Saturday, March 2, 2019

Review of Eternity and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard

While his writing technique moved within a limited range, Lucius Shepard remains one of the most versatile writers ever to put words on the page in terms of substance. From science fiction to magic realism, fantasy to realism, horror to satire, literary to genre, Shepard’s oeuvre covers a wide range of subjects, modes, and material. It’s thus a shame that Shepard’s popularity spiked in the 80s and 90s given that some of his most mature and relevant work was published in the 21st century. Looking at a post-9-11 world, African despots, war in the Middle East, the American justice system, and other subjects, Eternity and Other Stories (2005) collects seven novelettes and novellas proving just how diverse Shepard’s portfolio truly is.

In the 80s, Shepard wrote several stories chastising American involvement in Central America from the soldiers’ points of view. From drugs to propaganda, the jungles of “Salvador”, “R&R”, and other stories complement their haunted worlds. In Eternity, Shepard updates the setting for the 21st century equivalent of Central America: our post 9-11 world. The drugs and propaganda remain. In “Only Partly There”, a manual laborer part of the crews removing the rubble of the World Trade Center spends time with his crewmates at a local bar after work. Drowning the sorrows of finding body parts, people’s personal effects, and working in a morass of endless debris, it’s a depressing escape, that is, until the young man reaches out to a corporate woman who frequents the bar. While at heart a standard tale, Shepard nevertheless deftly plays with imagination, metaphor, and reality in a fashion relevant to the sorrows and concerns of the city and nation.

Set on the resulting post-9-11 Middle Eastern battlefield, “A Walk in the Garden” tells of an American soldier encountering the most bizarre thing after a bomber destroys the side of an Arabian mountain: a cave filled with bright yellow flowers (love the daisy cutter reference). Soldiers on Shepard’s battlefield able to inject themselves with self-prescribed doses of drugs—narcotics, amphetamines, etc.—to see themselves through the action they encounter, entering the cave proves to be a powerful experience the drugs only make more surreal. Reminiscent of “Salvador” in the most positive way, this story was the highlight of the collection for me.

Not a sly take on an Elvis song, “Crocodile Rock” tells of a black American herpetologist’s pursuit of career dreams in the Congo. He gets a nightmare, instead—literally and figuratively. Looking for a rare albino python in the jungle, a colleague turns him on to an odd man who may or may not be able to help him find the fabled serpent. One of the most recognized stories in the collection, and accordingly one of its most mainstream, Shepard brings his trademark horror vibes to bear on reptiles and a dead African despot’s legacy.

One of those stories that begins in a unique, intriguing place and only moves places more unpredictable, “Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?” is technically an alien encounter story but never feels that way given the manner in which one social malcontent’s existence snowballs from the street to highway with a small gang of beachcombing thieves. Shepard milking Florida’s redneck roots, it’s a wild ride with visceral verbiage. Creating a fictional Central American country, “The Drive-In Puerto Rico” tells the story of a former war hero now living on his laurels. Giving interviews and speeches to support himself, he patronizes the titular cafĂ© on one of his stops and there meets the next would-be hero of the country. Only, he discovers the man’s intentions may be entirely different.

The most magic-realist story of the collection, “Jailwise” tells of a social deviant who gets a second chance in a special prison. Akin to Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” in premise, the special prison is an isolated location where the prisoners are given relative freedom to explore their intellectual and artistic potential. The story weaving in and out of perceived realities, it’s an entirely direction which Shepard takes his story than Silverberg, however. And last (and longest) in the collection is “Eternity and Afterward”. About an assassin working for the Russian mafia, Viktor Chemayev goes to a mafia club one evening with the intention of buying the freedom of a prostitute he has fallen in love with, and leaving his life of violence behind with her. The club not your standard neon violet, velvet, and vodka establishment, Chemayev’s plans require adaptation as not all of his encounters and negotiations turn out as planned. Likely its most personal story, it’s a high note on which to close the collection.

It’s no surprise to me that Eternity contains several politically on-point stories for the early 21st century yet garnered little extended recognition upon release. “Crocodile Rock” likely the most known story in the collection, it’s no surprise the novella is the most accessible, commercial story of the seven here. “A Walk in the Garden” could wonderfully be read as a metaphor for the 21st century soldier’s perspective on war in Afghanistan—the competing exoticism and desires and obligations. While a standard tale in form and structure, “Only Partly There” nevertheless captures a lot of the residual emotion of 9-11. “Eternity and Afterward”, for all its twists and turns, paints the portrait of a man living in strong uncertainty brought about by both his society and choice of profession. And while “Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?” may take the reader on a wild ride that seems inconsequential, the lifestyles described hit the nail on the head in terms of middle America and its residing issues. The Jaguar Hunter will likely always be Shepard’s most well-known collection, but Eternity proves he wrote a lot of good and very different stories, later.

The following are the seven stories, predominantly novellas, collected in Eternity and Other Stories:

Only Partly Here
A Walk in the Garden
Crocodile Rock
Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?
The Drive-In Puerto Rico
Eternity and Afterward

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