Lucius Shepard’s collection The Jaguar Hunter features several stories set in a near-future Central America overrun by war, a fact exacerbated by US military intrusion. With the jungles, trauma of war, drugs to blunt—or sharpen—the edge, and soldiers caught up in the death and fighting for which the purpose is unclear, the Vietnam War echoes strongly, and intentionally. “Shades”, Shepard’s 1987 novelette about a war veteran still deeply affected by the conflict years later, drops the parallel and cuts right to southeast Asia in the 80s.
“Shades” is the story of Puleo, a Vietnam veteran who has returned to the country as a journalist to write a piece about a ghost soldier named Stoner local scientists have recently captured in a force field. Weighted down with heavy emotional baggage arising from the traumatic memories of war, his return is contentious from the start. Meeting a trio of other journalist at a bar upon arrival, the whiskey only releases more angst. But nothing gets him more jittery than actually meeting Stoner. A confrontation like no other, the aftermath sends shockwaves through Puleo’s life.
“Shades” appears a re-working of “Black Coral”. Abandoning the Central American pretense and cutting directly to the subject under discussion, Puleo’s return to Vietnam is emotionally tense in rewriting Prince’s story. The two men highly affected by their war experiences, each are at times irrational and at others simply disagreeable in the most anti-social sense. But Shepard seems to have settled into the idea a little deeper since “Black Coral”; “Shades” offers more consistent presentation and clearer resolution for a man haunted by war.
In the end, “Shades” is an intense character study of a man both fighting against and confronting his wartime experiences. Shepard seeming to consciously write in a style featuring more brevity, Puleo’s return to Vietnam is told in gripping and emotionally powerful terms. Though technically a ghost/horror story, the motifs are not used for entertainment purposes, rather metaphorically—in keeping with the literary magic realist/fantasy writers Shepard admires and presented in such a manner as to prove the idea fantasy is more than just vampires and werewolves.