate the oddest people, a set of twins named Alice and Tom.  Drugs, telepathy, sex, Nazis, an unwilling antagonist, Afghanistan, and an escalation of the outright bizarre combine, or rather, are crammed together in jilted fashion.

In the end, The Jaguar Hunter is a varied mix of speculative fiction shorts that collects most of Shepard’s first published works.  While there are a couple of stories which serve no higher god than well-written entertainment (The Traveler’s Tale and How the Wind Spoke at Madaket), the remaining stories utilize Shepard’s surfeit of talent for a higher purpose.  R&R, “The Jaguar Hunter”, “The End of Life As We Know It”, and “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” do a particularly good job of examining poignant facets of humanity, tradition, war, culture, evil, and quotidian issues among others.  A good first collection, the omnivorous reader of speculative fiction will perhaps enjoy it most.

(A side note: Salman Rushdie’s The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, though focusing on a country which is not actually mentioned in this collection, provides an excellent backdrop to the political and social struggles of Central America in the 1980s.  Explaining the political divides, US intervention, social strata, and cultures ex- and indigent to the country, the information can easily be used contextualize the relevant stories of The Jaguar Hunter.  Just a thought.)

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